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A wing and a prayer: Michigan couple adopts last Buckner Russian orphan

By Scott Collins
Photography by Russ Dilday

HUDSONVILLE, Mich. – John Nauta raises his fist and slams it onto the kitchen table, shaking the table and sending a dull thud echoing through the room. He does it again. And again. Three times. Three times because each swing of his fist represents what John says is the “sweetest sound I’ve ever heard.”

The sound mimics the passport agent’s stamp at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport on Dec. 29. Three stamps. One each for John and his wife, Sheryl. And the third for their new daughter, Elya.

The next sound John remembers is the thump of the wheels on their Air France flight hitting the undercarriage of the plane as it lifted off over the gray skies of Russia headed toward Paris.

Both sounds – the agent’s stamp and the airplane wheels – are sounds most travelers barely notice. But for the Nautas, they represented certainty after 48 hours of anxiety and sleeplessness.

Just hours before the Nautas left the country, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a ban halting inter-country adoptions of Russian orphans to United States citizens. The legislation, which captured worldwide attention in late December, came after a year of hostility between the U.S. and Russia over human rights issues. The ban went into full effect Jan. 1, 2013, leaving 46 American families who were at the end of their adoption process under a cloud of uncertainty.

John and Sheryl were among the last 10 American families to finalize their adoption and leave the country before the ban caught them in its tangled web. It wasn’t until Friday, Dec. 28, the day the ban was signed and a day before they were scheduled to leave Russia with Elya, that the final hurdle in the process was cleared. But even with all the paperwork and other requirements finished, they still had to wait 24 hours before boarding their flight home. They feared what could happen.

Worlds apart

John and Sheryl had emptied the nest of their four birth children and were headed toward a comfortable retirement in their suburban Grand Rapids home. Hudsonville and the surrounding community became a magnet a generation ago for Dutch immigrants. Both John and Sheryl grew up in strong Dutch homes; John’s parents immigrated to Michigan after World War II and he speaks Friesian fluently.

Both had good jobs and John was just a few months from retirement after 31 years with the Wyoming, Mich., fire department.

At the same time, Elya (pronounced Eh-la) was living in an orphanage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her birth mother was a mess and by the time Elya was 7, she was an orphan, her mother’s parental rights having been terminated. Her brother, three years older, lived with her in the orphanage.

In 2005, when Elya was 9, she and her brother were among a group of Russian orphans who visited Texas as part of Buckner Adoption and Maternity Services’ Angels from Abroad hosting program. Elya has fond memories of that trip, calling it a “very good experience. I cried when it was over and it felt like I was being torn from something good. I didn’t know how to handle it. But I felt better when they said that maybe I could return and stay forever.”

Over the next few years, most of the orphans in group were adopted by American families. Elya’s host family expressed an interest in adopting the brother and sister, but Elya’s Russian mother came back into their lives and promised to take them back, so Elya protested on the idea of being adopted, even though her brother wanted to be. Their mother disappeared again for good and by the time they could enter back into the adoption process, Elya’s brother had turned 16 and could no longer be adopted.
Elya remembers the many visits to her orphanage by American mission groups that followed her trip to the U.S. Those visits gave her hope.

“When people came from America, we didn’t understand them, but they had interpreters,” she remembers. “We had a very good time with them. When they came, we prayed with them and it felt like you were cleansed from something that’s bad. All the kids liked the Americans who came because they gave some small piece of goodness or happiness in this horrible world.”

Those visits from Americans and the dream of being adopted kept hope alive for Elya during the seven years it took to find the Nautas.

Irina Young, director of Buckner’s Russia adoption program, remembers the first time she saw Elya in 2005 during the hosting visit. For the next six years, Young would become Elya’s strongest advocate and torchbearer to find her a forever family.

“She’s one of those children you never forget once you meet her,” Young remembers. “She’s got these beautiful eyes and a sparkling smile.”

Family ties

Irina Young’s passion for helping Russian orphans is evident the longer you talk to her. Gentle and soft-spoken, her strong and expressive eyes are a window into a soul that runs deep. She is comfortably serious about what she does, understanding the eternal significance of placing orphan children in loving homes; homes that will forever change the course of those children’s lives.

Herself a Russian immigrant, Young connects almost immediately with the orphans. The longer she knows an orphan longing for a family, the deeper Irina’s passion and determination grows to find a family. She knew Elya for seven years, nearly an eternity for a young child and an excruciating, painfully long period for an adoption caseworker.

“I remember the day in September of 2011 when I got a call from a family in Michigan and they said they wanted to adopt Elya. I was amazed. I asked them, ‘Why her?’ They told me a story that a friend of theirs had told them about Elya after he had met her at the orphanage in Russia.”

That friend was Greg Yoder, who would become the matchmaker, connecting the dots between the Nauta family, Elya and Buckner.

