Janet and Rex Scharp went to Vietnam to adopt a baby, and ended up adopting a cause.
Now they are responsible for a small, but growing, Vietnamese community in Sitka.
``After we saw all the poverty there we decided to see what we could do,'' said Janet Scharp, who adopted two children from an orphanage in Vietnam and arranged the adoptions of five others.
In the Vietnamese orphanage, 10 children share each cot, Scharp said. They all eat soup from one pot. The children are not immunized and often die.
``It's not uncommon for children under age 5 just to die over there because of the lack of health care, the lack of nutrition,'' Scharp said. ``Some of them are just dressed in rags and malnourished.''
Shocked by the conditions in the orphanage, the Scharps started ``This I Know'' Family Builders, a Sitka-based adoption agency to help other families bring home Vietnamese children. They use the money from adoption fees, along with donations, to help the children who haven't been adopted yet and handicapped children who will likely never be adopted.
Since June they've placed five infants in Sitka homes. All had been abandoned by their mothers in the hospital in Vietnam.
``The extreme poverty keeps them from raising these children,'' said Janet Scharp. ``They come into the hospital, they give birth and they just walk away.''
That's all Ed and Clara Gray know of the woman who gave birth to their daughter, Alexa.
``I look at her and I can't believe this child was unwanted, abandoned, nobody would take her,'' Gray said. ``It's very likely if our situation, our timing, our paperwork had not been in place, she would have been in an orphanage, which is not a good place for a child.''
The Grays would also have been childless. When they decided, after four years of marriage, to have a baby, they discovered it wasn't that easy. So they decided to try adoption as well.
Working with the Scharps, they filled out the paperwork for adoption and immigration. Then they waited. The adoption took about a year and a half and cost nearly $20,000 for fees and travel, Gray said.
Alexa had been in the hospital in Vietnam for three months when the Grays were able to go there and bring her home here.
They landed in 100-degree heat on an airstrip surrounded by rice paddies and water buffalo. A guide was waiting to take them to their hotel and then to the hospital nine hours away, where Alexa was sleeping on a straw mat with nine other infants in a room the size of a walk-in closet.
Gray credits the Vietnamese nursing staff with training Alexa to sleep through the night, which she did from the moment they got her. Now nearly a year old, she's on the brink of walking and talking.
``We really have been so lucky because she's just a wonderful baby,'' Gray said, like any father. ``She's good-natured. She's happy. She's bright. She's a wonderful child.''
Alexa did come home to the U.S. with scabies, a skin disease, and a few rashes, which had to be treated. Janet Scharp was able to diagnose one of the rashes that had eluded doctors in Sitka through a network of Vietnamese adoptive parents.
``She's kind of walked us through the whole thing, from beginning to end, which is really what you need out of an agency,'' Gray said. ``Probably the most important thing in this whole adoption experience is to really find a reputable agency.''
The process went so smoothly and turned out so well the Grays are considering adopting another. Ed Gray said more families would adopt, if they only saw the children waiting in orphanages and hospitals.
``If we saw these children every day we'd adopt them,'' Gray said. ``We'd take them all, they're so beautiful. You wouldn't see them and just leave them. You wouldn't do it.''
The Scharps certainly didn't. They've been back to Vietnam four times since adopting their own children, bringing baby formula, infant T-shirts, medication for lice and scabies, electric fans and infant Tylenol to an orphanage and clinic south of Hanoi. They also brought fetal heart Dopplers, which allow doctors to check on the heart and health of children in the womb.
The Scharps also started an education project for older children at the orphanage, providing the materials for 50 orphans to attend school.
Besides the Grays, the Scharps helped two single women adopt baby girls, and several other couples. Vietnam allows married couples, single women and occasionally single men to adopt children.
The Scharps are looking for more families wanting children, from infants through 15 years old. She has two young boys just waiting for homes.
To contact the Scharps about adoption or helping Vietnamese orphans contact ``This I Know'' Family Builders, 303 Charteris St., Sitka, AK 99835, phone (907) 747-7116, fax (907) 747-7101, e-mail James1firstname.lastname@example.org or John316@ptialaska.net.