Tracy Blake-Bell knew within an hour of meeting them how special the teenage brothers from Ukraine were, and that she would want to adopt them into her family.

The boys had traveled to Maine for an extended stay with Blake-Bell, her husband, Nat Bell, and their two biological sons in the town of Leeds as part of a program that pairs American families with international orphans.

It was a long and sometimes bumpy journey, and the younger of the two Ukrainian boys, Serogzha, who already was prone to motion sickness, had drunk too much soda. He was throwing up, almost nonstop. During a lull in the retching, the older boy, Vanya, took a wet wipe and with a tenderness that belied his age, cleaned the vomit from his brother’s face.

“After, he folded the wipe in so that there was a clean side for him to use if he needed,” Blake-Bell recalled.

That was early 2020. About a month ago, she and her husband traveled to Ukraine against the advice of U.S. officials, who were increasingly worried about instability and a possible Russian attack. They were able to meet with Vanya and Serogzha, and sign paperwork that would move their adoption into the final stage.

The couple returned home with instructions to come back in a month or so to meet with a judge who would make the boys legally theirs. And then …


Scattered throughout Ukraine there are as many as 100,000 orphans like Vanya and Serogzha, according to numerous estimates. They aren’t targets of Russian soldiers, necessarily, but there are no certainties in war. Innocents are always at risk. Many agencies and neighboring countries are working to ensure the children’s safety amid an increasingly unstable landscape.

Blake-Bell has been able to communicate with the teens since the Russian invasion. She didn’t disclose their location, other than to say their orphanage is in a rural part of the eastern European nation.

They are safe, for now, but their situation is fluid.

“I just want them to live, to be someplace safe,” Blake-Bell said through tears. “And to somehow preserve our tenuous thread to adoption.”


Blake-Bell is a yoga therapist and has her own studio. Her husband owns a forest management company and raises 30 organic Scottish Highland cattle on the side.


They have lived together in Leeds, Nat Bell’s hometown, for more than two decades and have raised two biological sons. Eli is 18 and just started college at the University of Maine, studying forestry, like his father. Nathaniel, 17, is a junior at Leavitt High School.

A few years back, friends of the family had hosted children through a nonprofit, Host Orphans Worldwide, that works with a dozen or more orphanages in Ukraine, a country with a high rate of orphans largely due to widespread poverty and unemployment. Children spend a month or more with American families, and many end up getting adopted.

Blake-Bell and her family saw what a wonderful experience it was for their friends and thought it might be the same for them.

“We hosted our boys in the winter of 2020, which was pre-shutdown COVID,” said Blake-Bell, who didn’t want to share the details of the brothers’ backstory. “They lived with us for a month. Our whole family, we were deep in it. It just worked so well.”

She joked about what it was like having a house full of teenage boys.

“Can you imagine what my car smells like after soccer practice?”


At the tail end of that first stay, the boys had asked Blake-Bell and her husband whether they were interested in permanently adopting them. The couple, it turns out, already had been thinking about it.

“It’s a long and complicated and tenuous process,” Blake-Bell said. “And there are a lot of kids who are hosted who are not actually available for adoptions.”

When the boys left Maine after that first stay, Blake-Bell told them that they would make arrangements to host them again.

“We couldn’t guarantee anything else, but our goal was to start the legal process,” she said.


From the moment they left Maine, Vanya and Serogzha were on Blake-Bell’s mind.


She began sending letters and boxes of food as often as she could. Deodorant, floss they probably wouldn’t use, she said, even sneakers. She found a company in Ukraine that could send packages directly.

The next visit to Maine originally was scheduled for summer 2020, but it was canceled because of rising virus transmission. They tried again last winter, but that was canceled, too. Finally, they were able to come last summer when there was a lull in the pandemic.

“We had such a wonderful three months with them,” Blake-Bell said.

The boys went back to Ukraine as the adoption process churned forward. The family tentatively planned to go overseas around Christmas, but that was pushed back a month. The invitation finally came on Jan. 20 that an appointment was scheduled for Jan. 31 in Kyiv.

At that point, the U.S. travel advisory for Ukraine was level 4 because of the omicron variant surge. And there was increasing concern about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalating rhetoric.

“The U.S. government did not want us to travel,” Blake-Bell said. They eventually reached out to members of Maine’s congressional delegation for help in facilitating the trip.


The couple was worried, too, about leaving their biological children behind.

“We talked to them, you know, and they understood,” she said. “They knew we were going over to a war zone.”

Blake-Bell and her husband spent 10 days in Kyiv, the capital. They got to see Vanya and Serogzha at the orphanage and hug them. Before they left, they signed paperwork that authorized legal adoption. They would only need to come back in a month to appear in court and receive a judge’s order.

They were still waiting for an official date on Feb. 24 when Putin announced what he called a “special military operation” that included missile launches and Russian tanks crossing the border.

Blake-Bell paid close attention to the geopolitical landscape. She told the boys to make sure they had a “go bag” packed with clothes, food and water, and to make sure their phones were fully charged.



Over the last week, Blake-Bell has been working feverishly to get answers about how to safely get Vanya and Serogzha out. She’s been sleeping four hours a night, less than half what she normally gets.

“I feel like I’m close to losing it,” she said.

There are other families across the country and in Maine who are fearful of what might happen to the many orphans in Ukraine. The challenges are many. Although most children are safe for the time being, things are changing rapidly. Last week, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs said Russian soldiers had committed war crimes by attacking a kindergarten and orphanage. Other facilities have since been evacuated.

If orphans flee Ukraine for another country, like Poland, Romania or Hungary to the west, there might be questions about their immigration status, which could in turn threaten adoption proceedings. If they stay, they may become collateral damage.

Blake-Bell also said there is concern about desperate Ukrainians who are trying to flee bigger cities.

“I think, first and foremost, we’re trying to save their lives, and the lives of as many other kids,” she said. “I’m just a mom.”


Another concern is making sure orphanages are still getting things like food and medicine at a time when the Ukrainian government is trying to save its country from being overrun. Some children are disabled or have significant needs.

“Many are being transported toward a safe border country,” she said.

For Blake-Bell, each day she waits is a mix of constant fear and hope.

During one of the most recent conversations she had with Vanya, Blake-Bell said, he was in the basement of a school with other children, hiding.

“How can my child be in a place like that,” she said, tears coming again, “when I’m sitting here in my warm house with my cat on my lap?”

Blake-Bell didn’t want to share her conversation with Vanya verbatim, but he said something to her that left her with both a sinking feeling and a reminder of why she felt so strongly about adopting him and his brother.

He told her not to cry, not to worry. If anybody came, he would be brave for the others.

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