THIS HOLIDAY season will be extra special for one Terrace couple, as they get ready to celebrate both Ukrainian and Canadian festivities with their recently adopted twins from the Ukraine.
In what they say was a life changing experience, Debbie Heldson and Chris Schooner spent seven weeks in the Ukraine working through the process required to bring seven-year-old brother and sister, Pavlo (Pasha) and Irma, home to Terrace.
“It was love at first sight,” Heldson said of the first time she met her now son and daughter at the orphanage where the children had lived for over five years.
“They are neat kids, it felt like they were looking for parents,” Schooner said.
The couple had previously completed a home study with a Canadian social worker.
They chose the Ukraine because their families have historical connections to the region, the process of adoption is a lot faster there and because at the age of 51 for Schooner and 46 for Heldson, they were past some countries’ age limitations.
The couple rented an apartment in down town Kiev, where they waited out the adoption process. It can last many weeks and be a bit of an unknown experience for many parents.
Luckily, there were friends on hand to show them the ropes. Former Terrace teachers Ted and Jeanette Ewald live in Kiev and teach at an international school in the Ukrainian capital.
“They gave us so much info and advice,” Schooner said.
The family arrived home in Canada on Sept. 24 to a flurry of gifts and family eager to meet Irma and Pasha and to help.
“Everyone is trying to make life easier for the kids,” Heldson explained. “The support we are getting is incredible.”
In fact, they said one of the biggest surprises has been meeting members of the local Ukrainian community and receiving encouragement and help from its members.
When retired pastor Peter Bruce, who does speak Ukrainian, found out about the adoption, he immediately phoned and offered his services as a translator.
“They (Irma and Pasha) need that connection with someone that still speaks the language that they know,” Bruce explained, saying the children were a bit reserved at first but are quickly coming around.
“They are really responding to the Schooners, and their love and attention and discipline,” he said.
Bruce, who is Ukrainian by heritage, has lived in Canada his whole life. He learned the language from his grandmother who never leaned to speak English.
His family moved to Canada in 1898, and because of that the Ukrainian he knows is slightly different than that of the Schooner children, being that it is over 100 years old. Modern-day Ukrainian has blended in many Russian words over the past century.
“When I say a few words they giggle at me,” Bruce said, adding that as time goes by the family is calling him to translate less and less.
Both Heldson and Schooner say the language barrier proved difficult in the beginning but that it is easing every day as the children rapidly learn English. “Just love and care, and it’s been working,” Schooner said.
They describe Pasha as a little more reserved while Irma is more out-going.
“He will be the intellect and she will be the artist,” Heldson said.
For the holidays the family will have a Canadian Christmas on Dec. 25 followed by a Ukrainian Christmas on Jan. 6.
For Ukrainian Christmas, the couple say they are just along for their first ride, as their friends in Terrace’s Ukrainian community show them what it is all about.
In the evenings the couple has been playing Ukrainian Christmas songs for the children and say that they enjoy themselves by singing along.
“We want to maintain as much of their culture as we can,” Schooner said. “It’s nice they’re getting something they know and understand.”
Irma and Pasha are now in Grade 2 at Veritas Catholic school, where Schooner said they are fitting in well. It’s nice to be downtown and hear the tiny voices of their friends calling out ‘hi Irma, hi Pasha,’ he said.