090427 ADOPTION2

090427 ADOPTION2 - TON/APRDOUG BENZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHERTONAWANDA, N.Y. - Sandy Paul, left, with Wendy Paul, in the North Tonawanda High School Library, Monday, April 27, 2009.

When a member of the North Tonawanda High School staff brings a new baby into the world, colleagues flock to the school library for cake and to give their regards.

Amid the bookshelves April 27 — just after the last bell — the usual pink or blue motifs were replaced with red, white and blue as two veteran teachers welcomed their three newly adopted children to the United States.

“We traditionally have little baby showers, but in this case we wanted a meet and greet,” said Spanish teacher and North Tonawanda United Teachers Union President Linda Roach, who helped organize the event.

About 50 other faculty members and even a few students dropped by to eat, congratulate the pair on their newfound parenthood and gaze at a photo slide show of their recent trip to Colombia.

Until just a few weeks ago, Juan Carlos, 14, his sister Wendy, 12, and 11-year-old Lucia were living with foster parents in their native city of Bogota.

“We’ve been friends for over 20 years and colleagues,” said social studies teacher Sarah Hansgate, who adopted Lucia.

“So we thought it would be a support system — we want to raise them as cousins.”

Hansgate and her long-time friend and co-worker Sandy Paul, who appropriately enough teaches Spanish, returned from a month-long sojourn to the South American nation about as many weeks ago, staying overseas while the adoption process was completed.

“We loved Colombia,” Paul said. “We took the children to see some beautiful things in their own country.”

While the images of the trip flashed on the library’s computer screens, a picture of a civilized western nation steeped in culture took shape. But the relatively modern cityscape would likely give way to a more baleful picture for the children, who are approaching the age where they could no longer be cared for by the government.

Time was running out for Juan Carlos; because of his age and the lack of continuing programs for foster children in Colombia, the young man might soon have been turned loose. In Colombia, turning 16 means life on your own.

“In another year, he’d probably be on the streets,” Hansgate said. “Definitely these children needed homes or there wouldn’t be anything for them.”

All three children only speak Spanish, but they managed more than the average number of “thank yous” as some of the adults brought them treats and other snacks from a banquet table set up on one end of the room.

Last summer, both women took part in a program run through Baker Victory Services of Lackawanna, a child care agency founded in part by Father Nelson Baker but which used to be run as an orphanage after opening 1854.

Director of adoption Judy O’Mara said in 1994 that the center expanded to include adoption services, including an early partnership with FANA, a Colombian adoption agency.

Since 2000, groups of children are invited to Western New York in the summer months, staying with local families and getting a feel for the area.

“These are older children,” O’Mara said. “Once they get over a certain age, there’s relatively little likelihood that they’ll be adopted, so the idea is to bring them here. Families have a chance to get to know the children, fall in love with the children and go on to provide a permanent home for them — most of the time they adopt them.”

In fact, she said of the 14 kids sent to live with local families in July, 11 found a permanent home.

O’Mara said roughly 17,300 kids from other countries were adopted by U.S. families last year — most of them less than 6 years old.

While another 125,000 children native to this country are available for adoption now, she pointed out the process for adopting children here is much different.

“I think that one of the issues always has been that it’s more of an exacting process,” she said.

Those looking to adopt choose kids from other countries for a range of other reasons, she said, and the two local teachers may be a good example of some of the reasons.

“We’re both high school teachers,” Hansgate said. “Sandy being a Spanish teacher, I’m a social studies teacher, so we’ve always been interested in other cultures ... just some of the legalities with the open adoption that I wasn’t comfortable, like a parent being able to come back into a child’s life after adoption. That was my concern. Also, just the idea that these children really needed homes ... the puzzle pieces just came together for me. That’s what worked for me.”

The children were nervous as they prepared for their first day of school just two days after the party.

“My kids start school tomorrow, so they’re very nervous,” Paul, who had lost her voice after hours of speaking in two languages, said at the time.

Mainly, it’s the language barrier that has the youngsters worried.

“Its been a process ... it’s a lot of initially single words,” Hansgate said. “Sandy’s been a huge help, obviously ... what they do in the school now, it’s an immersion program so they’ll be in an English-speaking class but they’ll be pulled out with an English as a second language teacher.”

Lucia will be entering fourth grade, Wendy fifth and Nicholas (Juan Carlos) is enrolled in seventh — each one school year behind their chronological age, a measure intended to increase their chances of academic success in light of the language barrier.

“We’ve been able to share the experience,” Hansgate said. “That’s been a huge advantage for both of us, just sharing in the process and sharing the burden of having three children involved.”

Contact reporter Neale Gulley

at 693-1000, ext. 114.

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