Yoder, who lives just four houses down the street from John and Sheryl in Hudsonville, is executive director and weekday anchor for Mission Network News, news service “dedicated to keeping Christians informed on evangelical mission activity around the world.” Buckner International and MNN have an ongoing partnership that helps Buckner promote its ministry to orphans around the globe.

In August 2010, Yoder was on a mission trip with a group from Western Michigan, working in orphanages in St. Petersburg. He posted photos on his Facebook page of a young 14-year-old girl who grabbed his heart.

At the same time, thousands of miles away and a world apart, Sheryl Nauta kept peeking into the recently-abandoned bedroom in Hudsonville. John and Sheryl’s youngest child had left for college and the sound of silence in the home was defeating. She thought about hosting an exchange student. But then she started looking in the Sunday newspaper at the Sunday’s Child, “where they list children that need homes. I started to wonder if I could do something like that someday. That’s how it started for me.”

For John, he was focused on his upcoming retirement when he saw Yoder’s photos of the young Russian girl. “When I saw that picture of Elya, I felt led by the Holy Spirit at that moment to pray for her specifically. For me, it wasn’t a matter of, ‘I need to adopt her.’ It was a matter of, ‘I need to pray for her for whatever reason, just being led by the Holy Spirit.’”

For a year, John prayed for the girl.

“Fast forward a year later and it’s August 2011,” John says. “Greg was back (in Russia) with a group of people working in those same orphanages. It was Aug. 15 and he calls me from Russia. It’s 8:30 in the morning. I was standing right here,” John says, pointing to a place on the kitchen floor next to the telephone.

Sheryl had just left for work when John answered the phone. On the other end of the line, he heard Yoder say that Elya wanted to be adopted. John was so surprised by the call from Russia that the only response he had was, “Who wants to be adopted? It didn’t click that a year earlier I had started praying for this same girl.”

The call was brief, but the exchange would last a lifetime. When Sheryl arrived home from work later that day, John told her, “You’ll never guess who called.” When he told her it was Yoder calling from Russia, she knew why. The next day, Yoder called again, this time with more information and details.

John and Sheryl knew something was happening, but they also believed the first step was to pray about the decision and to talk to their grown children. They called a family meeting and explained to their children “what was going on and how we were being led by the Holy Spirit and what God was doing, but we didn’t want to make a rash decision, either,” John recalls. “This was a life-changing event for our family and for Elya and we wanted to make sure that this is what God wanted us to do. We wanted to be obedient, whatever decision God told us.”

At the family meeting, the Nautas all agreed to pray about the decision and get back together one week later. “We kind of threw the fleece out,” John says. The decision was unanimous. “Everybody was on board and said, ‘Mom and Dad, if this where you feel you are being led, we’re going to support you,’” John says. “And that started the process.”

That process started with the September 2011 call Young remembers so well. “It was so incredible,” she recalls. “We were completely shocked because it was six years later and we had it’s a requirement in Russia that the child cannot be adopted if the child is past 16.”

The race was on for everyone involved and what had been a six-year marathon to find a home for Elya became a mad dash. Within 18 months, she would be past 16 and could no longer be adopted. John was caught in the middle of trying to retire while starting all over as a father. Sheryl faced two problems – she worked full-time for a customs brokerage firm and had to decide if she could keep working; and she had life-long fear of flying. The thought of being on an airplane flying to Russia was terrifying. No one had any idea the worst was yet to come.

‘Guard your hearts’

John Nauta is a gregarious man who never meets a stranger. When Elya describes her new father, speaking in Russian, no translation is needed. He talks a lot, she says. “For a long time it’s ‘blah, blah, blah.’”

John laughs and Sheryl nods in agreement.

As a couple, they complement each other. “I have a tendency to run ahead and I wanted to get this done as quickly as possible,” John remembers. “I mean, I wanted to get on a plane and get to Russia and bring her home and that would be it. All these steps, this process,” he pauses and looks at Sheryl who smiles back. “Sometimes Sheryl had to rein me in and say, ‘John, let them do their work. You know we have to take this one step at a time.’”

From the start of the process in September 2011 until that final plane ride out of Russia in December of 2012, those 16 months included three trips to Russia, court hearings, hundreds of pages of paperwork, countless phone calls to Dallas, home studies, physical exams, hopes that were dashed and resurrected, and rising tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments.

“Irina was fantastic,” John says. “She was a blessing because she guided us through it all. She told us continually, ‘guard your hearts, guard your hearts’ because she knew what a difficult process it was.”

The first trip to Russia came as a surprise in June 2012 after an earlier trip in February had been canceled. A Russian judge ordered a temporary halt on inter-country adoptions. But they received a call on June 13 that they had to be in Russia by June 26, “which was ironically our wedding anniversary,” Sheryl says.

“All of a sudden we were scrambling,” John recalls. “We were trying to get our visas and make travel arrangements and everything.”

