John Lahutsky: Baby House survivor
John Lahutsky's story about the obstacles he overcame being raised in a Baby House in Russia, chronicles the efforts of a handful of people who cared enough to try to help him find a family in a book written by Alan Philps, a British journalist, and John.
In September 1998, Paula Lahutsky of Bethlehem was reading her church bulletin about a child in Russia who had cerebral palsy and needed to be adopted. If not, his future looked bleak.
A couple from the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas in Bethlehem, where Paula is a member, had gone to Russia where they adopted their second child. They had met a woman by the name of Sarah Philps, the wife of a British journalist, who was volunteering at one of the Baby Houses in Russia. Sarah pleaded with the American couple to please try to do something when they got back home for a young boy by the name of Vanya. The couple had Vanya's story printed in their church bulletin.
Paula, a school psychologist at Pleasant Valley School District, had bought a single-story ranch house years ago so she could take better care of her father, a double amputee. She had cared for him for the last four years of his life. Her father had been gone for a year when she read about Vanya. She thought her home would be a perfect house for the little boy.
"I had never thought about adopting before. But when I read about Vanya, I thought about how much I could do for him. I knew this was my son," Paula says.
After two weeks of keeping her decision to herself, she finally talked to friends, who offered her encouragement and support.
Paula began the adoption process through the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and Lutheran Welfare. She had been told she might not be able to adopt because she was single.
It was nine months to the day, just as if she went through a pregnancy, that Paula made the first phone call to OCA in New York, to the day she received a court date for the adoption.
Extremely excited, she left July 27 for Moscow, Russia. Paula was supposed to meet with Vanya three times before the court date. At this time, Vanya was in a foster home.
When the foster mother heard that Vanya was to be adopted, she fled with him to another town. By the time the court date had arrived, Paula had still not met Vanya.
"I saw videos of him and because we were afraid if the court knew I had not had my three visits they would not approve the adoption, I and the lady from the foster care organization, swore I did see him. Which I did, in the videos," says Paula.
The court said that Vanya would be placed in Paula's care 10 days after the court date. Paula and Vanya never set eyes on each other until that 10th day.
"He was 9 1/2 years old but looked like a 5-year-old. He was so small, weighing only 45 lbs. He was being pushed in a stroller. The Russian adoption agent said to me, 'Why not adopt one that isn't broken?' But I took one look at Vanya and I knew I wanted him," recalls Paula.
She says she was overwhelmed.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh gosh! This is my son!' I bent down, said his name and told him, 'I'm your mom.' He didn't say anything," says Paula of their first meeting.
Vanya was skeptical. He thought he had a mother once before when a family from England had applied for adoption. But because of so much red tape and the cost, after almost two years, the family finally gave up.
Vanya had only ever wanted to be someone's son. Finally. His wish had come true. He was now John (the English translation for Vanya) Lahutsky, the son of Paula Lahutsky.
Paula soon learned that John loved to talk. When they were on the plane coming home, he happily told the other passengers his birthday was March 15, he would be living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and invited everyone to come to his birthday party.
Paula and John were met at the airport by two of her best friends holding American flags. The first thing John wanted to do was go to McDonald's for a cheeseburger.
Paula got John into Good Shepherd where they gave him a walker to help him navigate and worked with him for two years. She enrolled him in school, someplace he had never been to before. Bethlehem's ESOL first grade program worked with John, and Paula worked with him at home. He attended a nearby day care before and after school where a fourth grade boy named Danny, took John under his wing.
"He helped me a lot with the language," says John. They're still friends today.
In no time at all, John became very fluent in English.
John is now a junior at Freedom High School and on the honor roll. He is an active member of the Boy Scouts of America and the Order of the Arrow, the Boy Scouts' national honor society. His favorite subject is history and current events. After graduation, he wants to go to Northampton Community College and then on to film school.
"I love filming," he says. He has his own camera and enjoys making small films. His inspiration is Walt Disney.
"I love the magic of seeing a film come together and seeing the results a film has on people," he says.
Someday, he might even make a film about his life.
In 2006, John and Paula were featured in a Mother's Day article in the local newspaper. John sent the article to his friends Sarah and Alan Philps, the same people who helped John get adopted. Alan thought it was nice but that there was more to the story that people should know.
He and Sarah came to visit John and Paula in 2007. Alan said, "John, why don't we do a book on your history?" John was all for it. For the next one and a half years, they communicated back and forth through phone calls and emails.
Alan interviewed the people who knew John in Russia, from his friend, Vika, to those in Baby House 10, to people who knew his birth mother and sister.
Alan and Sarah visited the Lahutskys again Labor Day weekend in 2008 where they read the manuscript aloud and spent hours tweaking the story.
"It was then I learned a lot about John that I never knew," says Paula.
