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'Pure Joy' - Adoptive family of four Russian children recounts the laughs and the tears

By Chelsea Quackenbush
Photography by Russ Dilday

On an unseasonably warm Valentine’s Day evening, the Potts family gathers at their grandparents’ home in a Dallas suburb, not to share sweets and candy hearts, but to tell the story of how they came to be a family.

The oldest son is home from military duty along the Texas-Mexico border. The oldest daughter left her studies in her college dorm to join them. The younger daughter has the night off from both of her jobs. The youngest son, still in high school, doesn’t have a choice but to be there.

They gather in the living room of their grandparents’ house. The boys play “pool” while Bob Potts watches over them from nearby. Anyone can see he’s proud of his boys.

Donita Potts sits on a large floral couch in the living room with her daughters. The oldest, Natasha, 22, curls up on the couch adjacent to her. Masha, 20, having worked from six in the morning until 10 or 11 o’clock at night the previous day, plunks herself on the floor across the coffee table where she tries not to fall asleep.

The scene is normal. It’s quintessential American. But once the kids start talking, you realize there’s something special about the family.

As 19-year-old Dima, the last of her babies, prepares to leave the nest in the spring following his high school graduation, Donita pauses to think back over the past 10 years when the four – and then six – of them became a family.

Natasha and the oldest son, Pasha, 23, are siblings who grew up in a Russian orphanage until adolescence. In 2002, when they were 12 and 13, respectively, Bob and Donita flew to Russia right before Christmas to bring them home and make them part of their family.

They call that day, Dec. 7, their “gotcha” day.

For a long time, Pasha and Natasha were unsure if they wanted to be adopted. Orphanage workers asked them repeatedly over the years if they wanted them to find a “forever family” for the pair. They said no.

They still had family in Russia. Their older brother could’ve gone to get them. They had a godparent, an aunt, an uncle, all who promised to rescue them or at the very least, take them on vacation. They held onto that hope for years.

Their birth mother had been to visit them once while they were in the orphanage. And then they realized that the hope of being reunited with their family was gone.

So the last time orphanage staff asked them if they wanted a family, they said yes. They had been visited by other kids who’d been adopted and saw how happy they were in their new families. They wanted that, too.

After that, Natasha said, they did not stop bugging orphanage staff for a family.

But being older was going to make adoption difficult. Pasha was about the age when most kids are moved to a different orphanage where adoption is not an option.

Little did Natasha and Pasha know, a couple in Dallas, Texas, had seen their photo in a copy of Buckner Today in 2000 and was already in the process to adopt them.

Bob and Donita wrestled with the idea of children for most of their marriage. They considered adopting a child from China in the summer of 2000 but felt they were getting too old. They said they just weren’t very motivated to expand their family at that time.

And then at a birthday lunch for Bob in November 2000, his sister brought the magazine that one of her voice students had given her. It was Buckner Today.

The magazine featured photos and profiles of children waiting to be adopted from Russia through Buckner. He took the copy to Donita later that day.

As Bob told Buckner Today magazine in a 2002 article, “I showed (Donita) the picture of Natasha and Pasha and she said, ‘I think these are the ones.’ It was like God said, ‘OK, these are the kids.’ Before we even got out of the car, we called the number.”

Pasha and Natasha knew something was happening when a staff member interviewed and filmed them. Their questioning became more frequent. Finally, the orphanage director brought a video of the Potts and Natasha and Pasha said yes, they wanted to be adopted by Bob and Donita.

On Bob and Donita’s first trip to Russia, Pasha and Natasha greeted them at the airport. And by greeting them, what really happened was that the two youngsters broke through airport customs and ran to their future parents, calling, “Momma! Papa!,” hugging and crying.

“I felt pure joy,” Donita told Buckner Today in 2002. “I had been praying that we would connect. They immediately latched on to us.”

“Knowing the kids were as big as they were, we even talked about whether the kids would call us Momma and Papa,” Bob said in the same interview. “We didn’t know what they would call us. But hearing them call me Papa was the greatest thing in the world.”

Pasha and Natasha settled into their new lives in the United States with relative ease. They learned English quickly and by the second month, the family no longer needed their translator.

One of their sweetest memories was the first Christmas Pasha and Natasha spent in the U.S. They had only been living here a few weeks so their English wasn’t great.

