Freindsville, TN --
Kristina and Britt will be spending their Fourth of July with their new "semya." That's Russian for family. Kristina is 8, her brother, Britt, is 4, and it is hard to fathom the change these two youngsters have witnessed in the past month. Until mid-June they lived at an orphanage in Ust-Kamenogorsk, a struggling industrial city of 310,000 in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic, which broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. This holiday weekend the children are at the place they now call "nush dom" - "our home" - in Friendsville. Kristina and Britt were recently adopted by Glenn and LaRonda Beam after an exhaustive, halfway-around-the-world process involving paperwork for two countries and two trips by the parents to a place with few smiles between strangers, snow on the ground in April and not much in the way of environmental niceties. Kristina now has a new middle name, Mae, and last name, Beam. Britt is now Britton Vladimir (his original name) Beam. Everyone now calls him Britt, although his sister still sometimes reverts to his nickname of "Vova."
Glenn Beam, 43, employed by the Tennessee National Guard, said he and his wife had looked at options for "expanding our family" and were drawn to international adoption. Glenn has three daughters from a previous marriage - LeeAnn, 18, Amy, 17, and Hannah, 12 - but he and LaRonda, 40, could not have any children together. Typically, they began looking at babies or children up to age 4. But after being told that children older than 4 almost inevitably face reaching adulthood in an orphanage and then being turned out into a sometimes uncaring world, the Beams readjusted their focus. They were introduced to many children, but it was Kristina and Britt who really touched their hearts. Some of the details of the children's past are murky, but they were apparently abandoned at some point and lived together on the streets, Kristina acting as a substitute mom for her little brother. By February 2009, they were in the orphanage, Glenn Beam said. The Beams took a photo album with pictures of family members and their Friendsville home to Kazakhstan to show the children so they could see what their new world would look like and who was in it. It was from these pictures that they identified "nush dom." The Beams brought Kristina and Britt to the U.S. on June 19, and Glenn Beam said that with all the paperwork in order, they became naturalized citizens as soon as their toes touched American soil. There is still a language barrier in the Beam home, but Kristina and Britt are rapidly learning English, with the help of interpreter Anna Crabtree, who visits often and helps bridge the gap. Britt will be attending Stepping Stones pre-kindergarten come fall. Kristina will be home-schooled for her first year, and then LaRonda Beam said she and her husband will re-evaluate whether she moves on to public schools. Kristina's obstacles include learning a new alphabet and English words for simple things most 3-year-olds already know, such as colors, shapes and numbers. Language barrier or not, LaRonda Beam says she and her husband formed an instant and strong bond with the cheerful, blue-eyed brother and sister. And that bond has extended to Glenn Beam's daughters, who are frequent visitors to the Friendsville home and lavish loving attention on the smaller children. As a family, the Beams, he said, do not talk or deal with each other as "step-this or half-that." They are all brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Glenn Beam said that this is the first opportunity that Kristina has had to experience childhood, having been the primary caregiver for her brother for years. "We need to let her be a kid," he said. Kristina seems shy around nonfamily Americans still, but she says her favorite aspect of her new life is "presents," pizza and big stores. Glenn Beam says he and LaRonda intend to encourage Kristina and Britt to "maintain their heritage" as Kazakhstanis and want them to know where they came from. Typical Kazakhstanis, according to a CIA website, were ethnically a mix of Turkish and Mongol nomads. Russians entered the mix after the region was conquered in the 18th century and became a Soviet republic in 1936. But now, Kristina and Britt are Americans. And even if they do not entirely grasp the meaning of America's most patriotic of holidays, they are spending it with members of their "semya." All 310 million of them.