Thirteen-year-old Anastasiya Walk loves horseback riding, playing basketball and coming home from school to greet her parents.
The term family has been defined at long last for Anastasiya and other Ukrainian children who came to America through Truth Quest Ministries in Tyrone.
Anastasiya, who lives with her parents, Russell and Lori Walk, and two other adopted siblings from the Ukraine, was the first to be adopted through the ministry that has placed orphans, ages 7 and older, in permanent American homes.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Members of the Hilling family of Hollidaysburg are (from left) Vlad, Lindy, Doug, Jamie and Jericho. Missing from the photo is Erin who is attending college. She encouraged the family to adopt Vlad, Lindy Hilling said.
Vlad, Erin and Jericho Hilling of Hollidaysburg enjoy some time together at the beach.
The Walks, owners of the Quest Haven Lodge and leaders of the ministry, traveled to the Ukraine in 2010 to adopt Anastasiya, who is affectionately known as "Ana."
They saw the need for adoptions - especially among older children - and decided to add a camp at Quest Haven Lodge where children's camps have been held since the late 1990s.
Because the Ukraine has closed orphanages, children are usually adopted after visits to the United States, Lori explained. The hosting program allows families to meet perspective children for adoption, she said.
The Walks learned about this process from a group in California that brought Ukraine children to America for two weeks visits.
The Walks began their ministry to focus on international adoptions in 2008 after Lori and her daughter, Heather, helped at an orphanage during a missions trip to Guatemala. Heather is one of the Walks' five adult biological children, three of whom are married with children.
Through research, Lori said the family discovered the lack of parents for children in the Ukraine. She said 100,000 children live in orphanages in the former Soviet republic, not including those living on the streets.
Lori said she and Russ decided they to offer host the children by providing a camping experience before a visit in an American home.
"We decided to bring them to the camp first for a week," Lori said, to help them get acquainted with the English language and to be with other Ukrainian children.
Potential adoptive parents spent the week volunteering at the camp so the children could interact with them before they went to their homes for two weeks. If the child and family were comfortable with moving toward adoption, the child returned to the Ukraine for adoption proceedings.
Since their first experience with adopting Ana, the Walks have added Lena (pronounced Leanna) 16, and Erik, 14, to their family in 2011.
Russ and Lori also have grandchildren adopted from the Ukraine. Their oldest son, Russ Jr., and his wife, Cheri, have adopted two teenage biological sisters along with raising four biological children, ages 2 to 7.
Since July 2010 Truth Quest has placed 30 children in homes locally and out of state.
The biggest challenge for the children has been adjusting to the English language, Lori said.
"The first thing you do is understand the language. Then you speak it and then you learn to read and write it," she said.
Lori said the English as Second Language team of educators in the Tyrone School District where the Walk children attend have made that adjustment a bit easier.
"They are absolutely amazing," she said. The Walk children enjoy taking part in extracurricular activities at school, something that they could not do in the Ukraine.
Erik plays on the school's football team and Lena enjoys cross-country and soccer.
Lena's greatest passion, however, is painting. One of her works was purchased by former Ukraine Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma who led the country from 1994-2005.
These outlets help the children release their hidden emotions, Lori said.
"These kids have a stability now that they never had before. It is not temporary. They can open up, trust and have a relationship," Lori said.
Communication has not been an issue for 11-year-old Dema Noel, adopted son of Eric and Cindy Noel of Warriors Mark.
Eric describes Dema as talkative, but it took him awhile to understand the concept of family.
"He never knew what a family was. He had been used to caretakers in the orphanage, and I think he saw us as another set of caretakers," Eric said.
Dema had been in the orphanage system from ages 4 to 10 and lived in one of the worst facilities in the Ukraine, Cindy said.
For instance, the educational system was lacking and Dema needed glasses which the school did not provide and he had no help understanding lessons, she said.
This is not rare in the Ukraine, Cindy said, as many orphaned children are academically and /or socially behind U.S. children by two to three years.
He is in the fifth grade but requires specialized classes to keep up with his peers.
"He is a bright child," Cindy said, who needs some extra guidance.
Doug and Lindy Hilling of Hollidaysburg adopted Vlad, 13, a year ago in July. The couple also have three biological children, Jamie, 26, Erin, 19, and Jericho, 16.
Lindy is a business teacher in the Tyrone School District and had come in contact with the Walk children at school.
"We felt like we weren't done parenting," Lindy said, even though Jericho is still at home.
"[Jericho] always wanted a brother," Lindy said.
The Hillings found that the Ukrainian boy wanted to be a part of their family as much as they wanted him.
"He really wanted to have a family," Lindy said, "He told us he prayed for a mom and dad for a long time."
Vlad is also an athlete who enjoys football and wrestling and is active at his church, Williamsburg Christian and Missionary Alliance.
He speaks four languages - English, Russian, Italian and Ukrainian. His orphanage experience is less common.
"He came from one of the more progressive orphanages in the Ukraine," Lindy said. It is in Kherson, Ukraine, which is a bit more progressive and has less poverty.
He learned Italian by spending six weeks in the country through a school-sponsored program, and English was part of the school curriculum.
Each of the families credit the work of God in bringing the children to their homes.
It is a miracle in Cindy's mind that Dema is part of their family because the couple was not planning to adopt when they offered to help with the camp.
"We fought it," Cindy said, "It was something we were not prepared to do. My kids were grown. But Dema's name was clear in our minds. God wanted us to do this."
She said Dema is aware of God's intervention as he told the family he prayed for a long time for a family like the Noels.
"He knows it. He knows God rescued him," Cindy said.