On that Christmas morning, Pasha got a bike. He was silent. Bob and Donita prompted him to try to say in English what he was thinking. So he ran and got his English-Russian dictionary and furiously looked up word after word. And finally, he said, “No tongue!” He was speechless, without words.

Donita recalled how Natasha cried that morning. She was worried that she was having bad feelings come up about Russia and her life. Turns out, Natasha simply was not a morning person and she was crying because she wanted to go back to bed.

They all laugh about it now as they think of how far their family has come since that first Christmas.

Several years later, in June 2004, the Potts family hosted two children through the Buckner “Angels from Abroad” program, which is paused temporarily due to changes in legislation with the Russian government. The program brings Russian orphans to the United States for two weeks and allows them to stay with a family to experience what family life is like.

Enter Masha and Dima, a brother and sister pair from a Russian orphanage. At the time, Bob and Donita said OK because they knew Pasha and Natasha wanted to be translators. They had no intention of adopting more children.

They saw from the beginning that Masha was a headstrong young lady. She wanted her way and wouldn’t take any other answer.

Masha asked her father if he remembered the first time she tried spaghetti. And Tabasco. (He did).

One night, the family had spaghetti and Masha spotted the Tabasco sauce. She motioned that she wanted some. Bob told her not to eat it because it was really hot. So Masha proceeded to grab the bottle and dump “way more than I would ever use,” Bob said, on her pasta.

“We made her eat it all,” Bob said with a smile.

“I hate spicy,” Masha grumbled.

Donita said she could tell within the first few days that Bob’s heart was changing, that Masha and Dima were supposed to be their kids. But she didn’t feel that way. She repeated, ‘not adopting, not adopting, not adopting, no, no, no.’

But when it came time to bring Masha and Dima back to the airport, her heart broke. She couldn’t believe they had to leave. And she knew right then and there that they were supposed to be her kids.

So they wrote letters back and forth and sent pictures. And on Dec. 21, 2004, the Potts brought Masha and Dima home to be the newest addition to their family.

The transition from a family of four to a family of six wasn’t easy. There were a lot of personality clashes and hard bumps along the way. They had to establish boundaries and responsibilities. They had to share bedrooms, something Pasha and Natasha weren’t used to.

While Pasha and Natasha were forced to learn English quickly, Masha and Dima used their older siblings as translators. Bob and Donita finally had to say, ‘No Russian at the dinner table.’

They were concerned that perhaps Masha and Dima weren’t learning English as quickly as their older brother and sister. They went to meet their teachers one night at school and they all commented on how wonderful Masha and Dima were doing in school and how well their English was coming along.

Bob and Donita were stunned. “We didn’t even know they knew English!” they recall now, laughing. “We got home that night and said ‘no more translating.’”

The Potts are about to be empty nesters but they couldn’t be more proud of their kids. Pasha returned in February from his deployment to the Texas border. He enlisted in the Army National Guard as soon as he was eligible. Bob said from the moment he arrived in the U.S. 10 years ago, he wanted to be known as an American, not a Russian. “He’s a very patriotic fellow.”

Natasha is studying Russian studies at the University of Texas at Arlington and hopes to be a Russian translator one day. She’s received many honors for her academic achievements and speaks at Buckner events from time to time about her experience being adopted from a Russian orphanage.

Masha works two jobs and has a place of her own. She graduated from J. J. Pearce High School in Richardson in 2011 but hasn’t made any decisions on college as of yet. Dima, 19, will graduate from Pearce in May and plans to study electrical engineering at Richland College.

Although the four have had a great life since coming to the U.S., they know they’re lucky. If they had stayed in Russia, they guess that they would’ve ended up like the majority of Russian children who age out of the orphanage system – on the streets or working as prostitutes.

Natasha and Pasha said they didn’t know about their photo in Buckner Today until much later after they were adopted. All they knew at the time was that they were going to have a mom and dad, a family who would love them. They wouldn’t be staying in Russia the rest of their lives. They would have a future.

But perhaps the biggest blessing has been on Bob and Donita.

“The most memorable part of it all has been the joy of seeing them grow up and learn to be on their own … The heartache of seeing them grow up and learn to be on their own,” Bob said. “It’s just an awesome blessing to have them in my family. People always say, ‘Oh, what you did is so great, so noble.’ And I say, ‘No, it wasn’t. It was selfish. I wanted kids.’ I don’t think of it as noble at all. I think what they did, moving all these thousands of miles, halfway around the world, learning to speak English, you know, learning a whole new way of life … That’s noble.”

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