John and Anne Nieland adopt Russian boys

The Des Moines Register, August 17, 2007

What a Country

—by Ken Fusion , Register Columnist

Ten months ago, Tom Nieland [son of John L. and Anne Nieland, great grandson of Henry Nieland, 1852-1957] was living in a Russian orphanage.

Photo caption: Tom Nieland, 12, of Urbandale has won nine ribbons in cooking contests at this year's State Fair. Some of his dishes are from his native Russia, where he lived before being adopted. His mother, Anne, has helped him in the kitchen but said he was already a great cook. [Andrea Melendez, The Register]

Thursday, he won a blue ribbon at the Iowa State Fair.

But that's not unusual. Before Thursday, the 12-year-old Urbandale boy had entered nine cooking contests at this year's fair.

He had won ribbons in six of them, including two overall winners.

What a country.

"I can't believe it," he told his mother, Anne, after he won his first blue ribbon.

When he did it again a second time, "he was shocked," she says.

The Nielands - Anne and husband John - adopted Tom and another boy last December after working with Camp Hope in Des Moines, a nonprofit group that helps bring older Russian orphans to America, where they can meet prospective parents.

Anne Nieland has been entering, and winning, food contests at the State Fair for about 12 years.

When she first told Tom about the fair and the cooking contests, she says he wasn't much interested.

But she prevailed, and Tom has turned out to be a good cook. His specialty appears to be Russian pancakes - they're like crepes - and borscht, a Russian beet soup.

For the borscht, he used potatoes that he grew in the family garden.

It worked. His borscht won first place overall, and first in his class, in the side dish, appetizers or soup category of the international food competition.

Entering the contests, preparing the recipes and attending the fair have given mother and son a chance to bond, Anne Nieland says.

"We're all coming Sunday so he can show his brother and dad all his ribbons."


The Carroll Daily Times Herald, June 19, 2007

From Russia with love

—by Kate Brincks, Staff Writer

URBANDALE - The pride Anne Nieland feels for her two boys, Tom, 12, and Max, 10, is evident as she relates stories of their accomplishments and experiences.

"I'm so enthralled with these kids and how much they've learned," said Anne. "I could go on for days."

This is the Nielands' first family photo. It was taken last November in a Russian court, the day Tom, now 12, and Max, now 10, were granted permission to become a part of John and Anne's family. Prior to being adopted, the boys each spent about two years in Russian orphanages.

What makes their relationship so special is that less than a year ago she and the boys were strangers, half a world apart.

For the last six years, Des Moines has welcomed several orphan children from Russia each summer. Last year, eight children came to the capital city as part of a week-long event sponsored by Camp Hope.

Camp Hope is a non-profit organization that helps place older adoptable children from Russia with families in Iowa and other parts of the United States.

A year ago, Anne and her husband John [son of Roger Allen Nieland (1936-2003), grandson of Louis Nieland (1901-1985) and great grandson of John Henry Nieland (1852-1949)] were offering support to friends who were considering adopting a child from Russia.

Their friends decided to host a 10-year-old girl during Camp Hope.

"If a friend of mine was pregnant and went to the hospital and had a baby, I'd go visit her," said Anne. "This is a friend of mine who was adopting. So I went to some of the events to meet the little girl."

Not only did Anne's friends decide to adopt the little girl, they also welcomed an 8-year-old boy into their family.

"There were six other kids in the group and I never even paid attention to the other kids," recalled Anne. "I was just so happy for my friends."

At the end of the week, the kids went back to Russia. That's when a family who wishes to adopt a child can start the process.

"We heard there was a boy in the group that wasn't spoken for yet," Anne said. "Kind of out of the blue, my husband and I looked at each other and said 'Our friends are doing this, we could probably do this too.'"

They were curious about the 11-year-old boy "who sounded really cool.

"We started talking to people who had met him during the week," said Anne. "He just sounded like a great kid."

Anne, a garden editor at the Meredith Corporation, and John, the Chief Information Officer for Wesley Retirement Services, elected to travel to Russia in September with their friends to meet the child.

