A woman's 12-year journey in support of her friend's Odyssey to save, adopt, nurture, and educate an abandoned handicapped Russian boy became the subject of an NBC Dateline episode titled The Boy From Baby House 10, which aired on Sunday evening, April 10.
"Seeing John coming from an institution and such an awful situation, and watching him grow, watching him develop, learn, and become an American has been a wonderful experience," said Lola Schirra of Penn Forest Township. "I feel he's part of my family. He calls me Aunt Lola and my husband Uncle Michael."
The Boy From Baby House 10 is the autobiographical story of John Lahutsky, a 21-year-old now living in Bethlehem Township, who never knew his father and was abandoned by his alcoholic mother. Born in Russia in 1990, the boy, whose birth name was Vanya, was turned over to the state childcare system by his mother when he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.
Isolated from the world since birth, Vanya was sent to an orphanage called Baby House 10. A mental evaluation at the age of three years labeled him mentally retarded and locked him away in an asylum where he lived, almost caged, lying in a pool of his own waste on a locked ward surrounded by psychotic adults.
At Baby House 10, Vanya was a persistent young boy who reached out to everyone around him. Two of those he reached out to – Sarah Philps, the wife of British journalist, Alan Philps; and Vika, a young Russian woman – were touched by Vanya, and they began a campaign to find him a home.
In 1999, through her Russian Orthodox church, Paula Lahutsky learned about Vanya. Paula, who was in mourning for her father, whom she had taken care of. He had both legs amputated because of diabetes.
Her house was set up for handicapped accessibility and her heart was open to taking care of Vanya.
Paula Lahutsky of Bethlehem Township works as a school psychologist in the Pleasant Valley School system in Brodheadsville, where Lola Schirra, since retired, worked with children with disabilities.
"Paula and I were close friends, and she confided in me that she was considering adopting this child," Lola said. "She was a single woman living alone. At work, we were so astounded that she was going to take on this responsibility.
"Her friends at work were very concerned that she didn't know a whole lot about this child. She didn't know how handicapped he was. She didn't know whether he was potty-trained or not.
"She didn't know whether he was mentally retarded or not. But she was determined that this boy needed help, and she was on a mission. She was absolutely determined that this boy was going to be hers."
For months, Paula worked her way through the red tape of the Russian and American bureaucracies, and dealing with the costs of an overseas adoption.
"She struggled through it," Lola said. "We always laughed and said she had angels helping her.
"There was an incident where, on a snowy day in Bethlehem, a woman skidded on the road and knocked her mailbox down. The woman's husband came to the door that night and offered to buy her a new mailbox.
"In talking, she learned that the husband worked in Philadelphia where Paula needed to get some paperwork done for the adoption, and she was terrified of driving into Philadelphia herself in the wintertime. This man helped her to take care of the paperwork. Out of the blue, this angel appeared."
"When it was time for Paula to go to Russia to pick up John, we drove to JFK airport. Paula had a suitcase full of gifts for the people at the orphanage. She worried about being stopped carrying so many gifts in her luggage.
"She put her suitcase up for screening, and as the screeners were about to inspect her luggage, we all held our breath. Then, one of them started joking, and they forgot to look inside the bag."
"Paula went alone to Russia, not knowing what she would find. From her Russian Orthodox Church, she had a place to stay in Moscow. When she returned to the U.S. with Vanya, his name then, Paula went through customs with this little boy who had no wheelchair – no way of transportation.
"They just came off an awful nine-hour flight on a plane whose bathrooms were broken. This little boy was being taken from his homeland to a place where people spoke a different language. When I met them at the airport, Paula was pushing him in a borrowed stroller, and they were both looking exhausted.
"My husband had given me two little American flags. I bent down, presented it to him, and said, 'Welcome to America, Vanya.' His eyes opened up and he grabbed those flags and started waving them. It was the most touching moment that I remember."
Vayna changed his name to John Lahutsky, grew up in Bethlehem and is attending Freedom High School. A local news story was picked up on the Internet and caught the attention of journalist Alan Philps, whose wife, Sarah, had publicized John's problem when he was known as Vanya in the Russian institution.
Alan Philps and John Lahutsky wrote about John's ordeal and his rescue in The Boy From Baby House 10. "Soon after the book was published, NBC Dateline contacted John, Paula and Alan expressing interest," Lola said. "They had obtained a copy of the book and started talking about doing a show."
"The first part they did was the animation," Lola explained. "They had John go through the studios in New York and talk with the animators about his memories. I was impressed how the animations in the Dateline story helped fill in the memories that John had.
"It took about a year and a half to put the trip together. Russia is notorious for red tape. A lot of delays and a lot of cancellations. In early October, it was definite."
Because Paula and John required help with a wheelchair, a walker, crutches and luggage. Paula asked Lola to accompany them to Russia to visit to the places in John's book, and to meet his sister that he briefly knew as a young child and his half sister who he never met.
"The highlight of the trip was the party that Dateline threw," Lola said. "So many characters from this book were at this party. So many people that I read about that I had never met before."
"It was a wonderful experience to watch John with the friends and family that he left so many years ago. John gave a toast and thank everyone – and everyone was moved. He speaks clear English. He doesn't remember much Russian."
For information about the the Dateline show, see: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3032600 .