LEHIGH VALLEY MAGAZINE NOVEMBER | DECEMBER 2009
Text by Lindsey Getz, Photos by Stefan Siegel
There are certain individuals you meet in a lifetime that you know you won’t forget. You may have spoken no more than a few casual words, or even just caught their eye, but something about them has a real impact on you. John Lahutsky is one of those people. From the time he was a baby, living within the confines of a Russian orphanage, he has had a special quality that has made him unforgettable to those he meets. And it was that special quality that may have saved him from a bleak future in Russia. From just looking into his eyes, it was obvious to those who wanted to help him that he was a bright boy, mistakenly labeled “ineducable” by the powers-that-be in the harsh Russian orphanage system. Despite spending more than eight years of his life in a nightmare of torture and neglect, John’s impact on several kind-hearted Russians, and on Sarah, a British volunteer who took a special interest in him, was his ticket to a new life.
Meeting John in his home in Bethlehem today, where his life has taken a much happier turn, he still has that same impact on people. It’s hard not to feel moved by even a brief conversation with John, who lives with his adoptive mom Paula, and enjoys his life as a student at Freedom High School, and as a Boy Scout in Troop 362. It’s been more than 10 years since he first came to America and he’s come so far from the system that decided he was incapable of a normal life – and never gave him a chance at one.
From a Dark Start to a Bright Future
Born prematurely and with cerebral palsy in Russia in 1990, John was named Vanya then. His mother was told by doctors that she’d be unable to care for his medical needs and that she was best off leaving him in the state childcare system. He was sent to an orphanage called Baby House 10 where he was clothed in rags, ignored by most of the staff and given little to no medical attention. At one point, he was even sent to a mental asylum where his treatment was far worse. John was confined to a cage-like crib, given inadequate food and clothing and drugged regularly with sedatives. Though he asked to use the “pot” (toilet), he was ignored and often left lying in his own waste.
Unlike most childhood memories, which are filled with happy times like learning to ride a bike or going on a family trip, these painful events are what John remembers of his early days in the world. But his story has a happy ending. With the help of co-author Alan Philps, a British journalist married to the British volunteer, Sarah, John recently shared his bittersweet tale, which ends right here in the Lehigh Valley.
Alan’s involvement in John’s life came through his wife’s work as an interpreter for a foreign women’s charity group. They needed someone who could translate during visits to the various “baby houses.” In those earlier days, his wife Sarah would visit John in Baby House 10, where he had a profound impact on her. When John was six years old, he was transferred to the mental asylum. After a horrific visit to the place, Sarah involved Alan in the cause to rescue John. “It was probably the worst experience of my whole life,” she says of her visit. “It became clear the children were slowly dying of neglect. I did the only thing I could: I persuaded my husband to write about John in his newspaper. I thought that even if an article could not save John, it would at least expose the system and save future generations from his fate.”
But the article did help John. The authorities were persuaded to close the children’s wing of the asylum, and John was returned to the baby house. Sarah and several key Russian women, including Vika, a young woman devoted to rescuing John,continued fighting for his adoption in the hopes of getting him out of the orphanage system for good. At one point, things seemed promising with a British couple, but for many reasons it ultimately fell through – yet another disappointment in young John’s life. But while all of this was going on across the globe, Paula Lahutsky was at home in Bethlehem contemplating an item she read in her church (the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas) newsletter. It was submitted by a local couple who had just recently adopted a little girl from Baby House 10, and had met John during their visit. The bulletin item talked about a bright young boy with cerebral palsy that faced a dark future without a loving home. Paula, who admittedly avoids risk at all costs, was shocked by her suddenly bold feelings that she wanted to help this boy.
In preparing for her travels to Russia, Paula was told to bring a suitcase of clothes for John, yet she had no idea what size he wore. “I found myself stopping people in Kmart and asking them ‘What size shoe does your child wear?’” she recalls. “All I had to go off of was a video I’d seen of him.”
Despite a few snags and even some red tape, Paula finally found herself face-to-face with this boy she had read about. The bond was almost instantaneous, and John referred to her as “Mama” within only an hour of meeting. John and Paula remember those moments fondly, and even a decade later John recalls how overjoyed he was on the plane ride to America. “I never stopped talking, even though it was in Russian,” he says. “I was so excited.” Both mom and son laugh as John also recalls that he was so excited that he wouldn’t allow Paula to get some sleep. “And it was a long ride,” Paula adds, smiling. “I just thought, ‘Welcome to motherhood.’”
A Tale that Deserved a Book
Through countless hours of research and interviews, Alan helped John piece together the story of his early life, as well as the fight for his rescue that was going on beyond his realm of knowledge. Despite being so young, John remembers a lot of those times for himself and was able to share specific memories for the book. He says reliving his painful past was hard, but remembering the details came easy. Sometimes the most traumatic life events are the easiest to remember, and John can recall many of his young days. “It was hard to go back [in my mind],” he says today. “But the
story was easy to tell because I remembered so much.”
The book has its origins in an interview that John and Paula gave to The Morning Call in 2006, says Alan. “Paula sent Sarah and I a link to the article, and I realized they didn’t know the full story,” he continues. “John was a small child, locked behind high walls and not a witness to the efforts of many people helping him. And the chaotic circumstances of his adoption meant that Paula did not meet any of the good-hearted Russians who had devoted enormous amounts of time and effort to help John. I began to go through boxes of photographs, diaries and documents, which Sarah had saved from our time in Moscow, to build a timeline of what had happened. We took it to John in Bethlehem in March 2007. And the story was so incredible that we all agreed it would make a good book.”
The Boy From Baby House 10, published by St. Martin’s Press, hit bookshelves last month, and takes readers on John’s journey from a painful entrance into the cruel world of the Russian orphanage system, to his new life with Paula in Bethlehem. When John arrived here in August of 1999, he barely spoke a word of English. But by Christmas of that same year, Paula says, he was fluent. And this was the boy that was labeled unable to be educated. While the system had given up on him – banished him to a life of wasting away in a crib – John never gave up hope. That spark of life that Sarah had seen in his eyes, when he was only a baby, was just a glimpse of all he could accomplish if he was given a chance.
Today he is making the most of that opportunity. “I appreciate a lot of things that most kids probably take for granted,” says John. He loves the outdoors – a place he wasn’t allowed as a young child. And he loves school – a place he was told he’d never be able to go. And while he wishes he didn’t have to live with those painful memories, he’s been able to accept it. “It’s something that happened,” he says matter-of-factly, adding that if his story can help even one other child in Russia’s orphanages, that it would be worth re-hashing all of that pain to tell his tale. Seeing John’s smile and the happiness in his eyes, there’s no doubt that he’s moved on from those early memories. After all, he has no time to waste with a bright future ahead, and a lot that he plans to accomplish. He’s even up early every day and though he might get tired by the afternoon, he says he’d never take a nap. “In Russia, I wasted too much of my life in bed,” he writes in his book, “and now I always feel like I have so much catching up to do.” With everything he has accomplished already, he’s well on his way.