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A Born Nurturer Does It Her Way

Ukraine: Svetlana Bondareva adopted 15 orphans. Six of them are disabled.


KHARKIV, Ukraine — When she was 8, the girl's future seemed like a closed book. She would spend her life lying or sitting, unable to move, in a provincial town's home for the disabled.

Then, one day in 1992, something incredible happened. A young woman came and took away her best friend, also 8.

Distressed, the girl, whose name was Sveta, begged the woman, Svetlana Bondareva, to rescue her too.

"I was shocked, to be honest," recalled Bondareva, explaining that Sveta had one arm and no legs. "She couldn't move. I was not sure she'd ever be able to walk at all."

Bondareva grew up in the Soviet Union, where disabilities and adoption were both highly stigmatized. They still are in most former Soviet republics. But Bondareva, a large, soft-spoken woman with a benign smile, is extraordinary.

She adopted a large group of disabled and abandoned children whose lives otherwise would have been bleak and oppressive.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the number of orphans and abandoned children in the former U.S.S.R. has risen sharply. There are now 700,000 in Russia alone, more than in the entire Soviet Union at the end of World War II, which claimed more than 20 million Soviet lives.

In Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, the long, tough transition to a market economy has incurred a significant social cost: unemployment, alcohol abuse and crime. Welfare agencies are alarmed by the sheer numbers of orphaned and abandoned children. The latter's parents are often alcoholics or in jail.

Bondareva was 22 when she confronted her dilemma about whether to take in Sveta. By then, she had already adopted six children, three of them disabled.

She did go back to collect Sveta, and that same day took home two other children. But that wasn't the end. So far, she has rescued 15 children, six with disabilities.

Sveta is now 17. She is mobile with the help of artificial limbs. She loves to read novels and poems, feed the family pets and teach her younger siblings. And she wants a job in the medical field.

The idea of Bondareva, a 32-year-old with a negligible income, adopting 15 children would be unthinkable in the West--and is controversial here too. But in Ukraine and Russia, the children she chose--mostly disabled or well beyond toddler age--had little other chance to be adopted.

She Chose Children Over Her Boyfriend

Bondareva feels her burden. Before she made her first adoption, her boyfriend told her to choose between him and the child. They broke up, and she has stopped thinking of marriage.

"I have never met the kind of person who could devote all his life to the children," she said.

A religious woman, she shrugs off the notion that she has done something remarkable.

"It is really hard to say what pushed me to start it all--probably because I love children very much," she said. "The reason I have so many children is that I want to help more and more of them."

In building her large and loving family, Bondareva had to push against tradition. Child-care authorities in the northeastern city of Kharkiv are highly critical because she shunned the preferred model in which foster parents are paid state salaries to care for seven to 10 children.

Although she would receive nine times more money under that system, Bondareva rejected it because her children would have had to move into hostels at 16 to 18 years of age.

"As an expert, I do not understand her," said Svetlana Gorbunova-Ruban, the official in charge of orphans and abandoned children in the Kharkiv administration. "It's quite evident that financially she cannot bring up such a large number of children. It is like a monastery."

However, Bondareva never had a problem getting approval from local adoption committees, and she only once ran into opposition from an orphanage official. That was because she was single and the children would have no father.

"I told them that in an orphanage, children have no family at all," she recalled. She won the argument.

There is an air of comfortable chaos in the Bondareva household. The children eat meals in two sittings around a small table that occupies almost all of the tiny kitchen's floor space.

Her oldest, Natasha, has married and left home. All 12 daughters and three sons, ages 2 to 21, radiate confident energy. Their rambling apartment is crammed with dogs, cats, toys, bird cages, posters, fish tanks, books and athletic equipment.

The girls love to do one another's hair in elaborate styles. On family walks, the children look out for one another, singing out when a car approaches, calling to the younger ones not to stray or chiding one another for getting dirty.

They have soaring ambitions, planning to get jobs as lawyers, medical workers or systems analysts. They study hard, and the six disabled children are capable of looking after themselves. Bondareva believes that most will find jobs and that all will live independently.

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