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Russian Orphans Enjoy Comforts of a Home Game

December 05, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

One little boy gets hives when he eats apples, and still he eats apples all day. One little boy says "no hamburger" and then a minute later is chowing down on an In-N-Out burger and smiling at the same time.

The simplest things bring the biggest smiles. A hug. A tuck into bed at night. A pat on the head.

And "fut-bol."

Thirteen Russian orphans have come to Southern California to play soccer. "Fut-bol," they say in their little-boy voices. They call themselves the Russian Rockets. They are 10, 11 and 12 years old and they have been brought here to play soccer and maybe to find a family.

The Nightlight Foundation, a Brea agency that facilitates Americans interested in adopting Russian children, with help from Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (a $5,000 donation helped offset $8,000 in airplane fares), Knotts Berry Farm, SCORE American Soccer Company and American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) has brought the 13 boys from St. Petersburg for a two-week stay.

The boys have played in a Hacienda Heights AYSO tournament, have played two matches against Fullerton Ranger youth teams, have an exhibition match against a Laguna Niguel AYSO team and another today against a Cerritos AYSO team. They've had Thanksgiving dinner and discovered the wonders of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and even pumpkin soup. They've toured Universal Studios and on Monday will go to Knotts Berry Farm.

They've received T-shirts and new soccer uniforms. They've experienced the joys of shin guards--"They'd never used shin guards," says Rhonda Jarema, a host for three Rockets and the adoptive parent of four Russian girls--and nearly burst out of their shirts upon receiving a backpack filled with Power Ranger toys and comic books. They've learned to say "hot dog" and "Snickers," "thank you very much" and "please," but their favorite thing about the United States? "Fut-bol," each says shyly.

It turns out that when little boys from Russia play soccer against little boys from Fullerton on a chilly Thursday night, it is all about the game.

After a less-skilled Ranger team had been beaten, 4-1, on Tuesday night, the Rangers brought a collection of better players from different talent levels on Thursday. Though of the same age range as the Rockets, the Rangers were bigger, stronger. "And," one Fullerton parent said, "you notice that our kids are just fatter." The Russian boys, though almost all an inch or two shorter and 10 to 20 pounds thinner, make up for lack of bulk with quickness and crisp, organized passing.

The game ends in a 1-1 tie, and if words can't be exchanged, the Rangers present T-shirts and soccer key chains to their guests. "I tried to say 'Good game,' 13-year-old Eder Rivas of the Rangers says, "but I don't think they understood."

Brad Downing and David Piraino, both 11, agree that the Rockets "are small but they're really fast and they pass really good five or 10 yards up the field."

The Rockets, accompanied by Coach Leonid Kuchin and Andrey Vlasov, a 17-year-old translator who says he learned English and soccer in school in St. Petersburg, have been housed, in twos and threes, by families who have previously adopted Russian children.

Ron Stoddart, founder of Nightlight, says some of the boys' parents have died and some boys have parents considered unsuitable guardians. It's mainly, Stoddart says, "because of alcohol abuse. It's a huge problem and often results in the abuse of the children."

Through Vlasov, the interpreter, Kuchin says that despite what the boys say about enjoying the soccer the most, "what they very much love is being part of a family for a time."

Jarema, whose daughters Nastia, 20; Katya, 14; Veronica, 12, and Krystina, 9, have served as translators as well as sisters to 12-year-old Maxim Popov, 11-year-old Alexander Volkov and 10-year-old Alexander Shugaev, says that the idea of the soccer tour evolved after the adoption agency had donated some soccer equipment to the three teams, two boys' and a girls', at this particular St. Petersburg orphanage.

It would be great, Jarema says, if someone who has come to watch the soccer games feels it would be something wonderful to adopt one of the boys. None of them have been homesick since their Nov. 24 arrival because, Kuchin says, "how could they? It is the difference of living in a family and an orphanage."

As the game ends Thursday night at Cal State Fullerton, Rangers, wearing blue and yellow, mix with Rockets, wearing red and black, around a cooler filled with soft drinks. Words can't be shared, but cans of Coke and Orange Fanta can be. A picture is taken, Rangers on one side of a homemade welcome banner, Rockets on the other. Except one Rocket, little Alosha Smorodin, 11, with red hair and the ability to float pinpoint passes that made the Rangers stop and stare sometimes. He sneaks over to the Rangers' side and kneels on the grass between two boys wearing the blue and yellow. There is a Ranger arm on each of Alosha's skinny shoulders.

Everybody smiles. Everybody counts. One. Two Three. Cheese.


Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address:

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