A home for the holidays
By Parish Howard
For at least two children in Jefferson County, this Christmas is already promising to be magically different than any they have ever experienced.
Last week 9-year-old Stepan took the time to examine each ornament he hung on the tree. His little fingers played over the imported ceramic orbs and the painted Victorian-style angels as well as the yarn and cotton-decorated plastic spoon ornaments made by the other children in the room.
As Marianna Mahaffey, age 8, handed each decoration to Stepan, he paused every now and then to admire a favorite, uttered an incomprehensible series of words before reaching up to hang it from the boughs.
The common routines of a typical American family Christmas are new to Stepan and 11-year-old Sergei partly because they have never been in the United States during this time of year, but also because neither one has a family of his own.
They are Russian orphans who are being hosted by two Wrens families. Stepan is staying with Tyler and Heather Mahaffey and their children, Mason, Mercer and Marianna. Sergei is spending the holiday with Danny and Lisa Stoms and their children Jared, Hayden and Elena. Both boys will be with their host families about a month, until mid-January.
“Ever since I was a little girl I’ve been interested in orphans and orphanages,” Heather Mahaffey said. “I remember telling my sister when we were little that I’d like to have an orphanage one day. I’ve just always felt this pull, this draw to children who do not have parents.”
She and Tyler met while working with a Baptist student organization at the University of Georgia on a project mentoring underprivileged children.
They first heard about New Horizons For Children, the Atlanta-area-based program that arranges for these visits for Russian and Eastern European orphans, through the Stoms in October.
Tyler had written letters of recommendation for the Stoms when they traveled to Russia to adopt Hayden and later Elena a few years ago.
Lisa, who serves on a web board for other adoptive parents, heard about the program through her contacts there.
“We always wanted to be able to do something more for the children that were left behind,” Lisa said. “Once they are past a certain age, they are just sort of overlooked by potential adoptive parents.”
There are around 700,000 orphans in Russia, Lisa said.
“There’s not the same stigma on orphans in America,” Danny said. “They just aren’t looked at the same. And there are so many more social programs available for children here. They have more of a chance.”
“The Russians are such a prideful people,” Lisa said. “Bloodline matters, and if you’re an orphan, then there is no bloodline.
“When they turn 16, they have to leave the orphanage. Most of them are homeless. There are no jobs available. We have read that the suicide rate for these orphans is something like 15 percent. They just don’t have any hope. Others turn to crime, selling drugs or prostitution.”
The program is designed to get older Russian orphans into the states for a cultural experience and introduce them to the love of Christ and an American family at Christmas time.
For the children, it is both a cultural and educational experience, but it can also be a lot more than that.
“We wanted to give a child a chance to come into our home and experience a family and love,” Lisa said. “We want to let them know that there is hope. We don’t want them to give up when they get out of the orphanage. There is a way of life that is joyful, and Jesus gives them that hope.”
The program is geared toward Russian and Eastern European orphans ages 8-15.
The host family incurs the expense of the child’s VISA, airfare for the child and the chaperones as well as the pediatrician.
The children are interviewed and screened ahead of time to determine if they will be able to physically and emotionally handle the visit.
“They’ve got to be pretty brave,” Danny said. “Think about it. To travel more than 30 hours away to a place where you don’t speak the language and then move into a strange home with a group of people you don’t know for a month.”
The children live with their host families, attend church, learn some English and see what a typical American family Christmas is like.
“When Tyler told me about the program, the kids and I went online and saw all the children who could participate this year,” Heather Mahaffey said. “By the end of the evening we had picked out the children we wanted to host. I immediately wanted to do it.”
Online there are profiles of the children that give basic information such as what they want for Christmas.
“A lot of them just said they wanted to have families,” Heather said. “It was really sad. I think it got to our kids too when they realized how simple some of these kids' wishes were and how easy it is for kids here, who have families, to take for granted all they have.”
Stepan was the child they eventually chose to host.
“He said he wanted to be a crane operator and just wanted a remote controlled jeep for Christmas,” Heather said. “His greatest wish was to be adopted and he wanted everyone to know that he makes all A’s in school.”
They began talking it over and as the deadline to commit to the program was only three days away, they quickly weighed what it would mean for their family of five to host this child this holiday season.
“I think it has had a big impact on our kids,” Tyler Mahaffey said. “Being children, I think they are able to put themselves in the place of the children in those orphanages who don’t have much of anything.”
“They know what it means, how much it costs to do this and while we were discussing it the kids opened their wallets and said they wanted to help,” Heather added. “They really wanted to do this for him (Stepan).”
“I think they realize how blessed they are to have a mom and dad and realize that it’s not because of anything they’ve done, that they have just been blessed with their family,” Tyler said.
After committing to host, the families had to submit to FBI background checks, fingerprinting, DFACs sign off, mounds of paperwork and a day-long class on the “do's and don’ts, should and shouldn’ts” associated with hosting orphans through the program.
Though Stepan and Sergei are from different orphanages, they are both from the St. Petersburg area and flew together, along with around 120 other participants from Moscow to New York to Atlanta.