The book details how Vanya was born prematurely in 1990 with cerebral palsy. His mother abandoned him. At the age of one, he was sent to a bleak orphanage called Baby House 10, where his nightmare began.
Clothed in rags, ignored and given little, if any, medical treatment, he was raised in an overcrowded orphanage where the caregivers didn't give much in the way of care except to feed the children and clothe them. Once the children were labeled as "imbecile" which Vanya was because of his disability, they were condemned to "intellectual death" and no one bothered to work with them.
They were never taken outdoors. Vanya was at one time confined to a Internat., a mental asylum, where he was practically caged, lying in a pool of his own waste in a locked ward surrounded by psychotic adults.
And yet, through it all, this boy with a lot of heart, learned to speak by listening to the caregivers. The children he befriended benefited from his generosity of spirit.
He was smart and persistent, reaching out to anyone who would give him the time of day. His cheerfulness and happy spirit shone through even the most dismal environment.
There were two such people that entered his life who saw that spirit and did what they could to help Vanya.
Sarah Philps, the wife of Alan, the British journalist, met Vanya when he was four years old. She was looking for a way to fill her days while her own children were in school. She joined the International Women's Club and its welfare group, dedicated to helping Russians in need. They were looking for Russian interpreters and Sarah volunteered.
One day she found herself at Baby House 10. She was appalled at what she saw and the lack of emotional interaction with the children.
If children were born blind, or premature, they were automatically assumed to be retarded and beyond learning. As she prepared to leave, she heard a clear and cheerful voice say, "Please come again."
And that's how she met Vanya. They shared a brief conversation and when she left, she promised to return.
It was also about the same time that Vika came into Vanya's life. Vika, a young Russian woman, had just completed a five-year degree in physics and had recently become a Christian. She was volunteering at the baby house. She was coming to spend time with a little girl named Masha.
In an excerpt from the book, Vika describes Vanya: "There was only one sign of life in that room, and that was the curly haired boy, who introduced himself as Vanya. He learned my name, and he greeted me with a smile whenever I came to visit Masha. I could not understand how he could smile in such an appalling place."
When she took him outside for the first time, she picked a dandelion for him and told him it looked like the sun.
"Sun," Vanya repeated. "What's the sun?"
As she searched the grounds for other things to teach him, it began to rain. The little boy rose to his knees, threw his head back, outstretched his arms with a look of pure delight as the water streamed down his face.
Vika told him, "Rain, Vanya, this is rain."
"Rain," he repeated, thrusting his head back to catch the full force of the shower. "I love you, rain."
Because both Sarah and Vika saw how bright this little boy was, they spent the next years trying to get him adopted. But once a child has been labeled "incurable," it is difficult to reverse the life sentence these children receive.
Eventually, Vanya's friends managed to get all the i's dotted and the t's crossed so that he could be adopted, all of which is included in the book, telling this amazing story of a little Russian boy struggling to find love.
Once John's story was completed, Paula emailed her friend Michael at St. Martin's Press in New York asking for suggestions on how to get the book published.
Michael responded the next day asking, "How do you know we wouldn't like to publish it? Send me a manuscript," which Alan did.
Michael became their editor and St. Martin's published it. On Sept. 28, 2009, "The Boy from Baby House 10: From the Nightmare of a Russian Orphanage to a New Life in America" was released. The authors are Alan Philps and John Lahutsky. It is to be released in England and to be translated into German and released in Germany.
John says he's very happy about the book.
"I'm amazed at how many people say 'Thank you' for letting them know how other societies treat children like me. I want to prevent children being in the same situation I was in," says John.
Paula hopes it will make a difference to a system that doesn't work.
"The measure of success is to make people aware of the children who remain in those Baby Houses and to have people to come forward to adopt them," she says.
Today, John is thriving and couldn't be happier. He became an American citizen in March of 2001 and his mom threw a party for him in June, inviting family and friends to help him celebrate this momentous occasion in his life.
"My life is fantastic. My mom has been very supportive of me and helped in the shaping of me into the man I am today. I can't ask for a better life because it's perfect."
Not only does he have a loving family and circle of friends, which includes his dog, Jambo, a Chihuahua, through the recent efforts of Alan and Vika, John now has contact with his older sister, Olga. They were separated when she was six and he was one. She was also raised in an orphanage but was educated and released when of age. She lives in Russia with her husband and daughter.
Paula says it's like having a daughter, son-in-law and grandchild and hopes they will all be able to meet some day.
As Paula looks adoringly at John, she says, "These have been the best 10 years of my life. He has brought me more joy than I ever thought possible. He's a very easy young man to love and has the most amazing kind heart."
John looks at his mother with adoration and can only thank her for giving him a life he never could have imagined as a little boy from Baby House 10.