Ukraine babies land at home in Vancouver

Given up at birth, pair with Down syndrome adopted by Vancouver couple

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Veronika, 1, and Gavyn, 10 months, were given up at birth by their mothers in Ukraine most likely because they had Down syndrome. On Thursday night, the two Ukrainian babies arrived at the Portland International Airport to start a new life as the adopted children of Vancouver couple Mark and Rebecca Jenks.

Rebecca accompanied them on the 26-hour journey from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Just outside the airport's security gate, the babies reunited with their new father, whom they met a month earlier while still in Ukraine, and met their new sister Tamara Emler, 15, and brother Brandon Emler, 14, for the first time.

About 20 family and friends gathered with balloons and "welcome home" signs, including a Portland family that adopted a child with Down syndrome last year from Russia.

The crowd cheered and snapped photos as Mark and Rebecca kissed and Mark bent down to kiss the new arrivals. Veronika was sound asleep against her mother's chest until the kiss awoke her. She smiled and reached up to touch Mark's beard.

"Hello," Mark cooed. "I'm the guy with the funny facial hair." Tamara and Brandon with wide grins took turns holding their new siblings for the first time.

"I'm so excited," Tamara said.

For Mark and Rebecca, the airport arrival marked the end of a nine-month $35,000 effort to adopt the children and the beginning of a new journey together as parents. Rebecca, 38, a preschool teacher, already has four children from her previous marriage, two of which are adults and live away from home. This is the first time Mark, 39, a computer help-desk technician, has officially been a father.

The couple married in 2008 and wanted to raise children together. They agreed to adopt but weren't sure what kind of child they wanted to adopt. They prayed for a sign to lead them to the child they were meant to adopt as they were waiting for a service to begin at Hazel Dell's Messiah Lutheran Church. A few minutes later, about a dozen young people with Down syndrome sat in the pew in front of them.

"Literally, you don't get a bigger neon sign than that one," Mark said during a December interview with The Columbian.

The couple decided to adopt a child from Eastern Europe after learning that children with Down syndrome are frequently abandoned by their parents due to social stigma attached to the condition and scarce government resources to help parents raise a child with special needs.

They found Veronika on Reece's Rainbow Adoption Ministry's website. The organization facilitates and coordinates adoptions of children with disabilities in 25 countries and serves as a nonprofit conduit for tax-deductible donations toward specific adoptions, such as the Jenkses'. Her pseudonym was "Sydney." Later, they decided to adopt a second child, Gavyn, whose website pseudonym was "Lucien."

The Jenkses raised about $29,720 for the adoption from the community and through Reece's Rainbow; the couple used about $7,000 of their own money, Mark said.

One week before the couple left June 7 for Ukraine, they hadn't raised enough money for lodging throughout the adoption process and Rebecca's and the babies' airfare home.

Lodging expenses were more than the couple anticipated due to the Euro 2012 soccer tournament in Kyiv, Ukraine, which jacked up hotel prices, Mark said.

On May 27, Rebecca's anxiety was palpable in her blog, orphanrescuemission.blogspot.com. She wrote that without additional money, she and the babies would be stranded in Ukraine and about the need for having "faith the size of a mustard seed," referring to verses Luke 17:5-6 in the Bible.

"It all came together in the last 10 days," Mark said.

The couple flew into Kyiv and traveled to the Kharkiv region to meet Veronika June 12 at an orphanage. They spent about two hours a day with Veronika as they waited for the adoption process to begin for Gavyn.

Asked what she thought when she saw the babies for the first time in Ukraine, Rebecca said, "It was overwhelming. It was like they'd always been ours."

"Veronika was in great health, and you could see she was loved and cared for on a daily basis," Mark said. "It took her a while to get used to us, but within a few days, she was starting to get upset when we left. It was heartbreaking but encouraging at the same time."

Gavyn had a fever when the couple finally met him at a separate orphanage in the Kharkiv region.

"The head doctor was called for, and he explained that ... the high fever was because Gavyn had Down syndrome," Mark said. The couple was floored by the lack of understanding that a fever isn't a normal part of having Down syndrome, he said.

The couple insisted that his temperature be taken and that he receive medical attention, which he did, Mark said.

"The staff were friendly and helpful; there just seemed to be a lack knowledge about certain things," he said.

The couple decided to keep Veronika's name given by the staff at the orphanage. They've changed Gavyn's name from Kyrillo because the only person in the family who could pronounce it was Mark.

Mark returned to Vancouver June 29 to go back to work and take care of Tamara and Brandon at the couple's home in Meadow Estates just north of Walnut Grove. Rebecca remained in the country for the 10-day wait period during which anyone present in the court adoption proceedings can appeal the adoption.

Gavyn has some medical problems that have yet to be determined. Different staff gave different information about what his problems were. He has a doctor's appointment in Vancouver today, Mark said.

The family said they're looking forward to establishing a routine for the babies.

"They've had multiple people looking after them," Mark said. "We want to get them to rely on Rebecca and I."

"We can't wait to see what happens," he added.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.