OVERLAND PARK, Kan. -- From the beginning, the two boys, best friends all their lives, had a plan.
They talked it over one spring day while on a bench in a playground in Belarus, imagining how different things could be after they arrived in America.
The two, as tight as brothers, shared one dream: to have a family.
They had lived together in an orphanage as toddlers. Then, as little boys, they were carted off in a blue van to a state home for older children. There, they remained for about six years.
Oleg visited Andrei in the hospital when he had foot surgery.
Andrei tried to protect Oleg from bullies who teased him about his limp.
And now, the boys, both 12, were heading from the Ivenetsky Children’s Boarding School to the heart of America to receive free medical care. Afterward, they would fly home.
But as they sat in front of the red-brick building, down the road from a farm where horse-drawn milk wagons ambled by, the boys couldn’t help wondering if this was their big chance, maybe their only chance.
It was Andrei who turned to Oleg and asked:
“What do you think about us staying there and trying to never come back here? Maybe somehow we can be adopted.”
It was more a pipe dream than a plan.
Oleg and Andrei had only vague notions about America -- nice houses and rich people -- and knew just a few English phrases. Those were the least of their obstacles.
First, 12-year-olds don’t pick parents; adoption is a choice made by adults. And they usually choose cuddly babies, not older kids, especially those with disabilities.
Besides, Oleg and Andrei weren’t even orphans. Both had mothers who had turned them over to the state because they couldn’t care for them -- a bleak fact of life among some Eastern European families who are poor and have disabled children.
Despite the odds, the boys from Belarus held to their grand ambition.
They didn’t want to return to Ivenets, a town about 40 miles from Minsk, the capital of Belarus -- a former Soviet bloc country ravaged by radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in neighboring Ukraine.
The boys were among a dozen or so children chosen by a group called Project Restoration to receive free surgery in America.
As an infant, Oleg had polio that left him with a withered right leg and a gait almost like a hop. Andrei dragged his left leg because of cerebral palsy.
Oleg was rambunctious, baby-faced with dark caterpillar brows and wire-rim glasses, the kind of kid who bounds into a room in a noisy whirlwind.
Andrei was quiet, with watery green eyes and blond hair, just seven months older than Oleg but almost like a big brother, able to calm his friend with a gentle pat on the arm.
At Ivenetsky, they lived with about 180 kids, four to a room, all ages, wondering if there would be enough to eat. Andrei tried to run away once, but didn’t get far.
They had seen kids leave and wondered what would happen if one of them got lucky.
“What if you get adopted and not me?” Andrei asked once.
“If it happens,” Oleg replied, “I will come back and get you. It would not be fair for my best friend to be left behind.”
On a June day, they boarded a plane together, secretly hoping for a one-way trip.
“All I wanted to be was a normal kid, live in a normal house and go to a normal school,” Andrei recalled. “I thought to myself ... maybe Americans could let me stay.”
In America, Andrei quickly picked up a smattering of English. Just a few months after arriving in this Kansas City suburb, he asked a bold question:
“Will you adopt me?”
Already a mother of five, Jan Dieckhaus tried to let him down gently. “We can’t,” she said. “But we hope somebody else will.”
Andrei’s planned six-week stay with the Dieckhauses -- his host family -- turned into seven months when his surgery was delayed. But there were problems.
Andrei hoarded bread and apples, hiding them in his room. He didn’t want to change clothes or attend school. Almost every request received the same response: “Ne khochu” -- Russian for “I don’t want to.”
For Andrei, life in America was bewildering.
There were all the comforts he could only dream of -- a well-stocked refrigerator, new clothes, a sprawling home -- but the rules were difficult and so were the relationships.
“I really didn’t know about love very much since I lived in an orphanage with a whole bunch of kids,” he said. “I love Oleg and always did and I cared about him, but I really didn’t know to love a mom, dad and sisters. I didn’t understand how families worked. I thought it was simple.”
Andrei moved on, living with seven families. Last summer when his medical visa was about to expire and he didn’t have a home, Jan’s brother, Tim Dykman, a board member for Project Restoration, called her.
