Students across the United States are required to take American history, but one who comes from another country may receive only limited information about his or her homeland.
A child from Russia, for example, could learn little more of their native land than its part in the Cold War or the fall of the Soviet Union.
Both can yield negative connotations of Russia, something Hoffman Estates residents John and Kathy McDermott don't want for their adopted twins, Jack and Matt. Instead, Kathy said, she wants the boys, who turn 14 this month, to "have pride in who they are and where they came from, just like we Americans do."
To help make that happen, the family is traveling to Russia this month as part of an Adoptive Family Travel Ties Program.
The program helps families who've adopted from parts of Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa take their children back to their native countries to rediscover their roots.
"It's a turning point for the kids in their identity," founder Becca Piper said. "It's really a program where the kids are learning about themselves."
While Jack and Matt have not learned Russian in preparation for the trip, they have read many books covering Russian culture and history. Jack said he gets better information from his books than school.
Kathy hopes their reading will help them appreciate the sights they will see on the trip, including Lenin's Tomb, Red Square and St. Isaac's Cathedral. Both boys say they're excited to see St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow.
'It was a whirlwind'
John and Kathy have trouble remembering their last trip to Russia, in 1999, so the 15-day trip is a chance to reconnect with the people they met when they first adopted Jack and Matt.
Their journey started in May 1998 when, after eight years of marriage, John, who works in business development, and Kathy, a professional organizer, chose to adopt internationally.
They met the requirements for Russia, and by November had finished all the necessary paperwork through their Ohio adoption agency.
On a Sunday night that month, John had a dream about playing baseball in his backyard with two boys. The following Monday, John learned he and Kathy had gotten a call with a referral. Two months later, they were in Moscow to pick up their sons.
Kathy has "minimal recall" of the trip since it all happened so fast. They visited an orphanage in the Vladimir region and met with the nurses and orphanage director, who took care of the 72 children there.
John specifically remembers a door, knowing that after passing through it his life would be changed forever. The next thing he remembered was holding his 6-month-old boys in his arms.
"I want to be able to soak it in a little more," John said of the return trip.
On Jan. 15, 1999, a Russian court declared the McDermotts a family. John still becomes emotional when discussing a moment during the court proceedings when the Russian judge asked them how the McDermotts would help their children understand the history of the country where they were born.
"It's a promise we kind of made ... to do everything we can to help them understand," said John, who sees the upcoming trip as a completion of his promise.
The family is bringing medicine and clothes for the orphanage, and Kathy made a picture book with English and Russian captions about the boys' lives. Through their adoption agency, the McDermotts also set up times to meet with the orphanage director and dine with their original translator, along with trying to figure out if any of the nurses are still there.
"Hopefully we will be reunited with everybody," Kathy said.
'Seemed like the right time'
Kathy and John decided when they started saving almost 10 years ago for the trip that 13 or 14 would be the right age to take their boys to Russia because it would be before the start high school, when life could get busy with sports and summer school. Matt likes paintball and football, and Jack likes video games and gymnastics.
John points out that the boys are maturing and asking good questions, so it is the right time to help them piece together an understanding of their native culture.
"They're old enough now that they'll be able to remember," he added.
The Ties Program-Adoptive Family Homeland Journeys was launched 18 years ago and since has helped more than 10,000 people take trips to adopted children's homelands. The program makes travel arrangements and connects families with a guide, translator and adoption professional to travel with them and offer guidance and support on what's often an emotional journey.
"It's not a vacation," Piper said. "It's an identity building journey."
On the Adoptive Family Travel's website, there is an emphasis on deciding what age is the right age to go, noting that while the process can be full of awareness and peace, it can also be full of grieving and stress.
To help with their process, the McDermott boys will have separate hotel rooms so they can absorb the trip individually. The McDermotts also will have lots of family time, and the Ties program offers "Connect & Chat" discussions for the children to meet with an adoption professional in a group setting.
Kathy admits she worries about how her twin boys might react when they visit the orphanage and realize they were once living like the children there. But she hopes they appreciate the trip and can work through the emotions it's sure to invoke.
"They are truly a gift to this world," she said.