By The Associated Press
BRANDON – Kristina, 14, and Karen, 12, look just like any other girls their age at first.
The casual observer would never know what a miracle the girls, who were once Ukrainian orphans, are to their adopted parents, Tim and Lynn Loecher of Brandon.
Through a program called Joyful Journey, Tim and Lynn have opened their home to more Ukrainian orphans who will stay in Brandon for 23 days. The Loechers hope they will each have miracle stories like Kristina and Karen’s.
The Loechers had been involved in a church program where they would pray for Ukrainian orphans. The first two years, the little girls they prayed for were adopted.
The next year they prayed for a boy, who was not adopted. He committed suicide just weeks after he was released on to the street from the orphanage at age 16.
“I swore that I just wasn’t doing this again, it’s just too hard,” Lynn said.
But the next year, Lynn was sick and stayed home on the Sunday that the missionary came to give out the Ukrainian orphans’ prayer cards.
Tim brought home two that day – what they thought were a boy and a girl. They were surprised to find out they were both girls.
“They had just shaved Kristina’s head, and she had a boy’s uniform on,” Tim said.
Lynn said when she was looking at the pictures, she felt God saying, “Go and get them, they’re yours.”
Tim said he also felt God leading him.
“I saw the two of them together and knew they were supposed to be part of our family,” Tim said. “The overwhelming thing that struck me again and again, was that whenever I’d ask God for a reason to do this, the answer was, ‘Why not?’”
“Every excuse I came up with was a selfish excuse,” he said.
And every financial hang-up that came along, God had an answer. At one point, they were $16,000 short of what they needed, so Tim decided that in an act of faith, they should cash in an account that they were saving for retirement.
Shortly after that, as part of President Barack Obama’s stimulus, they were sent a $13,500 refund for each of their children in what used to be a tax credit. That was just one example of how faith paid off.
There were others.
When Tim and Lynn adopted the girls in 2010 – a process that required staying eight weeks in the Ukraine – it was the first time the girls had seen each other in three years.
Karen, age 7 at the time, had awakened one day to find that Kristina had been taken to another orphanage, and the girls were not even allowed to say goodbye.
“It just felt like I was the only one that was in the orphanage, like I didn’t have a sister anymore,” said Karen.
The Loechers said when the two girls were reunited, there were hugs and tears and giggles all around.
Through the Loechers’ hard work, the two were saved from a system that turns orphans out at age 16. Of those orphans, 70 percent of the boys turn to lives of crime, and 60-70 percent of the girls become prostitutes.
Many, like the boy the Loechers prayed for, commit suicide.
That’s not the only thing about America that makes life much better, the girls said. Kristina said it’s in the little things, like being able to play basketball outside.
“Or reading or talking to friends,” she said. “Back there it’s just boring.”
There weren’t many things to play with at the orphanage where Kristina stayed, and in 30 years adopted out just three girls.
Karen did not hesitate to talk freely about what she considered the biggest improvement from her home country.
“It sounds kind of embarrassing, but it’s the bathrooms,” said Karen, describing the outside bathroom holes in the ground.
The Loechers initially worked on a plan to get many families involved, and possibly host as many as 50 kids, but the deadlines were flying by.
“When you call the consulate, you don’t talk to anyone in the consulate, you get run around and around,” Tim said. “Our prayer then was, ‘We need to talk to a live body.”‘
The next morning, a representative got through to someone who was able to tell them exactly the steps to follow. That sped the process up by days, possibly weeks.
“In two days we went from the local orphanage level all the way to national Ukraine government approvals every step of the way,” Tim said.
“That is unheard of,” Lynn said.
Now, it’s just up to God to open the hearts of families who might be interested in adopting the children, the Loechers said.
“It was clear to me that it wasn’t about me,” Tim said of the process of adopting Kristina and Karen. “We both said, ‘OK, God, we surrender to that, that’s fine. We can do this.”‘
“I saw the two of them together and knew they were supposed to be part of our family.”