Patricia Gartner wrangles from left, Karissa, 6, Annie, 3, and Mary, 2, after she gave them baths. The three girls are among five of the children living at home with Gartner and her husband, Duane. (CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle)
The day the Gartners met their son his 10 little toes were jammed into a pair of too-small shoes. His jacket was pink, a hand-me-down whose color didn’t matter because it shielded him from the cold.
His parents rushed to buy his first gifts — a blue hat and pair of black boots that fit. “He was in heaven,” said his father, Duane Gartner.
They scooped up their son, Christian, and days later, came back for his twin sister, Karissa. Accustomed to eating one bowl of soup a day, Karissa was unable to digest food for three years after she settled in America, according to the couple.
The twins, barely past the age of 1, were adopted from a crowded Ukrainian orphanage.
They weighed about 18 pounds each.
“We walked into the orphanage and we were overwhelmed. There were 136 kids in one small building,” Gartner said.
“It broke your heart.”
The Clovis couple had adopted twice before.
But their trip from the plains of eastern New Mexico to poverty-stricken Ukraine marked their first international adoption. Two more followed and a third is pending.
“We’re really prairie dwellers. We are not world travelers at all,” said Patricia Gartner from her spacious, brick home in Clovis, where her two youngest adopted children — Annie Kate, 3 1/2, from Siberia, Russia, and Mary Elizabeth, 2 1/2, from Borovichi, Russia — pitter-patter around, giggle and converse in a melt of Russian and English.
Clutching a doll in her arms, little Annie Kate coos to it in Russian and English — much like her adopted mother did with her.
Patricia Gartner studied with a tutor to learn the language of her children.
“I tried to think, ‘How would I feel if I were suddenly taken away from what I knew and put on a strange plane? I would want someone to tell me, ‘Don’t worry, ‘I won’t hurt you.’ I would want to be able to hear — in my language — at least those words,” said the 50-year-old mother, her hair dyed the same light blond as her children’s.
“It’s important,” she said, “to know a little bit of that child’s comfort language.”
Each year, Americans adopt thousands of orphans from other countries. In 2006, 3,706 immigrant visas were issued to Russian orphans coming to the United States, according to statistics from the U.S. State Department.
Statistics show the country has ranked in the top three for number of American adoptions since 1999, close behind or ahead of China and Guatemala, depending on the year.
Yet, hundreds of thousands still languish in orphanages in Russia and around the world, according to the Gartners.
“Little orphans have a look of emptiness in their eyes,” Patricia Gartner said.
“You can’t help but fall in love. The ones that are left behind are never forgotten.
“All children deserve a mom and a dad,” she said.
Unable to conceive naturally, the Clovis couple made their first national adoption when they were in their 20s. They adopted newborn Kisty, who is now 29. Later, they adopted Weldon, now 25.
They also spent years trying to conceive with test-tube fertilization and were devastated by a miscarriage. Finally, their only biological son, Casey, now 13, was born.
“Children are my life,” said the mother, who owns a Clovis day care center. “Growing in our life without them seemed inappropriate.”
The Gartners’ oldest daughter, Kisty McCurter, works at the day care center with her mother. Married with children, she said she has no desire to meet her biological mother, who was pregnant with her at the age of 14.
“I ended up blessed with a good family,” McCurter said.
“I have always felt whenever you grow up and that man and woman are there when you wake up in the morning, there when you ride a bike for the first time ... That’s a parent.”
McCurter was an adult when her parents turned to international adoption. This time, the adoption was sparked by their son Casey’s yearning for siblings, Patricia Gartner said.
The Gartners wanted to adopt within the birth order of their existing family and finding an infant to adopt is easier in foreign countries, Duane Gartner said.
Still, adopting a child from Russia costs $20,000 to $30,000, according to the U.S. State Department. Bureaucracy, reams of paperwork and risky travel also accompany international adoptions, the Gartners said.
Despite such barriers, they feel their path to adoption was divinely ordained.
Before sealing the adoption of Christian and Karissa, Patricia Gartner remembers thinking, “God, if I am messing up, don’t let it happen.”
In the evening — when Duane Gartner returns from work at a local refrigeration company and school-aged Casey, Christian and Karissa reunite with their mother, Annie Kate and Mary Elizabeth — the Gartner household comes alive. There is homework to be done, food to be prepared (from a huge walk-in pantry), conversations to be had, games and guitars to be played.
This is the life the Gartners always wanted, they said.
“We always thought we would have a large family,” Patricia Gartner said. “We were right, but not in the traditional way.”
On the dining room table lies a photo of the child they hope to adopt by January, 2-year-old John, an orphan in Siberia.
Patricia Gartner stares at the photo; Mary Elizabeth and Annie Kate stand like shadows under her chair to catch a glimpse of their soon-to-be brother.
“John Baby, John Baby,” the little girls chant, speeding around kitchen stools, the dining room table, a floor rug.
With the adoption of John, the Gartners feel their family will be complete.
“Maybe God is going to let us off the hook and we’re going to say eight is enough,” Patricia Gartner said.