The Las Vegas Review Journal reports:
Much to Sasha's delight, the crickets in the see-through plastic container repeatedly jump before his eyes. As the 14-year-old's smile grows wider, brothers Misha, Dima and Alosha climb a tree behind him in sun-drenched Aloha Shores Park, a small recreation area adjoining the Rainbow Library at the corner of Buffalo Drive and Cheyenne Ave. "There is amazing fun here," 10-year-old Dima calls out to his dad, who nods and grins.
It's a different world than the four boys knew before banker David Robeck adopted them in Russia and brought them to Las Vegas. They had been relegated to Russian orphanages where "shocking levels of cruelty and neglect" are commonplace for hundreds of thousands of children, according to Human Rights Watch, an organization dedicated to protecting the rights of individuals worldwide. "My kids are doing much better now," Robeck said, leaning on a cane made necessary because of a back injury suffered in a car accident. "Only Misha has nightmares sometimes, and physically they're much healthier."
Russia is now largely shutting its doors to most Americans who want to adopt Russian children, a concern to the 53-year-old Robeck. "So many Russian kids still need help," he said. "They need a chance at life." Robeck first saw the dire need in the early 1990s when he was a member of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in Russia, men and women who helped the former Soviet state change to a free market economy. "There were so many homeless children walking the streets," he said. After his two-year Peace Corps experience ended in 1994, Robeck stayed on for two more years in Russia with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. What he continued to hear and see in regard to Russian youth made such an impression he decided to try and make a difference in the lives of children there. Upon his return to Las Vegas, Robeck decided to adopt Russian children. He was 44. "I had hoped to be married before I had children, but that just didn't work out," said Robeck, now serving as a consultant to startup banks in the Las Vegas Valley. "I just felt a calling to do what I could by helping give some kids a better life."
Given his family background, Robeck's decision doesn't seem unusual. In the 1950s, Robeck's parents, Cecil and Berdetta Robeck, founded Assembly Bible Church, which later became Calvary Community Assembly of God in northwest Las Vegas. "Their church was a mission church," Robeck said. "They opened our home to strangers who had both spiritual and physical needs. My father would take off in the middle of night to help destitute people. They helped everyone from cocktail waitresses and dealers to children of divorced families. It was just a part of my life to reach out to people. That's how I spent my summer vacations." In 1997, Robeck, who had become a Big Brother and youth ministry director in Las Vegas, adopted Sasha and Misha. They were both 5 at the time. "I felt it would be best to adopt two children because they would give each other company," Robeck said.
Bonny Del Dotto, a special education teacher who taught Sasha and Misha in the fourth and fifth grades at Kahre Elementary School, said the children have had difficult challenges because neither had been grounded in any language before going to school in the United States. In Russian orphanages, education is often ignored. Their academic development was also held up, she said, by the fact they had virtually no infant stimulation. "They weren't hugged or cuddled or cooed to in the orphanage, and that really impacts you academically," she said, adding that the boys, both now 14, have yet to be able to read at grade level. A Human Rights Watch report issued in 1998 found that children at Russian orphanages "may be beaten, locked in freezing rooms for days at a time, abused physically and sexually. ... Staff members may also instigate or condone brutality by older orphans against younger and weaker ones."
Del Dotto said Robeck spent many hours with her after school trying to figure out the best way to help his youngsters grow intellectually. Rote learning has been particularly effective. With the help of his mother, a retired schoolteacher, Robeck is now home-schooling three of the children. "If all fathers acted like him," Del Dotto said, "there wouldn't be jail. He taught them how to act. They were never behavior problems, always respectful." Misha, now 6 feet tall, had to overcome a broken leg that had been allowed to heal on its own in Russia, as well as an acute case of anemia. "I feel good now," Misha said as he jumped from a tree. "I really like video games."
Six years after he adopted Sasha and Misha, Robeck was finding his time as a father both the most challenging and most rewarding experience of his life. So in 2003, he adopted two more Russian boys -- brothers Dima and Alosha, who were then 7 and 8 respectively. Like their brothers, Sasha and Misha, they came from Russia's third largest city, Nizhny Novgorod, about 200 miles from Moscow. He has taught them to cook, do laundry, vacuum -- to do virtually everything around the house. "I want them to be independent," Robeck said. Most prospective adoptive parents want the experience of raising a child from infancy, but Robeck wanted to adopt older children because he knew they are generally the most difficult to place. He said he used his retirement savings for adoption agency fees, which for four children can run as much as $100,000. The entire process can take up to a year. The fact that Robeck has adopted children as a single father doesn't surprise 37-year-old Las Vegas attorney, Charles Michalek. Robeck served as a Big Brother to him for nearly three years. "He really has patience and he loves kids," Michalek said. "I almost crashed in the first five seconds when he was teaching me to drive, and he didn't get upset." Michalek, raised by a hard-working single mother, said Robeck, who often took him bowling, was on hand to listen to problems. "He helped me work through things by just talking with me," he said.
If Robeck could convince the Russians of anything, it is to once again allow loving people to adopt their children. "The orphanages still exist," he said. For Americans who adopt abroad, Russia has long been a favored nation. In 2004 U.S. parents brought home 5,865 Russian children, largely through adoption agencies. However, in the past year Russia has tightened accreditation for adoption agencies, virtually shutting down international adoption. Though private adoptions are unaffected, most adoptions are handled through agencies. Adoption officials have said Russian authorities largely closed the door on those adoptions earlier this year as a result of nationalistic pride. That was spurred, at least in part, by cases of Russian children being abused and, in a dozen cases, even killed by their U.S. adoptive parents. "It is true that better case studies have to be done on prospective parents," Robeck said. "These children often need special parents." Many of the children, adoption officials point out, have severe emotional problems that only the most understanding and prepared parents can deal with. In criminal cases involving U.S. parents who either abused or killed Russian children, the parents' lawyers have argued that the defendants lost control as they tried to cope with unruly children beset by unforeseen problems. "That is never an excuse to hurt a child," Robeck said. Robeck is aware that his children's troubled past isn't an easy hurdle to overcome. He'll be proud, he said, whether they earn college degrees or learn trades.
"I just want people to say that they're good men," he said.
Monday, October 15, 2007
The Las Vegas Review Journal reports: