When I was a teenager, I occasionally babysat for a couple of girls, Tracy and Kerry Rankin, one carrot top, one white blonde. They had the palest skin I’d ever seen. Mostly I remember their knobby elbows and knees. I couldn’t envision them as adults. We didn’t keep in touch.
A few years ago I got a message from their mother. They were all coming to the Outer Banks for a family reunion. Would I stop by?
When I walked into their rental cottage two gorgeous women, one redhead, one blonde, greeted me with huge, beautiful smiles. My mouth fell open. They were tall and graceful, with glowing skin.
The house rang with the sound of cousins laughing and jumping off bunk beds. Tracy, the redhead, had three children. Kerry had adopted four children from a Russian orphanage—which is the reason for this story.
It’s a tale of dreams dashed, redrawn, and realized.
Kerry met Dave Lobdell at the Holloman Air Force base in New Mexico. She was a civilian contractor and he a Navy pilot. They first got together on a sunny afternoon and had a wonderful time. Finally Kerry announced, “I’ve got to go. I need to change the oil in my motorcycle.”
She was tall, athletic, and well-grounded. He was tall, athletic, and not averse to riding on the back of her motorcycle. They were both devoted Christians. They married in 1996 and began moving around the world with Dave’s Navy assignments.
They had reached Australia when they finally gave up hope of having their own children. A private adoption fell through when the birth mother decided to keep the baby. They had wanted a big family. Now that seemed out of reach. Still, they began researching international adoption agencies. At the time, Russia was one of the most open countries for adopting.
“When you’re trying to adopt,” Dave said, “it becomes an obsession. You spend all your money and all your time trying to get a child. And then you get the child, and it can become a little tyrant,” spoiled by too much attention. They didn’t want that. Their solution was to adopt not one but two Russian kids.
In the Lobdell household, August 16, 2004, is known as Gotcha Day—the date Kerry and Dave became the parents of two brothers, Rowan, twenty-eight months, and Christopher, six months. They took the boys home to Germany, where Dave was then stationed. Neither child had ever heard English.
There were some adjustment glitches, but nothing that couldn’t be overcome. Perhaps the most unexpected moment was when they introduced the boys to a tape of Russian folk lullabies. “We wanted to maintain their cultural connection,” Kerry said, “When we put the music on, Rowan was in the kitchen. He backed into a corner with a panicky look on his face. Then he ran upstairs and hid.”
Russian music, or any hint of the culture, made Rowan fearful that he would be taken back to the orphanage. “If someone tried to speak Russian to him,” Kerry said, “he’d just turn his face away.”
The family moved next to Los Angeles. In 2007 Kerry and Dave returned to Russia to adopt two more children. When they arrived at the orphanage, three-year-old Nika met them with a big grin. The daughter of a drug-addicted prostitute, she and her siblings had often been left without food or care, sometimes for days. “She walked right up to me, smiling,” Dave said. “Right up to me. Then she pulled back her hand and smacked me in the face.”
“She was tough,” Kerry said. “She was playing with some other children, and there were five balls in the room. After a few minutes Nika had control of all five.”
The Lobdells were also planning to adopt a little boy named Viktor. But the orphanage staff told them they were mistaken. They were slated only to adopt Nika.
Thus began a nightmare adoption process, in which Kerry and Dave confronted hurdle after hurdle, as well as a visa mix-up. You do not ever want to find yourself in Russia with a visa mix-up. “I kissed the ground, literally, when we got back to LAX,” Kerry said. Viktor was with them.
A few months later Dave left for a tour of duty at sea, leaving Kerry alone with the children for seven months.
When I met the family in 2012, eight-year-old Nika politely showed me a book about seashells, smiling shyly as she tucked a piece of hair behind her ear.
I know lots of adoptive parents. I chose to write about Lobdells not just because of their generous hearts or their astounding capacity for patience and love—though I greatly admire those. Despite the hardships the children would have faced if left in the orphanage—hunger, deprivation, and possibly prostitution for Nika—Kerry and Dave believe they’re the ones who have been rescued.
“We’re doing this for ourselves,” Dave insisted. Indeed, he seemed surprised that I might think otherwise. “This is what we always wanted—a big family. In a way, we’re being selfish by taking so many children.”
When we reshape our goals and desires so that fulfilling them improves the lives of others, we practice Seva at the highest level. Is there anything better?