They left Michigan on Sunday, June 24, one day after their passports came back with the visas stamped securely inside. The Buckner staff in Russia couldn’t believe it had happened so fast.

Within hours of arriving in Russia, they met Elya for the first time and spent the next four days with her. “It was an awesome thing,” John remembers. The morning they took Elya back, John and Sheryl sat down and talked to her about being adopted. “If you decide that you don’t want to be adopted by us, we’re going to understand and we are going to leave this decision to you,” they told her.
Elya’s didn’t need time to think about it. She said yes on the spot.

The next five months were filled with more paperwork, while Elya turned 16 in October of 2012. The second trip came in November, a month after her birthday.

On Nov. 8, John, and Sheryl walked into a Russian courtroom along with Buckner Russia Director Natasha Votyakova.

“It was very intimidating,” John says. “You have a judge who speaks Russian and you’re wondering what kind of questioning is going to happen. The process was very intense.”

During the questioning, the judge directed most of her questions to John. “I think they’re always a little suspect of the male part of it than they are the female half,” John says. “I was asked a lot of questions by the judge.”

About halfway through the interview, the judge suddenly stopped, looked at John and said, “Your faith is very important to you, isn’t it?” “I simply said, ‘Yes it is. My faith is important to me.’”

When the questioning was over and the prosecutor had presented no objections to the adoption, the judge stood up and walked out of the courtroom without a word. Five minutes later, she walked back in. This time, Elya was there.

“By the power given to me by the Russian Federation, I approve this adoption,” the judge said. And then she said, “From this time on, you are Eleanor (Elya) Georgina Nauta. May you have a happy life.” That was it. It all took less than an hour.

Even though Elya was John and Sheryl’s daughter, she was headed back to the Russian orphanage while the Nautas were headed home to Hudsonville to wait 30 days, a requirement before she could leave for her new home. It was a long 30 days for everyone.

By the time John and Sheryl returned to Russia on Dec. 16, rumors of a possible ban of inter-country adoptions to Americans were hanging over them like a thick fog. The fog would only thicken over the next 13 days. Because of the uncertainty of the ban and how comprehensive it might, they faced the prospect that Elya, who was their daughter legally and emotionally, might never leave Russia with them.

“We were back in the same boat of praying ourselves through this because we had been through so many ups and downs and each time, God showed us faithfulness,” John says. “So we just said, ‘We’re going to give this over to the Lord.’”

The first six days were spent in St. Petersburg, finishing more paperwork before traveling to Moscow for the final leg of the journey, which included more paperwork at the U.S. Embassy to get Elya’s U.S. passport. It was Dec. 27 and rumors of the ban were now becoming truth. The pressure was getting intense. The last hurdle was the exit visa from Russian authorities.

“When our Buckner caseworker Alex (xxxxx) took her passport to the Russian consulate to get the visa he told us that he didn’t know what they might do. He said they might start taking a hard line with this and not grant the visa,” according to John. Alex left the Nautas at 1:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, Dec. 27 with the passport in hand. At 7 p.m., he called and said, “I have it in my hand.”

“We were praising God at that point,” John says. “And then it was, ‘Well, let’s get out of here and take her home.’” Alex delivered the passport at 10 Friday morning, Dec. 28 and on Saturday, Dec. 29, they heard the passport agent stamp all three passports and the Air France plane’s wheels.

“We really prayed and gave thanks as the wheels came off the ground in Moscow,” John recalls. “What a blessing just to know that she was coming home with us.”


An early January thaw has settled over Western Michigan, less than two weeks after they landed in Grand Rapids. The thermometer would top a tropical 50 degrees as John, Sheryl and Elya step outside their home. But even with the warm weather, there is still enough snow leftover for a snowball fight – too much for any teenager to resist. The first toss catches John by surprise as Elya laughs with delight. But he recovers quickly and the fight is on. Even Sheryl gets dragged into the fracas.

The snowball fight is followed by lunch at their favorite Hudsonville restaurant, where it is obvious it hasn’t taken the former Russian orphan long to appreciate American Italian food. Laughter fills the three as much as the food.

“I think about that,” Sheryl says, when asked what hopes and dreams the couple has for their new daughter. “I feel God brought her to us for a reason and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for her. I’m hoping she finds a nice Christian young man and settles down here and has a wonderful life.”

John, who ultimately delayed his retirement until after the family was all under one roof, has found himself still doing paperwork. But this time it’s the papers he needs to file for retirement. After 31 years on the job, he is leaving the fire department this spring. Sheryl, who left her job during the 16-month adoption ordeal so she could concentrate on the process, tutors Elya in English every day.

Like any 16-year-old American, Elya has discovered Guitar Hero, Facebook and new friends. She has dreams of one day becoming a veterinarian. But unlike a lot of teenagers in the U.S., she has a deep appreciation for her family.

“I needed a family that would love me and help me make something of my life,” she says. “That’s how the Nauta family is.”

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