Family opens home to orphans for Christmas

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Source: Bruce Chapman

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. — Siblings Liga and Ingus tried to absorb all the sights and sounds of Old Salem last week with their host family Jeff and Yvonne Rickabaugh by their side.

The children made sure to place the decorations just right as they worked on a pyramid, the forerunner to the Christmas tree, at The Doctor’s House in Old Salem.

It was one of many memories that the Latvian orphans will make during their holiday stay in Winston-Salem. For them, it is a rare opportunity to experience family life during the Christmas season.

For the Rickabaugh family, it is an opportunity to open their home to help others in the wake of tragedy.

The Rickabaughs’ 19-year-old son Alex, a sophomore at Duke University, died unexpectedly in September. After his death, Yvonne Rickabaugh said, she began searching online for activities to give them some joy over Christmas because they knew it would be a difficult time.

Her search led her to Project 143, a nonprofit organization that helps place orphans from other countries with a host family in the United States for four to five weeks for a holiday in either the summer or winter.

The Rickabaughs went through a screening process, including a home study and a background check. They received basic information about the children they would host, such as ages, likes and dislikes, and their level of understanding of English.

The Rickabaughs and other host families gathered Dec. 14 at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport to meet the children arriving from Latvia. The Rickabaughs’ son, Thomas, and his girlfriend were there, too.

They held signs and balloons. Jeff Rickabaugh said there was a lot of excitement and anticipation, the chance to experience youth again.

“It was like a special gift,” Yvonne Rickabaugh said.

‘Mutual benefit’

Liga, 12, and Ingus, 9, are staying with the Rickabaughs through mid-January before returning to Latvia.

The kids have enjoyed having a yard in which to run and play with the family’s dogs, Yvonne said. They have also been swimming at the YMCA and made plans to go to Salem Gymnastics a few mornings.

“They’re eager to do new things and keep busy,” Jeff said.

Yvonne said that Thomas, a college student, used to be a camp counselor and has been a natural with the kids.

The Rickabaughs have been acquainting the children with all the holiday experiences that Winston-Salem has to offer, from the Festival of Lights at Tanglewood Park to the UNC School of the Arts’ production of “The Nutcracker.” Holiday plans included baking cookies to give to neighbors and stringing up Christmas lights.

“Seeing the joy that they experience with new things is really rewarding for us, and it’s a special gift for them. So there’s mutual benefit,” Yvonne said.

Good experience

Liga has a working knowledge of English and can often translate when her brother doesn’t understand something. The Rickabaughs also use a software program to translate phrases into and from Latvian.

Before they visited Old Salem last week, Yvonne showed the children photos online and explained what Old Salem is and some of the things they might see there, such as the period costumes.

In The Doctor’s House, they learned about the apothecary and helped decorate the pyramid. At Winkler Bakery, they watched a baker in action. In the Moravian Book and Gift Shop, they had their picture taken with a big Santa doll and selected cookie cutters to purchase.

Liga said her favorite part was decorating the Christmas tree. Ingus said he liked the cookies.

“Thus far it’s been a lot of fun and definitely something to look forward to when you come home. It’s just been a good experience for us, and I hope it’s been a good experience for the kids,” Jeff said.

Something to focus on

Yvonne said the experience has been wonderful, exactly what they hoped for. But that does not mean the holiday season is easy for the family, given the recent loss of Alex.

“We have our sad moments, but there’s something to focus on and there’s a mutual sharing of each other’s company,” Yvonne said.

Maureen Purcell, a regional coordinator for Project 143, said that more than 100 children are visiting from Latvia this Christmas.

Project 143 is named for its focus on helping the more than 143 million orphans worldwide. Host families give the orphans a chance to experience a functional family environment, improve their fluency in English and boost self-esteem. Purcell said the organization has programs serving children in the Ukraine, China and Latvia. Host families pay for the children to come.

“For the children that come, it is a vacation program, but … the heart of the program is to find children forever homes,” Purcell said.

Adoption is not part of the program, but some host families do pursue adoption or advocate for the children while they are here.

The organization strives to offer the children hope through the hosting program.

“It gives them that opportunity to know that they’re loved, to know that they’re valuable, to know that they’re cared for,” Purcell said.

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