WENDY'S CHOICE

SHE WAS PROMISED SHE COULD ADOPT A RUSSIAN BABY IN EXCHANGE FOR HUMANITARIAN AID. IT WASN'T THAT EASY.

Davis had been saddened by media reports on the plight of Russian orphans, 300,000 to 400,000 living in institutions, and she wanted to help. She convinced the pastor at St. Mark's United Methodist Church, where she was a parishioner, to let her open a checking account using the church's tax-exempt status. Using her past charitable works as a r‚sum‚, Davis introduced herself to the Columbus mayor's office and the Ohio governor's office, and alerted the newspapers. Mike Harden, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch, wrote a series of articles about her crusade, and soon the donations were rolling in.

Ultimately, Davis collected nearly 400 boxes of clothing and diapers and Bibles and toothbrushes and food and soap and toilet paper, all of which she intended to present to the Russian authorities before the lights of TV news cameras and photographers' flashes. She invited Harden, the local stations and a Chicago video production company to come along for that purpose.

Davis also enlisted Roberta Grimm, a local rep for Apple Computer, who put out the alert over that company's computer bulletin board; though Apple had no official role in the trip, it did donate the services of Russian-English interpreters to the group in Moscow. The mere mention of the company's name, however, lent even more credence to the undertaking.

Neither Rebecca Davis nor Roberta Grimm would agree to be interviewed by New Times, so it is unclear how or why the prospect of adoption arose. Wendy's friend Brigid Dwyer had read the initial stories about Davis' humanitarian drive on the Applelink, and they said nothing about babies or adoptions until late November, but still and all, everything seemed respectable enough.

In the days before they were to leave for Columbus, Rebecca appeared several times on the local TV news. Each time she wore the same frumpy, red sweat shirt--another omen of her lack of professionalism, perhaps--but she spoke in knowing tones about the political situation in Russia. "They tell me Boris is very secure," she said at one point. The news anchors listened transfixed as she described the particulars of the expedition: A U.S. government plane would transport the medical supplies. Aeroflot would bring its largest cargo plane from Russia for the rest of the load, and the adoptive parents would ride a third charter jet. The station followed with footage of boxes stacked high in Rebecca's garage and in the rooms of her house. At the end of its report, the station flashed an address for the bank accepting cash donations across the screen.

Davis' instructions to the adoptive parents--even if they were handwritten--exuded the same confidence and authority. In one, she asserted that she would be met at the airport by the Russian Ministers of Health and Education--the two departments that had to approve foreign adoptions--and by Ludmilla Fimina, the director of Russian orphanages. Davis always referred to the latter simply as "Ludmilla," as if the two knew each other well. At any rate, the four of them would work out the adoptions.

The travelers were a diverse mix of people strung along a wide spectrum of longing and desperation. Wendy viewed them with quiet detachment, because she was still relatively new to the world of infertility and adoption, which has its own subculture and support groups. "People who have children don't hear these stories," she says plaintively.

Some of the travelers had natural children and felt they had enough love left over to provide for the less-fortunate orphans they'd read about in Russia. Others were childless couples at wits' end with fertility specialists and adoption agencies.

"The reason we looked to foreign adoption," says Jamie Combs, a prospective father from Alabama, "is the amount of money you have to pay in the U.S. for legal fees." He and his wife were terrified by accounts they'd read about children being wrenched from their adoptive families because their natural parents had a change of heart.

Whereas anyone, fit or unfit as a parent, can give birth to a child, adoptive parents have to meet strict qualifications, and some of the people on the trip did not: They were older than the norm, or single, or gay. One woman from Utah already had ten children, most of them adopted, and she wanted another. Several had adopted children from war-torn Rumania, where Americans had scoured the countryside two years earlier, sometimes literally buying children from their parents. (As one mother, Lynne Dundon from Columbus, said, "If I saw a parent trying to sell a child, I'd certainly buy it to get it away from that kind of parent.")

Russia loomed as the new adoption frontier, so new that the U.S. State Department has no record of adoption from the Soviet Union before October of 1991. In the last three months of that year, there were only 24 from the entire Soviet Union; then, in the first nine months of 1992, there were 724 from Russia alone, and 55 from Ukraine.

Despite the opening of the adoption window, the Russians imposed strict restrictions. The only children eligible for international adoption were those who had been "passed over" by Russian families because they were older, ill, or of mixed race. To bring them to the United States generally meant employing an adoption agency approved by the Russian government at a cost that can exceed $10,000, and then going through six months to a year of mind-numbing red tape and paperwork. To sidestep all that seemed a major miracle, but one that Davis' prospective parents were willing to believe in--though not without some doubts.

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