By Dan England –
As the Russian invasion approached, Angelica Aldridge’s worries about her home country grew a little sharper every day, until she heard the news that Putin planned to attack the military bases first. That’s when her worries morphed into nightmares.
She spent a good chunk of her life in an orphanage in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, near a military base. She and her friends thought of the base as kind of annoying. Usually once a year a commander visited and bored them with a long speech about nothing.
Sometimes tanks rolled by. More than once, she went through drills on what to do if you stepped on a land mine (freeze, find a rock and put it on the mine, pray). But as the invasion approached, now five years into her adoption by a Greeley family, she didn’t think much about the base. She thought of her friends. The thought that they might be collateral damage terrified her.
She told her mom, Christy, that she wanted to go back to Ukraine to help. Christy was stunned initially but eventually understood: She just wanted to do something. Angelica felt helpless. Christy felt helpless herself: How do you do something to help people trapped by a Russian invasion? How do you do anything about a war thousands of miles away?
During her morning prayers, Christy felt God give her an idea. She rushed out to find Angelica and told her they had to start right away.
“OK,” Angelica said to her. “Let me finish brushing my teeth first.”
Christy and Jason live across the street from her mother’s house in a quiet West Greeley neighborhood. The two have four biological children, two boys and two girls, aged 10-18. Christy always wanted to adopt, but Jason convinced her to have their own children until the fourth, when the idea ate away at her. They started by hosting a Ukrainian girl a couple times, including a whole summer, and had a good experience until they decided to adopt her and the girl said no. That broke their hearts, but eventually they met Angelica through happenstance or God’s plan, depending on what you believe: At an airport, they met an American family who had hosted Angelica and with whom they kept in touch. The family loved her and hoped to adopt her, but it didn’t work out. That brief friendship, however, paid off when the family recommended the Aldridges for Angelica.
They did some initial talking, but Angelica wasn’t sure until she saw a video made by Zoey, Mekenzie, Levi and Caleb Aldridge talking about being so excited to have a new sibling.
“I saw that video, and I knew that’s what I wanted,” Angelica says. “I wanted siblings. I wanted a big family. I felt a peace in them, and I felt that peace too.”
There was a typical adjustment period. Angelica thought it was unusual, even strange, that this new family loved her, and she found Mekenzie’s eagerness to have a new big sister a bit too much.
“It was a lot of attention,” Angelica says and laughs. “I just wanted my space.”
Eventually she learned to love them, and she loved Colorado, too, especially the many rural parts of Weld County outside of Greeley. The agriculture felt nostalgic, and not even the cow smell bothered her—it smelled that way in Ukraine too—and she loved the brown fields and blue sky. She knew she wasn’t in New York or another big, fancy city. She didn’t want that. She knew, in Greeley, she could be herself.
“That really reminded me of home,” Angelica says.
In fact, when Christy told Angelica about her idea to design magnets and sell them for a fundraiser, Angelica knew pretty much right away what she wanted. She wanted yellow and blue, just like her country’s simple but symbolic home flag. The yellow represents the brown fields—in the Ukraine’s case it’s wheat—and the blue represents the sky overhead.
“It’s serving as a symbol of hope now for a lot of Ukraine,” Christy said. “It really was a beautiful country. The flag is simple, but it has a really good meaning behind it.”
Two weeks after the invasion, Christy thought of the idea and Angelica’s grandmother went to the store to buy rubber cement so they could start on the magnets. They worked hard until Angelica passed out.
Yes, she literally passed out. Rubber cement, remember, can make you loopy.
“We said she was done for the day after that,” Christy says and laughed.
Angelica buried herself in the magnets, working for hours a day (with a bit more ventilation). Every day brought another painful reminder of the horror: The train station that was bombed was THE same train station the Aldridges rode in to her hometown to get her.
Christy does not forbid her to look at the news, but she tries to caution Angelica about what it’s showing. The images are disturbing. She tries to listen and update Angelica on what she knows.
“We can’t hide her from it,” Christy says. “But once she sees those images, you can’t get them out of her mind.”
The really hard thing is Angelica hasn’t heard much herself. She doesn’t know how her orphanage is doing. She hasn’t heard from friends. One man became a Ukrainian family friend after he guided a lost Christy and Jason through the paperwork and problems of adopting Angelica and even had them stay with him. They haven’t heard from him either.
Angelica is not sure she will ever go back to Ukraine now, or what her country will be in the future.
“I had thoughts about living there again one day, but I couldn’t leave my family here now,” she says. “I’m attached to them.”
Angelica and her family made more than 400 magnets and 750 bookmarks. She sold the magnets for $1 and a bookmark for .50 cents, and all the money goes to the Ukraine Orphan Outreach in Berthoud. Many gave them more than the cost of the merchandise. They were hoping to send them $250. They have raised more than $1,000.
Clarke and Kris Stoesz founded the outreach while adopting four children from Ukraine to help with kids who age out of orphanages: They fund and run two homes, one for girls and one for boys, in the Ukraine that give those kids a place to stay and learn life skills and how to get involved in their communities. Since the war started, they’ve done whatever they can to get supplies to residents.
“I was so touched by what Angelica did,” says Kris, who also works as the executive director. “Her heart is obviously still over there.”
The $1,000 she raised will go farther than you might think: In a center housing displaced people, they can feed 120 all month for $3,500. But its more than that: Angelica’s work ensures that those who bought a magnet won’t forget about the Ukraine as the war goes on, Kris says.
“When Angelica does something like that, they can’t forget, even when they are far removed from what’s going on,” Kris says.
Angelica appreciates knowing she could do something to help what is otherwise a hopeless situation. She wants her country to fight and survive, and she’s rooting for them every day. Now she’s also able to sleep at night.
Dan England is a freelance writer based in Greeley.