Would she and Mike adopt Andrei? Jan almost dropped the phone.
She worried that sending Andrei back would destroy him, but she wondered if she had energy for another child.
“I need some time,” she said.
She and her family began visiting with Andrei, not telling him that they were considering adoption.
In the three years that had elapsed, Andrei had matured. He understood English; he grasped the give-and-take of family life.
Andrei officially joined the family one day before his 16th birthday.
He is getting A’s and B’s in school and will be an usher next year at the wedding of one of his new sisters. But he kept his birth name and thinks about his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was 8 (his father’s whereabouts are unknown).
One day, he hopes to return to Belarus to talk with her.
“Hi, my name is Andrei, do you recognize me?” he imagines saying. “She could look at me very carefully and she could realize that I look like my real father, but if she wouldn’t, I would say, ‘My name is Andrei Sergei Kamikov and I came here from the United States to find you.’ ... I’m not going to ... be upset for what she has done.”
Andrei has found a place where he belongs. “This is my family,” he said, “and they’re going to be my family the rest of my life.”
While Andrei was looking for a home, Oleg Alexandrov was hoping for the same.
Oleg was enrolled in a different suburban Kansas City school and, although he could speak English, he lagged far behind his seventh-grade classmates.
Enter Mark McMillan, a teacher called in to help.
At the end of their first meeting, Oleg shook his hand and poured on the charm.
“You seem like a real nice guy,” he told McMillan. The wheels were already turning in the boy’s head. “I wondered if he had kids,” Oleg said.
McMillan began taking Oleg on outings: to a Saturday morning bowling league for kids with disabilities, miniature golf, dinner.
Four families had welcomed Oleg into their house while he underwent surgery -- a brace was fitted on his right leg -- but none wanted to adopt him.
McMillan, 36 and single, had no plans to become a father either. “But,” he said, “there was something about him that captured my heart.”
McMillan learned that Oleg was born 2 1/2 months premature and, the day after he left the hospital, his father was killed in a bicycle accident. Oleg developed polio in his right leg when he was 9 months old.
His mother, struggling to rear two boys, placed him in an orphanage.
Although Oleg said little about the orphanage, McMillan wondered once if he was reenacting bad memories when he watched Oleg slashing at weeds with a stick, muttering, “You don’t deserve to eat.”
By spring 2001, Oleg was pressing to be adopted.
McMillan talked with his minister, then made a big move: He bought a home, took Oleg there and said they could be father and son.
They quickly established their own routines: pizza-and-movie Friday nights, bike rides, walks. But there have been trying times too.
Oleg has thrown tantrums, tossed things from windows, skipped classes and been suspended.
“We’ve had our days when things have been very overwhelming, but
Psychologists say it isn’t unusual for children from some overseas orphanages to fear rejection, question authority, and have problems learning and trusting others. This can happen in kids as young as 4 or 5, and years of therapy may be needed.
Oleg has seen a counselor, and McMillan says that helped tremendously.
Oleg writes his mother, who keeps him informed about his brother, Sasha, who is two years older.
“I really, really love you,” Oleg wrote in one letter. “Thank you for allowing me to stay.”
In another letter, his mother, calling him Olezhka, wrote: “It is impossible for me to do what they are doing for you ... but don’t forget about us.”
At the adoption ceremony two weeks ago, Oleg wore a silver cross that his mother sent him.
Oleg took McMillan’s name three days before his 16th birthday.
“This is your moment,” the judge said, looking down at Oleg, who turned to grin at Andrei, sitting in the front row, clutching a camera. (The Small World Adoption Foundation of Missouri worked for years to secure approval from Belarus so that both boys could join families here.)
Andrei and Oleg’s journey had ended just as they dreamed -- they have families and live just 15 minutes apart.
“I’m sure we’ll talk about this years from now and look at the pictures,” Andrei said. “He’ll never fail to be my best friend.”
Oleg embraced his father.
Then the two boys hugged.
The cameras clicked.
Sometimes life does go according to plan.