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by Aaron Shulman, AARP VIVA, September 2008
Five frustrating, enlightening, and ultimately rewarding months teaching at a Guatemalan orphanage filled my life last year. Once back home in the United States, I couldn't stop thinking about the children in Casa Guatemala. I clicked constantly through digital photographs from the orphanage and lingered over the farewell cards the kids had made for me. Then, 13 months after I’d left, I found a way to return to Guatemala—via Scranton, Pennsylvania, and three of my former charges.
Higinio, Juan, and Luís—brothers ages 7, 9, and 11, respectively—were the three boys I’d grown closest to at the orphanage. In the fall of 2003, the National Police found them alone and scavenging in the Guatemala City dump, where they had been abandoned. Higinio, the youngest, was only two and half. As with all the kids, I’d battled with them when they misbehaved, but we four shared an especially close bond. Higinio would call me to talk before he went to sleep. Juanito crawled into my bed if he had a stomachache.
And Luís always left me deeply humbled when he’d share a rare treat he’d somehow secreted away. When I departed from the orphanage, it was with the hope of seeing them again soon—this time in the United States, where they were being adopted.
In January, the boys joined their new family in Scranton. I’d met their father, Gregg Loboda, a 43-year-old vice president for systems at Prudential Financial, when he visited the orphanage during my stay. We’d kept in touch as he and his wife, Mary Jo, toiled through Guatemala’s adoption system. Now, Higinio, Juan, and Luís are part of an American home, but one that is anything but ordinary. The family already has eight other children, ages 14 to 24, including seven who are adopted from Russia.
“Hola, Aaron Bombon!” That hello—using my orphanage nickname—greeted me the first time I called the boys. “How’s your family?” I ask. “How’s school?”
“Bien,” each responds enthusiastically, passing the phone on to the next brother. They sound relaxed and happy, though still new to talking on the phone. And from the sounds of a videogame in the background, it is clear they are already hooked. Before I say goodbye, Higinio gets on the phone and, in heavily accented English, asks, “Hello, how are you?”
As Gregg and I plan my visit, he tells me about the boys. “We’re all still getting used to each other,” he says. “They’re not used to the hustle and bustle of the U.S.” But they are eating well and they love the snow, he adds.
Rather than putting all their resources toward raising a conventional nuclear family, the Lobodas have dedicated themselves to a wider idea of family.
“Any little bit we can do is more than they’ll have [otherwise],” says Gregg. And the process of meeting each child and getting to know them is very special, he adds. “You just know. It’s very similar to falling in love.”
By the time my June visit arrives, life in the nine-bedroom, eight-bathroom farmhouse where the family lives outside Scranton has settled down. “I’m surprised by how quickly they’ve assimilated,” Mary Jo, a former editor who at 43 is now a full-time homemaker, tells me before the boys show up. “It’s a testament to who they are. I think because they adjusted so quickly, it made our adjustment easier.”
Higinio, Juan, and Luís saunter in a few minutes later—they had to clean their room first. Luís, then Juan, give me smiley hugs. Higinio follows shyly, not quite sure how to act.
Before the visit, I had worried that the time we’d spent together had been more real for me than it was for them, but as soon as we were outside playing it was as though no time at all had passed. “You don’t know how to play soccer, vos,” Luís, the tough-guy and oldest brother teases. “I’m the best,” Juan shouts back, kicking the ball past me while Higinio, the youngest, calls out, “Aaron Bombon, watch me kick the ball!”
At breakfast, I watch the boys eat using table manners I’d never seen at the orphanage. “Of all our kids, they were the least domesticated,” Gregg chuckles. “They had absolutely no domestic skills.” Over eggs, the boys argue about who has the best English (Luís to Juanito: “You write the best, but I speak the best.”), and get a kick out of repeating how Juan and Higinio’s names are pronounced by their teachers (“John” and “Gee-gee-nio”).
Their English is still choppy, but they have no trouble expressing themselves and they understand nearly everything. When together, they revert to Spanish, something their parents encourage, making sure the boys have access to Spanish-language television and music.
The four of us spend the day riding bikes, bantering, playing; they regale me with stories of their latest accomplishments, and I get to know their new routines. When I ask about the best part of their new life, Juanito raises his arms in the air and exults, “¡Ahora estamos libres!” (Now we’re free!)
Later, as we play games at Chuck E. Cheese’s and go out for ice cream, I realize the truth of Juanito’s comment. At the orphanage their future was limited; in the United States, their new life opens up possibilities. Their future, their new freedom, includes the best of gifts: growing up in the warmth of their parents’ care and affection.
“They give the greatest hugs,” Mary Jo says. “Melt-your-heart hugs.”
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