Their host families picked them up on Dec. 16 and in addition to the usual holiday bustle and celebrations, have planned to take them on a number of other area excursions, to ball games, zoos, etc.
They have spent the last week getting grooved in with their temporary families.
“It’s really amazing how well the kids (hers and their visitor) communicate without words,” Lisa said. “They laugh and smile and grunt in the right direction. He has said some English words and we hope we’ll all be speaking more the longer he is here.”
“Language really isn’t much of a barrier for them,” Heather said. “Stepan is learning some new (English) words, but they find ways to communicate.
“He’s so funny and loving. He’ll just run up to me and blurt out all these words, in Russian of course, throw his arms around me and smile.”
Both families talk about their hopes for the whole experience and what they believe their visitors will get from their time in the United States.
“Some of these kids have no memory of life outside of the orphanage,” Lisa said. “And some who remember their parents don’t exactly have good memories.
“Over there they are used to the women who work in the orphanages being the only ones who show them any affection. They don’t know what it’s like to have a man hold them, hug them, get down on the floor and play or jump on the trampoline with them. If nothing else, it’s a great opportunity for these boys to see that grown men can be affectionate.”
Both families talk about the hope they pray Stepan and Sergei take away from their visit.
“We don’t have an agenda with this thing,” Tyler said. “Some people at the training said they felt led to do it. We just think it’s the right thing for us to do. We think that every child should be able to experience what it’s like to have a family and experience God’s love at this time of year. Regardless of what happens, these children will have experienced something different than what they have known. There will be some hope, maybe see some light. Not that America is necessarily the answer, but families are families everywhere.
“And the more we thought about this, the more we asked ourselves why could we not do this, not provide this for this child.
“In James, the Bible says that true religion is taking care of widows and orphans. I wouldn’t tell anyone else what the right thing for them to do is, but, for us, this feels like the right thing right now. I just hate to see people who have problems they can’t solve on their own. To me, the right thing to do is try to help.”
For more information on New Horizons For Children visit their site online at www. newhorizonsforchildren.org.
Community feels slack economy's woes, too
By Leila Borders
Gas prices may be low, but grocery bills are rising in the ongoing economic slowdown gripping the country.
From bug exterminators to power suppliers, businesses are raising the prices of their services and many are laying off workers or closing their doors for good. The effects of this economy are far-reaching, and our small communities are not immune.
“Finding a job that you can support a family with right now is difficult,” said Joyce Blevins, director of the East Central Georgia Consortium. The Consortium works to help people who have been laid off get additional training and find other jobs.
The state of Georgia’s unemployment rate is the second highest in the nation and Jefferson County’s rate at 11.6 percent is the third highest in the East Central Georgia region, which is composed of 12 counties. Glascock County holds one of the lowest unemployment rates in the region at 7.7, but that is still higher than the state average of 7.0.
Blevins said these rates, however, do not necessarily reflect the actual number of unemployed people in the region. The percentages are based on people collecting unemployment, which does not include those who are still unemployed but whose unemployment benefits have ended. Nor does it include those who have stopped searching for work or those who are working less than they want or need. The actual percentages of persons out of work could be much higher.
While Jefferson and Glascock counties have yet to experience large-scale layoffs from their major companies, layoffs in the surrounding counties have begun affecting the workforce.
“Most of our people work out of the county,” said Laurie Todd Boyen of the Glascock County development authority.
“We’ve had a number of layoffs in the region,” said Blevins. Since last year, two plants in nearby Millen, two in Waynesboro and two in Washington County have all had substantial layoffs that may have affected many Jefferson and Glascock county residents.
Though Jefferson County is holding on to most of its industry and jobs, the county is having trouble attracting new prospects for those residents still jobless. According to Lil Easterlin of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce, businesses who once were thinking of expanding or moving into the area are holding back because of the slowing economy.
“The folks (in Jefferson County) are doing an excellent job. The schools are working and trying to train and educate people to be employed. They were the first in the state to get Work Ready Certificates,” said Blevins.
Hope is on the horizon for Jefferson, Glascock and the surrounding counties. New construction in Burke County will create many jobs in the new year for the area. Until then, residents of Jefferson and Glascock counties will have to brace themselves as the world’s economic crisis slowly hits home.
Wrens Chief believes reported shooting a hoax
By Carol McLeod
An unknown man walked into a business in Wrens last week claiming to have been shot; however, when police responded to the scene the man could not be found, Wrens Police Chief David Hannah said.
“An officer responded and didn’t find anything,” the chief said. The officer did not find the man or any evidence of a shooting or bleeding victim.
“I think it was a hoax,” the chief said.
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Hannah said a similar incident occurred earlier in the day in Matthews. The supposed victim in both incidents are thought to be the same man, Hannah said, adding that it seemed highly unlikely that someone who had been shot would leave Matthews and travel as far as Wrens seeking help.
“If you’re shot, you’re not going to walk too many places. You’re going to want to go to the hospital,” Hannah said.
The man appeared to have what looked like blood on his clothes, Hannah said. No blood was found at the business he visited.
A suspect has not been identified.
A motive for this is unknown.