Jonathan and Mary Stahlke adopted five Ukrainian siblings in 2005. This summer they hope to gain custody of the youngest child, who was separated from his brothers and sisters three years ago.
Up until the summer of 2005, Jonathan Stahlke and his wife Mary quietly shared a modest home on Monroe Avenue where they someday hoped to raise a family. On Aug. 23 that year, after months of paperwork and prayers, they welcomed five children into their house.
Unable to have children of their own, the Stahlkes turned to adoption to help fill their empty nest. It was a long process that forced some difficult conversations between the couple, but ultimately they opted for a sibling group outside of the United States. The five Ukrainian brothers and sisters–now ages 7 to 13–have been a blessing and a handful, the couple said, but the family is not yet complete.
A sixth child, the youngest of the group, wasn’t available for adoption when the Stahlkes were in the Ukraine in the summer of 2005, but the 4-year-old’s legal status has changed and Jonathan and Mary would like to reunite him with his family.
The young boy, Mikola, was separated from his brothers and sisters three years ago.
“We were hoping to take him from the beginning,” Jonathan Stahlke said.
Though the couple has all of young Mikola’s siblings here in Forest Park, it isn’t guaranteed that they’ll be chosen as the adoptive parents, they said. Also, the adoption process is expensive and the Stahlkes expect to spend $27,000 to become the boy’s legal guardians.
To adopt the children they have now, Jonathan and Mary refinanced their house to cover the $35,000 in fees, visas and other costs.
The oldest in the group is Paul. In many ways he is a typical 13-year-old; he likes to ride his skateboard, he got his ear pierced and he regards strangers with an aloof quality that comes naturally to so many boys his age. His grandfather, Mary’s dad, said the boy has a knack for electronics and all things mechanical. He’s a whiz on the soccer field and is taking an interest in swimming, football and baseball.
“He’s just very talented,” Herbert Benson, the boy’s grandfather said.
But unlike the younger children, Paul’s English is marked by an accent that comes from years of speaking his native language. Since the children came to America some 19 months ago, all of them have picked up English rather well. At school the kids are keeping up with their peer groups and have become more outgoing, according to Garfield Elementary School Principal Jamie Stauder, who has worked with all five of the Stahlke children.
Adam is 11 years old and often plays the role of peacemaker in the family, his father said. His grandfather, Benson, suggested the role fits well with his demeanor.
“He’s always laughing,” Benson said. “He has such a good disposition.”
Third in line is 10-year-old Rachel, who is the oldest sister in the group. She’s terribly responsible, her parents said, and somewhat motherly. Everyday Rachel helps her younger sisters with their hair.
Sarah is 9 and may likely be the one her classmates look forward to seeing at reunions. Of the siblings, she is the wild and crazy one; uninhibited and comfortable with strangers.
And for now, the baby in the group is David, who is 7. Unlike his oldest brother, David’s English bears no trace of his homeland, though all five children are fluent in their native tongue. David can entertain himself for hours and loves to draw, which is something of a paradox given the amount of energy he has.
“To me, they all act like typical American kids their age,” Benson said.
Of course, the transition to life in the U.S. hasn’t been without its bumps for the kids or for their parents. Jonathan and Mary declined to comment on the particulars of what life was like in the Ukraine for their children, but said the kids have voluntarily said they don’t want to go back.
“They come from a place of great want,” Mary Stahlke said.
For a long time, the children would gather trash and discarded food from dumpsters and alleyways near their home, Jonathan said, because they were used to scavenging. They’ve hoarded apples from a neighbor’s tree expecting to have to provide for themselves, he said.
“They bring stuff in from the alleys all the time,” Jonathan Stahlke said. “They’re forever finding things.”
For several months before the adoption process was finalized, Mary and her husband took language lessons so that they would be better able to communicate with their children. When Paul and his siblings first arrived, they could count to 10 in English, and they understood “yes” and “no.” The Ukrainian lessons were only marginally successful, but over time the family learned to communicate and bonds were forged.
“Jonathan carried around a dictionary for the first year,” Stauder, the Garfield Elementary principal said.
With five children working to overcome language and cultural barriers, in addition to adjusting to a new school and a new environment, Stauder said Jonathan and Mary were constantly in and out of Garfield Elementary for one child or another. The demands on their time–he is a professor at Concordia University; she is the music director for a church–were no doubt challenging, she said.
“You could just tell that there were days that Jonathan and Mary’s schedule was just exhausting,” Stauder said.
But Mary and Jonathan will also be the first to say that they’ve received plenty of support, too. The children’s grandfather, Benson, was visiting the family from Texas while school was out last week for spring break. Neighbors are a great support system and at the elementary school, Stauder herself is a foster parent in the midst of the adoption process.
In west suburban Villa Park where the Stahlkes attend church, Pastor Robert Rogers has opened an account where donations can be made to help the couple pay for the next adoption. Some $8,000 has been received in that account so far, Rogers said, and another $6,000 was raised during a benefit dinner last month. At the Trinity Lutheran Church, Pastor Rogers said the emphasis is on families and children. The Stahlke family and the church’s support is an ongoing example of that focus, Rogers said.
“The children of the parish are all of our children,” Rogers said. “This has been a great opportunity for the congregation to practice that.”