Ex-Champaign couple's foundation aids international adoptions

CHAMPAIGN – A former Champaign couple who adopted two Russian children seven years ago has established a foundation to help others adopt children from abroad.

Murray and Valerie Wise formed the Oxford Adoption Foundation in 2003 to provide low-interest loans to people seeking international adoptions.

To date, the foundation has approved 101 loan applications involving 106 children. So far, about 85 of the children have made it to the United States.

International adoption is expensive. Murray Wise, 61, said that when he and his wife adopted, typical costs ranged from $25,000 to $35,000; since then, it's risen to $35,000 to $50,000.

The Oxford Adoption Foundation offers loans of $5,000 to $10,000 per child, with zero interest due the first three years, 3 percent interest the second three years and 6 percent interest the final three years. Parents can pay off the loan at any time.

The foundation has also extended grants of $2,000 to $5,000 in cases involving international adoptions of children with special needs.

Wise, who founded the Champaign-based Westchester Group in 1986 and recently sold controlling interest in it to the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, better known as TIAA, said that in 2003 he hadn't counted on becoming a parent again.

He and Valerie, who live in Naples, Fla., already had four children – all adults – and the couple had talked "much earlier" about the idea of adopting a girl from China.

But in 2002, he received a mailing he tossed in the trash, then fished out.

It told of a group of 20 or so children coming to southwest Florida for a "camp," where prospective parents could meet them.

The mailing was seeking "host parents" who could house the kids during the camp. Wise jotted a note to his wife – "discuss" – attached it to the mailing and left it for her.

Only later did he learn that after Valerie read the mailing, she called the adoption agency. Now the agency wanted to know whether they could host 6-year-old twins.

The Wises agreed.

About 10 days later, they picked up the kids, who had just completed a 36-hour trip from St. Petersburg, Russia. The girl, Luba, and the boy, Vova, each had a plastic bag containing a toothbrush, a pair of underwear, a pair of socks and a heavy wool sweater.

The next morning – New Year's Day 2003 – Murray Wise went to Target to buy them more clothes.

After four days of exposure to the kids, who did not speak English, Wise decided to ask his wife what she thought of adopting the children, on a scale of 1 to 10.

Rating things on a 10-point scale was a regular exercise for the Wises, and Murray thought he knew what his wife would say.

He figured he was an 8.2 or 8.3, and Valerie was a 6.8. So when she told him she was a 10, he thought, "Blazes, we're in really big trouble."

Valerie Wise acknowledges it was a huge decision, "but early in my life, someone really reached out to me. I lived in a foster home for 12 years. Because of someone else helping me, I wanted to be able to help somebody else."

Besides, she said, the twins were "such neat kids."

"They spoke no English but were very polite. They made their beds in the morning, and they didn't get out of bed until you nodded at them. The children were so obedient," she said. "How could you not fall in love with these great kids?"

One catch: The twins were among six children from the same family, and all six had to be adopted the same day in the same Russian courtroom.

In addition to the 6-year-old twins, there were 5-year-old twins and two older children, a 9-year-old girl and 13-year-old boy.

Prospective parents had been found for the younger twins, but not for the older kids.

The Wises immediately sent out an e-mail to everyone they knew in Florida. One couple was interested, but one of the spouses wasn't a U.S. citizen, posing a problem.

But the Wises heard from an older couple – ages 73 and 65 – who agreed to adopt the older kids.

Murray Wise said the adoption process took eight months for him and Valerie – and they found the U.S. paperwork more difficult than the Russian paperwork.

They made a quick trip to Russia that spring to see the kids, visiting their orphanage in Nevel, a town southwest of St. Petersburg.

After hearing that a Russian judge had scolded another American couple for not giving their adopted children "American" names, the Wises decided to name their children Diana and David. The judge in that case, Murray Wise said, had claimed Russian names would hurt the kids' chance for success in the U.S.

At the orphanage, "Diana asked us a lot of tough questions," Wise said, including "When are you coming back to get us?" and "Why is it taking so long?"

In August, the Wises completed the adoption process and brought the children back to Florida. A young Russian engineer working as a restaurant manager volunteered to go to school with the children every morning for the first six months.

That was a huge help, Wise said, and it was just part of the intensive schooling and tutoring the children got.

"There has never been a one-month period where they have not had education morning, noon and night," he said.

Valerie read that it often takes five years for Russian adoptees to reach their normal grade level. David tended to be strong in math and weak in reading, while Diana was the reverse, Murray Wise said.

But The Reading Group in Champaign-Urbana was very helpful, and the Wises, who maintain a home in Savoy, returned to Illinois for the summer months.

Through testing, they learned David had dyslexia. Wise said The Reading Group helped them understand the disorder and how to address it.

With the help of a clinical psychologist and further testing, the Wises later determined that David also had a mild case of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Today Diana and David are 14 years old and in eighth grade. Diana is very interested in clothing design, and David hasn't narrowed possible career fields yet. Both are active in volleyball and basketball, and during his younger years, David played Little League baseball. He also plays soccer.

Both are in the school band, Diana playing clarinet and David the baritone horn.

Wise said the kids are very much homebodies.

"They like to be at home. They're very comfortable at home," he said.

But they're also active at school and church. Diana recently devoted more than 100 volunteer hours helping a teacher at an art center.

Wise said Diana and David get to see their older siblings at least once a year. They also enjoy the company of the Wise's grandchildren, some of whom are close to them in age.

Having kids in the house forced changes in the Wises' lifestyle. Previous to the adoption, Murray Wise was away on business 225 to 235 nights a year, and Valerie accompanied him 80 to 90 percent of the time.

After the adoption, he cut back to 140 to 150 nights a year, with his wife joining him 60 to 70 percent of the time.

Along the way, the Wises said they received help from many people, including nannies, interpreters, tutors and reading specialists.

Murray Wise said interest in international adoption is high because there's no fear that children's birth parents will pop up later to reclaim them. That's a common fear with adoptions that take place in the United States, he said.

As for the Oxford Adoption Foundation, Murray Wise said many of the applications it receives are from Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas, Iowa, New York, Colorado, California and Florida – states where several adoption agencies are based.

Originally, the focus of the foundation was on adopting children from Russia and other republics of the former Soviet Union.

Chinese adoptions became very popular in 2006 and 2007, Wise said, and now Ethiopia is getting a lot of interest from prospective parents. The foundation has also supported some adoptions from Romania, he said.

Valerie Wise said more than 700,000 children in Russian orphanages need to be adopted.

"The numbers are off the wall," she said. "We're told if they're not adopted, there's not too much hope for them after the age of 17 or 18. They become involved in other things that may not be so good for them – the boys in drugs, the girls in prostitution.

"It's like saving a child from a horrible life."

Those considering international adoption should research the geographic areas from which they hope to adopt, Valerie Wise said.

"They should be very patient because there are a lot of roller-coaster rides in the process. Once you go through that, you'll bring the child home and be on a honeymoon for a while. Then there's the process of moving the child forward with a lot of love and patience. Remember they're from a different area. They may not know the language.

"The biggest thing is love and patience all the way down the road."

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