Rita Allan is a biology teacher in the Howard County school system and was a biologist for 20 years before that, so when she learned that the Colombian boy who would be visiting her family likes science and nature, she took special note of their shared interest.
Still, she and her husband, Steve, chose to keep their expectations low when they signed on with Kidsave International to host Duvan, an 11-year-old orphan, in their Columbia home for just over four weeks this summer.
The couple, who have no children and have been awaiting the call to care for a child since becoming licensed foster parents in December 2009, didn't want to set themselves up for disappointment. But it turned out that such emotional safeguards weren't necessary.
"It's been such a joy," she said after Duvan had spent just four days with the couple. "He's always helpful and very appreciative. His presence here is enriching our lives."
Duvan is one of 36 kids age 8 to 14 to arrive in the United States on July 3 from Bogota. The orphans, all older and therefore harder to find adoptive families for, are on what might be deemed the ultimate summer vacation, leaving behind lives spent in institutions or foster homes. In America, the children spend time with families that either adopt them or work to find them permanent homes.
The Summer Miracles program has been successful in its 12-year history, said Terry Baugh, president and co-founder of Kidsave, the nonprofit international organization that runs it. Organizers say their mission is to facilitate adoptions for children, an approach that flips the conventional wisdom of finding children for families.
As part of its agreement with the Colombian government, Kidsave is not allowed to publicly identify the children by using their last names.
Of the more than 1,700 kids who have traveled from Colombia, Russia and Sierra Leone since 1999 for summer visits of four to six weeks, 85 percent have found "forever families," Baugh said. There are also Weekend Miracles visitation programs in place in Los Angeles and Washington.
"We estimate there are 30 million children out there without a mother or father," she said. UNICEF has estimated there are 463 million kids who have only one parent.
"By bringing these kids here to meet families, we hope to solve the orphan crisis and build permanency on a worldwide basis," said Baugh, a self-described "serial adopter" who has rescued four Russian children from institutional warehousing since 1993. "Having them visit takes the fear out of the equation for everybody."
This summer, nine Colombian orphans are staying with families in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia area. The remaining children are visiting California, Iowa, and the Connecticut-New Jersey-New York area.
Sarah Widman, who, with her husband Ryan, is hosting Andres, 9, at their Hickory Ridge home, said she keeps "waiting for a meltdown" from their young visitor since he's so far away from everything he knows, but it never comes.
"There have been no acclimating issues at all," she said. "We did meet each other via Skype [online video calling system] a week before he came, but it's still a leap of faith on both sides."
The Columbia couples, who met through Kidsave, have slightly different priorities: the Allans are hosting in hopes of adopting, and the Widmans are working to find a permanent family for Andres. Both love kids and are thrilled to take part in the unique program, they say.
The Allans attended their first meeting April 20 after a friend told them about Kidsave. It's been a whirlwind relationship, culminating two months later in Duvan's visit.
"We were a bit behind the others who were already working with a social worker," Rita Allan said of that initial session. "But we'd already had a home study [as approved foster parents] and within a week they had matched us with Duvan."
The Widmans had hosted weekend events the past two summers for Kidsave but are hosting a child this summer for the first time.
"It's been an absolute pleasure and really a lot of fun," Ryan Widman said of the new experience. "These kids are extremely resilient, and they always have smiles on their faces."
Neither Duvan nor Andres have had to fight off the summer doldrums that American kids often face when school is on hiatus.
In just over a week, Duvan has learned to ride a bike, is taking swimming lessons with a Spanish-speaking instructor and has checked out bilingual library books. Andres is enrolled in a two-week summer camp and has also enjoyed chasing the Widmans' three cats and white German shepherd.
And both boys have instinctively picked up the universal language of Wii, quickly becoming enamored of Mario and other videogame characters.
Soccer, another international "language," has been a favorite group activity, though Steve Allan said he's never been as sore as he was after a recent match. Even Ryan, who said he attended college on a soccer scholarship, had to agree that everyone wore each other out — in a good way.
Both families discuss the Spanish and English words for objects they encounter while walking their dogs, and have taken to labeling household items with index cards for quick vocabulary retrieval.
"The language barrier can be a challenge, but in some ways it has also bonded us," Ryan Widman said. "I read Andres' Spanish books aloud and he corrects me, and we've enjoyed that."
Despite the smooth sailing, Sarah Widman said she has already considered how hard it will be when the couple's time with Andres ends Aug. 3. To help increase the odds of his being adopted, the Widmans have been passing around fliers to friends at church and work to spread the news that he's looking for a home. And Rita Allan said she and Steve will have about two weeks after the children return to Bogota to decide whether to apply to adopt Duvan, a process Kidsave can facilitate with the Colombian government.
"These kids have lost their biological families through tragedy, abuse or neglect," Baugh said. "They are resilient, but they're not immune to what's happened in their lives."
She said some people don't realize they're ready to adopt until they meet the kids.
"I've seen people fall in love with a child and moved to tears by the experience since they weren't conscious of their desire," Baugh said. "It's almost a chemical reaction and it's a very human response; that's the magic of it."
Rita Allan seconds that emotion. "I never would have thought two months ago that I'd be driving around Columbia with my windows down, playing rap music for Duvan, who's really into it," she said with a laugh. "Things are going really well."
Meet the kids
To make the most of the time kids will spend in the Washington metropolitan area, events have been scheduled for interested individuals and couples to meet the kids and learn more about Kidsave.
They are: July 17, 1 p.m.-3 p.m., pool party at North Chevy Chase Swimming Pool; July 24, noon-3 p.m., crafts, games and sports at Hammond Park in North Laurel; July 28, 8 a.m.-2 p.m., fishing on a charter boat in Solomons; and July 30, 1-4 p.m. farewell event, pizza making at The Lab School in Washington. For more information, go to kidsave.org or call 202-503-3100.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times