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“I had never even dreamt of such wonderful big family...”

© UNICEF / UKR / 0146 / 2009 / Starostenko
The large and friendly family of Viktor and Nadiya Karpenko. A priority activity of UNICEF in Ukraine is to place institutionalized children under family care.

In 2009, UNICEF Ukraineand the European Union (EU) initiated a pilot project in the Khmelnytsky Oblast (region) for providing assistance to children deprived of parental care and other vulnerable children.  The project focuses at prevention of instititutionalisation of children, and for those in institutions, at family reintegration or placing in adoptive or foster families, if it is the best solution for a child.

To see just how beneficial the effects of family placement are, a UNICEF reporting team visited a remarkable family that has provided a loving foster home to eight children.

A nice, friendly woman with beautiful hazel eyes met us on the doorstep of a large two-storied house with a warm greeting: “Come on in, please. Today we are all at home, so you can meet all the members of our big family.” Nadiya Karpenko (names are changed for ethical reasons) is the deputy dean of one of the universities in Khmelnytsky Oblast, a broadcaster of a radio programme and a mother of 11 children, eight of whom are ether fostered or adopted.

“If someone had told me 10 years ago that we would have 11 children, we would have laughed,” says Viktor, the father. “We were an ordinary family working and raising two children. We never gave a thought to such a thing.”
“However, life had something in store for us,” Nadiya is smiling. “I got pregnant for the third time when my son was 15 and my daughter was 14. I could not make up my mind how to tell them about it. I felt sort of uneasy to have a baby at my age with almost adult children. But they accepted this news very positively.”

In the maternity house where Nadiya was having a baby, a young woman had decided not to keep her newborn. Nadiya talked to her husband and they decided to adopt the abandoned child. Some time later when Nadiya was at home with two babies, she received a call from the maternity house about three more abandoned newborns, with a proposal for her family to take them. It was not an easy decision for the Karpenko family, but they decided in favour of the abandoned children. 

“Viktor, we can raise these poor babies, can we not? We are skillful parents and have brought up two wonderful children,” Nadiya told her husband at the time, not knowing yet how difficult it would be in reality. “The children were sick and we almost did not sleep at night, watching them by their bedside and shifting every two hours. We were exhausted but could not give up because we assumed a responsibility.” While Nadiya and I were talking, five children burst into the room, asking, “Mommy, daddy, let’s watch the cartoon which Lyuda brought from Khmelnytsky the other day!”

“Please, Serhiy, watch it yourself, because as you see we are talking to our guests. We will join you some time later,” says Nadiya. Happy but a little bit confused, the children left the room. “These are our first adopted children. They are nine years old,” says Nadiya, who adds with a smile: “They do not yet ask me – Mommy, how come you have so many children of the same age? I am expecting such a question. Basically, my husband and I attend training sessions for foster parents and we know that it is very important to inform a child about his biological identity in time. They should learn this from us, their parents, but not from outsiders. We do not yet sense that they are ready for this information.”

Eventually, another five-year-old child was adopted by Nadiya and Viktor. Her mother died when she was two years old. Initially, the girl, Alina, was taken by her uncle but in two years returned her to grandmother, who was addicted to alcohol. Learning her story, the Karpenkos decided to adopt her to prevent her from being placed in an institution. Alina has a blind eye. When Viktor and Nadiya asked her grandmother about it, she said that Alina had fallen badly and injured her eye.  Later Alina told the real story. Her mother and grandmother, both drunk, were fighting and in their rage pelted a glass bottle that hit her face and injured her eye. For several days Alina stayed at home with a swollen eye. They did not consult a doctor and put some sugar on here eye just like they did for cattle with eye problems. Nadiya cannot hold back tears, talking about this. She is so upset that their daughter did not receive timely medical assistance. Later they consulted many eye specialists trying to recover her vision. “Alina was operated on several times,” her father continues the sad story. “The doctors did what they could - removed scars, put in cosmetic stitches - but failed to recover her vision. We are still hoping for better and sent her medical record to our friends in the USA. However none of the doctors until now have agreed to do an operation on her eye. It is a pity; she feels very uncomfortable and covers her sick eye with her hair.” 

When five of Nadiya and Viktor’s children were two years old, three more children were accepted to the family. Their parents, while drunk, had frozen to death in the winter forest. The children’s biological brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles refused to take them, citing the excuse that they were children from an alcoholic family, sickly and with emotional problems, while the relatives had their own families, children and problems. “At that time Yuriy, the elder, was 12, his sister Lyuda was 10 and the youngest boy Taras was six. It was the first time when I said ‘no’,” Nadiya confesses. “Our hands were full of work and it was difficult: our children were small, they often were sick and we were completely exhausted. But social workers kept telephoning and asking if we would change our minds. Three days later, the doorbell rang and when I opened the door I saw three children and the head of the village council from the area where children lived. He said: “Will you tell them personally that you do not want to take them.” Viktor notices my astonishment and hastily explains: “Of course, this looks rather cruel but people in our neighborhood are simple and straightforward. As you understand, we could not refuse children and we never regretted about this.”

© UNICEF / UKR / 0123 / 2009 / Starostenko
Only a family is capable of giving children emotional health and harmonic moral and spiritual development. Only a family can fill childrens’ lives with happiness and joy.

This is how the Karpenko’s family increased by three more wonderful children, of whom they are proud. These children had been neglected; they did not have elementary life skills. “When we for the first time sat down for lunch, it turned out that they could not use tableware. They rushed away when we tried to hug them. Gradually, they learnt how to use everyday items, stopped being amused at clean bedding, began quietly falling asleep and were opening up. Now Yuriy and Lyuda are university students,” Nadiya says with pride, adding with emotion, “It is a real joy when they come for a weekend and share with us their feelings and thoughts.”

Nadiya remembers that about two years ago Lyuda came to her and said, “Mommy, I am going to say something to you that you will not like, but listen and don’t be angry at me.” Nadiya responded, “Go ahead, my dear,” thinking that the girl did something bad and was going to confess. “Mommy, you know how happy I am that my parents died, otherwise I would have never learnt what is real family, love and care. My brother and I did not know how it could be. We did not have clean clothes and we did not know how nice the taste of cooking was.” Nadiya could not hold back her tears, remembering this moment. “You should not say that, my sweetheart. Never even think like this, try to keep only good memories.” It was terrible to hear this, but it was because of all those awful things that happened with these children, who in their biological family did not have love and care. It is difficult to imagine what they had come through before being adopted.

Leaving the Karpenko family, I was thinking about hardships these children had gone through, and about courage and mercy of Nadiya and Viktor who assumed responsibility and adopted eight children. It has been a great victory for them, because with their giant hearts and dedication, they made the impossible come true – tearing away these children from sinister fates and giving them a change to grow and develop in loving family. With these caring and responsible parents, the children in the Karpenko family have grown up to be intelligent, active and inquisitive, and most importantly, happy, because they are loved and cared for, and are someone’s pride and joy.

The UNICEF and EU joint project focuses especially on the development of preventive social work with vulnerable families with children to prevent children abandonment. Together with the national counterparts – Khmelnytsky Oblast Centre of Social Services for Family, Children and Youth, Khmelnytsky Oblast State Administration and Council, the Project is involved in active social work in communities aimed at detecting vulnerable families with children who need timely social assistance.  The pilot project in Khmelnytsky Oblast may become a platform for rolling out new models of social work with families with children at the national level.



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