HUNTINGTON BEACH — Her little fingers stained from wolfing down Cheetos, brown-black pigtails whipping in the ocean breeze, Jennifer Gellert has spent the whole day at Bolsa Chica State Beach with 70 or 80 other Peruvian children.
Forget bonding, though. What she really wants is to dump a cup of punch in the gray sand and watch it turn into a purple blob. Her pale Canadian mother, slathered in sun block, keeps a watchful eye on her 3 1/2-year-old, trying to ward off a big mess.
Like Kool-Aid in the sand, the knowledge is just beginning to seep in for Jennifer that she belongs to a larger group, that there are others like her: darkly exotic kids with mostly white moms and dads.
"You don't just adopt the child, you have to adopt the culture, which is why we're here," said Mary-Carol Gellert, 45. "Just like anywhere else, you can't force friendships on kids. But you can see the connection she makes with the other kids, and it's really important for her."
And that is the overriding purpose of this annual national reunion of parents of Peruvian adoptees, this year held over three days in Orange County. The loosely knit group of 750 families is growing, with participants from all over the United States and Canada.
Drawn together by the shared experience of raising children from the impoverished Third World country, the families meet each summer at different locations for a weekend of Peruvian culture, emotional support and friendship.
Several things usually happen, parents say: They swap stories--sometimes nightmares--of their adoption odysseys to Lima; they share insights about the special needs and problems of their foreign-born children, and they offer their successes at diffusing the stigmas common to adoptees of any nationality--as well as those exclusive to mixed-race families. Oh yes, and they have a blast.
This year's reunion, organized by two Southern California mothers, included a banquet at a Garden Grove Peruvian restaurant, a Disneyland trip and a huge buffet spread across the bluffs of Huntington Beach, where 300 parents and children spent a gorgeous summer day making friends.
"There is a bond between us," Gellert said simply, "that nobody else can understand."
The first reunion was four years ago among 17 Iowa families that had either met during their weeks-long adoption process in Peru or met later through word of mouth. Last year about 65 families with adopted Peruvian children met in Kansas City, Mo.
Gathered this year at a hotel near Disneyland, 70 families of about 300 people spent three days together last weekend.
Joan Ruch of Alta Loma and Jan McFarlane of South Pasadena put together this year's festivities. Ruch and her husband, Ethan, who own a mortgage business in their San Bernardino County community, are the parents of 3-year-old Anneli, whom they adopted in Peru when she was an infant. McFarlane, a former reporter who is now a USC librarian, is the mother of Miguel, 3, a boy she and her husband also adopted in Peru.
Both women share heart-wrenching stories of their adoption experiences in the Peruvian capital of Lima, although they ended happily. For McFarlane, it was having to beg for milk to feed her son because there was nowhere to buy it in a country rocked by out-of-control inflation and traumatized by Marxist terrorists.
"We discovered a country whose capital--once renowned for its beauty and sophistication--had now been brought to its knees by decades of economic and political mismanagement," she wrote in a gripping article for the newsletter, AdoptNet.
"Indian women with babies tied in shawls on their backs prowled the main thoroughfare of the affluent Lima suburb of Miraflores and held out their hands to beg for their children. I saw a little boy sleeping in a doorway with a cup by his side and a crudely lettered sign in Spanish saying, 'I'm sick. Please help me.' "
Ruch, 39, has two children by her first marriage living with her: a son, 19, and daughter, 16. Unable to give birth to more children after she and Ethan married, they decided to adopt.
Ruch said that her age then--36--seemed to pose a handicap in their efforts at public adoption, and the fact that she was Christian and Ethan was Jewish caused problems with church-based adoption organizations. They heard that Peru was the fastest foreign country from which to adopt a child, so they pursued it.
Because she had given birth twice, she understood what it must mean for a young mother to relinquish a baby.
And that understanding helped soften the pain when the Ruch's first effort to adopt failed.
Their paperwork completed with the help of an adoption agency, the couple arrived in Lima and almost immediately met their promised new infant and her birth mother, Ava Monica, 19.