"We left America on Saturday and arrived in Petrozavodsk on Monday morning," said Anne. "We met Tom a couple hours later."

That night, Tom said he would like to be part of the family.

They then began searching for a sibling for Tom. That's when they met Max, whose almost exactly two years younger than Tom.

"Max came to Petrozavodsk for the day on Wednesday so we could meet him," said Anne. "He and Tom got along very well."

The boys, who didn't know each other, were from two different orphanages in northwest Russia. It's known as the Karelia Republic.

"Russia is an amazing country and there's just so much national resource wealth there," Anne said. "But, it's an interesting dichotomy of first world and third world.

"There's so much beauty and they're such a smart, interesting people," she added. "But, the government is very oppressive. It wasn't an easy place to be, but I would go back in a heartbeat."

Tom came from a remote part of the country, near the Arctic Circle. Snow banks on the sides of the road reached heights of 20 to 25 feet. Max came from an area slightly to the south of Tom.

Both children had a family life prior to living in the orphanages.

"There's a lot of alcoholism over there, and the life expectancy for men and women is in the 50s," explained Anne. "A lot of the kids lose parents to alcoholism. There's also a lot of prostitution and a lot of drugs. These kids end up with one parent or they end up with no parents.

Max was removed from a physically abusive home. He was in the orphanage for about 21/2 years before being adopted. Tom's grandmother and father were unable to take care of him. He was in the orphanage for about the same amount of time.

The orphans, Anne said, are taken care of very well.

"They're very well taken care of until you're 16," said Anne. "When you're 16, you're basically shown the door and you're out on your own."

Anne said she was told the life expectancy of these kids is pretty low.

"They expect between 5 and 10 percent of the boys will be killed within the first five years," she said.

A person at the U.S. Embassy told her many of the boys are sent to the military.

There's an extensive prostitution ring in Russia, and many of the girls end up in it or involved with drugs.

"The future's pretty bleak once they're out of the orphanage," she said.

The couple returned to Russia about six weeks later when they were given a Nov. 9, 2006 court date.

"Our paperwork had been approved, but we still had to appear in Russian court and answer questions about our intent with these boys," Anne said. "Tom was old enough that he had to appear in court and tell them that he was OK with going to live in America with us."

After receiving the court's approval, the couple had to wait 11 days, Nov. 21, for the adoption to be final. Anne stayed in Russia for the month of November while John returned to the United States for 10 days to do more paperwork and work.

Thomas Ivan Nieland (whose Russian nickname is Vanya) and Zachary Maksim (pronounced Mack-SEEM) "Max" Nieland (the boys' middle names are their Russian monikers) arrived in America on Dec. 2, 2006. They became U.S. citizens as soon as the plane touched down.

It's been adjustment for the whole family.

"Since we didn't have kids before, it was a much bigger change than we expected," Anne said. "It was huge."

The boys had two different backgrounds. Even John and Anne had different upbringings. Anne was raised in California, John in Breda.

"After being married for nine years, we'd figured out our life," she said. "And we just kind of thought we'd be camp counselors. We'd have two kids and we'd show them how to cook, about school and my husband would show them woodworking and we'd show them what the farm was about.

But it wasn't quite that simple.

Since Max was abused, he was afraid of being hit.

"It took us months to explain to him 'We will never hit you,'" Anne said. "And Tom, too, was scared that we would hurt him."

About six months after living with the Nielands, the boys really began to trust them.

"Before that, it was kind of a standoff," she said. "'Yes, we are going to school today. School is your job." "Yes, we're going to clean each week. I'm not asking you to clean the whole house. I'm asking you to clean your bathroom and your bedroom.'"

The other difficulty stemmed from the multitude of choices in America.

"It's overwhelming because there are so many choices and so many opportunities," said Anne.

Once she took Tom shoe shopping at a chain store.

"I said, 'You can pick out whatever shoes you like. I'd like them to be under $60,'" Anne said.

