Fifteen years ago, Bernie and Debbie Penkin adopted two older children from Liberia. Their story bears similarities to many other adoption narratives, but with a few significant differences.
The Penkins, who live in Washington state, began to think about adopting from Liberia after talking with some Liberian friends.
They were interested in adopting older children because, as Bernie Penkin explains, “Once the cute washes off a baby, they are very hard to adopt. And these kids need love just as much as a baby does, if not more.”
After about a year of communicating back and forth with the Penkins, a girl named Rita, age 13, and a boy named Misha, 9, boarded an airplane bound for America to begin a new life with people they barely knew.
“I was really excited to know that I was coming to the states, but I was also nervous because I was leaving behind everything I had ever known,” Rita Penkin Palmquist, now 28, says during a phone interview.
Neither Rita nor Misha spoke much English upon their arrival in Vancouver, Washington. The siblings had not experienced the luxuries of a refrigerator full of food, running hot water, or two doting parents.
Growing up in Monrovia, Liberia, during a time of civil war, Rita and Misha had seen much loss and hardship in their young lives.
The First Liberian Civil War dragged on from 1989 to 1997 and the Second Civil War lasted from 1999 until 2003. When the fighting finally ceased, 25,000 lives had been lost and about 1 million Liberians had been displaced.
The Penkins, who don’t have other children, had a daunting task in front of them—to build a family with children from very different backgrounds and traditions who didn’t even speak the same language.
Bernie and Debbie Penkin don’t offer a perfect 10-step plan for assimilating adopted children, but what they did do worked—really well, in fact.
First, the couple showed the children that they were interested in Liberian culture.
“Learn the culture of the kids and where they are coming from,” is the response from Misha Penkin, now 24, when asked what his advice would be to adoptive parents.
“Our friends gave us African clothes to wear,” Bernie Penkin says, “so at church on Sunday we all showed up wearing African clothes. That made a big difference with us bonding with our children on a different level.”
And when it came to meals, Debbie Penkin often cooked Liberian food.
“I had learned how to cook their food, like basic dishes, before they came and they loved that,” she says. “Rita loved to help me cook.”
“This proved to be an amazing bonding experience,” Bernie Penkin says, speaking of the couple’s commitment to their children’s culture. “We showed the kids that we cared about where they were from. The first month, I think we ate African food five nights a week.”
Rita recalls her parents’ help in maintaining relationships with friends and family in Liberia.
“They made sure we called friends and family back home,” she says. “There was no social media [back then], so you had to purchase a phone card, which they did, so we could talk to our friends and family.”
Second, the Penkins kept life simple during the first few months, to avoid overwhelming their newly arrived children.
“We really had to give them opportunities to just chill,” Debbie Penkin remembers, “to not interact with a lot of people, because everything was new—everything!”
Since Rita and Misha spoke very little English when they arrived in America, the Penkins found little ways to spend time together that allowed everyone to relax—like watching “Tom and Jerry” cartoons because there are no words.
“We had to do a lot by example and we had to talk very slowly,” Debbie Penkin says. “And we also had to have moments in our family when we did not talk, because it was exhausting for our children.”
Third, the couple kept expectations in check.
“Children from hard places, children from great trauma, are lousy at meeting adults’ needs,” Debbie Penkin says. “So if you have an expectation that they are going to be grateful and are going to be showering love upon you, it is not realistic.”
“And some people are unrealistic about that and it causes great pain to the adults. But it causes even greater pain to the child who can’t meet those expectations well.”
“We did not compare our kids to other kids; we just started where they were at,” Bernie Penkin says. “We were flexible: This is not working, [so] OK, let’s shift gears.”
Misha Penkin says his adoptive parents waited until they could see that “we were ready for the next big thing.”
Fifteen years after stepping off an airplane to begin a whole new family life in America, Rita and Misha have lives and careers of their own in Washington state.
Misha is an aviation mechanic in Vancouver, and Rita got her master’s degree in social work and lives with her husband and baby in Olympia, Washington.
Most importantly, perhaps, Debbie and Bernie Penkin say they practiced honesty.
“What our kids have told us,” Debbie Penkin says, “is that what made us different as adoptive parents to them is that when we made mistakes, we took responsibility for those mistakes.”
Bernie Penkin adds: “Saying I’m sorry and asking for forgiveness goes a long way.”