There is no place like a home holidays

WRENS, Ga. --- The week before Christmas, 9-year-old Stepan examined each ornament he hung on the tree.

His little fingers played over the imported ceramic orbs, Victorian-style angels and handmade plastic spoon ornaments.

As Marianna Mahaffey, 8, handed each decoration to Stepan, he paused every so often to admire a favorite and uttered a series of words in Russian before reaching up to hang it from the boughs.

The American family Christmas is new to Stepan and 11-year-old Sergei, not only because they have never been in the United States during the holiday, but also because neither has a family of his own.

Guests of two Wrens families, the orphans from Russia are in the U.S. as part of an Atlanta-area program, New Horizons For Children.

Stepan is staying with Tyler and Heather Mahaffey and their children, Mason, Mercer and Marianna.

Sergei is spending the holiday with Danny and Lisa Stom and their children, Jared, Hayden and Elena.

Though they live in different orphanages in Russia, both Stepan and Sergei are from the St. Petersburg area. They flew together from Moscow to New York to Atlanta, along with about 120 other New Horizons participants.

Their host families picked them up Dec. 16 and they will be with them until mid-January.

"It's really amazing how well the kids communicate without words," Mrs. Stom said. "They laugh and smile and grunt in the right direction. (Sergei) has said some English words, and we hope we'll all be speaking more the longer he is here."

The Mahaffeys heard about New Horizons in October through the Stoms, who adopted Hayden and later Elena from Russia.

"When Tyler told me about the program, the kids and I went online and saw all the children who could participate this year," Mrs. Mahaffey said. "By the end of the evening we had picked out the children we wanted to host. I immediately wanted to do it."

Mrs. Stom, 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," she said. "Once they are past a certain age, they are just sort of overlooked by potential adoptive parents."

Online profiles of the children give basic information about them, including what they want for Christmas.

"A lot of them just said they wanted to have families," Mrs. Mahaffey said. "It was really sad. I think it got to our kids, too, when they realized how simple some of these kids' wishes were."

The Mahaffeys chose Stepan.

"He's so funny and loving," Mrs. Mahaffey said. "He'll just run up to me and blurt out all these words -- in Russian, of course -- throw his arms around me and smile."

Russia has about 700,000 orphans, Mrs. Stom said.

"When they turn 16, they have to leave the orphanage," she said. "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 New Horizons program is designed to give orphans -- ages 8-15 -- a taste of American culture and to introduce them to the love of Christ and an American family at Christmastime.

"We want to let them know that there is hope," Mrs. Stom said. "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 host family pays for the child's visa and airfare, chaperones and a pediatrician. The children are screened to determine whether they can handle the visit physically and emotionally.

"They've got to be pretty brave," Mr. Stom 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."

LEARN MORE

For information on New Horizons For Children, visit newhorizonsforchildren.org.