He sat down on the floor and began to cry.

"There were just so many shoes, and he didn't want to spend that much money," she said. "He was worried that I wouldn't have enough money to buy food later."

The boys both took to school very well.

"They're both in English Language Learners," she said. "They've made friends."

On his last report card, Tom earned A's and B's. Two were A-pluses.

"He told me PE doesn't count," said Anne.

Max had a harder time adjusting.

"I don't think Max was used to being disciplined very much," said Anne. "Max got to do whatever Max wanted because he would throw a tantrum and people would leave him alone. But my husband and I don't put up with that. And the schools here don't put up with that."

A couple of times, the Nielands received calls from the school because Max was in a corner curled up in the fetal position crying.

"It takes about half-an-hour to 45 minutes, and you can pretty much get him out of it," she said. "But now they don't happen as often, and it doesn't take as long for him to come out of his funk."

Tom, on the other hand, was silent when he was in a mood.

"He'd sit there with a pillow over his head or lock himself in the bathroom," she said.

Anne would knock and ask him to unlock the door. He would, and they'd talk.

The Nielands are discovering what the boys' strengths and interests are. Max likes math and art; Tom likes math and language. They both love basketball.

"Some friends gave us a basketball hoop," she said. "They use it every day."

They played soccer too.

"They had a great time," said Anne. "They played a lot of soccer in Russia, so that was a comfort zone for them here."

The boys also like to cook some Russian dishes.

"Borsch is the big one," said Anne of the beet and vegetable soup. "I like it a lot. My husband does too."

Anne is helping them keep their Russian heritage alive.

"At night, they each read between 20 and 35 minutes each night," she said. "They read Russian books. We brought a lot of books back in Russian."

If they read during the week, they can watch Russian movies on the weekend.

"I'm hoping they can keep some of their language and some of their heritage," she said.

They connect with other children in Iowa adopted from Russia as well. In the Des Moines metro, there are about 110 children who were once Russian orphans.

"We go swimming or ice skating or bike riding," she said. "The ones who remember Russian speak Russian together. They have a common heritage. A lot of them were in the same orphanages together so they know each other."

Someday the Nielands will take the children back to their native country.

"It's a neat country, and that is their heritage," said Anne.

Again this year, several Russian orphans are preparing to visit Des Moines. Camp Hope will be June 22-30. The children range in age from 6 to 14.

While here, the children will visit Blank Park Zoo, go swimming and bowling and have picnics.

A community night is scheduled for Wednesday, June 27 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Raccoon River Lodge in West Des Moines. This is an opportunity for the public to get to know all the kids, especially those not spoken for yet.

"We're in the business of making families, and community night is a great place to meet children who need homes or to come and learn about other available kids still in Russia," said Camp Hope board member Doug Jimerson.

In the past six years, Camp Hope has been directly responsible for finding homes for more than 130 older Russian orphans.

Obviously, there's some differences in adopting an older child versus a baby. For the Nielands, there was a language barrier and some things that had to be undone. On the flip side, Anne said she can reason with the boys and go on bike rides with them.

Before she adopted Tom and Max she was told some might worry about missing "firsts."

"I never saw the first time these kids walked," she said. "I never saw the first time they ate solid foods or heard the first word that they said. But I saw when they became American citizens. I saw the first time Max rode a bike. I watched as Tom changed a grade from a B to an A. I'm watching them take wonder at the new life around them. Those are some amazing firsts for John and me."

The Nielands plan to be involved in this year's Camp Hope. Tom is going to be an interpreter. He's paired with a family whose thinking about adopting a 10-year-old girl.

"I had no idea that this could be so cool," said Anne. "These kids are bright. They're interesting. They're interested. They just want to be loved. It's not easy, but I'm finding it to be really rewarding.

"Even though I've never given birth naturally, I imagine it's kind of like that," she added. "It's kind of painful at the time, then as soon as you get the kids, you forget about that pain. It's just a small part of the whole process of putting a family together."




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