“Adoption Through the Rearview Mirror,” with Karen Springs ’04
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Karen Springs. When she graduated from college from SPU in 2004 with a degree in theatre and communications, she had no idea her future would include living in Ukraine and working with a Christian broadcasting network to promote adoption. Her new book, Adoption Through the Rearview Mirror, comes out of her latest adventure crisscrossing the U.S. interviewing over 60 families who had adopted an older child from Ukraine. Karen, thank you so much for joining us today.
Karen Springs: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: Well, when I first learned about your story, the first thing that caught my attention was how, like so many others, you were about to graduate from college and begin your life, but you weren’t really sure what that life was going to look like. I was a double major and I had no idea how I was going to fit all that together, what that would look like. Can you tell us about that time in your life when you’re ready for this big change, but you don’t know what it’s going to be yet?
Karen: Yeah, yeah. I so vividly remember that season of coming to the point of graduation, but not feeling a strong calling. As you had mentioned, I studied theatre and communication, and other friends that had studied nursing or teaching seemed like they had a very clear career path of what was next and I didn’t. But I was growing in my faith and definitely had a heart for global missions and also just wanting to learn about other cultures. So I started to explore what that might look like to go overseas for a time and explore. I had relatives that were serving in Ukraine in ministry, and I knew that there was an opportunity for me to serve alongside them. Without a clear next step of what was next for me, I thought, why not give Ukraine a try and see what God might have for me there.
Amanda: Can I just ask, as a woman who’s been through a lot of major life transitions, did you go thinking you were going to find your path, or did you go thinking this’ll be something fun to do until I find my path? Does that make sense?
Karen: Yeah, no, definitely probably the later, but I remember praying before I went and just telling God that I wanted it to be whatever he wanted it to be. I didn’t want it to be just a year check-the-box experience, like check the box I lived overseas, because I know that’s a very acceptable thing to go do while you’re waiting for what’s next. I had this sense that I wanted to be open if there was something that God had for me beyond the eight months that I was planning on being there.
But I definitely thought it was more an interim, like I will go for eight months and then come back and then figure out what’s next. But I always say that little dangerous prayer that I prayed before I left kind of changed the trajectory of what I became open to once I got to Ukraine.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. My mom used to say “the prayer,” she called it, is God, show me what I need to see, not what I want to see. It’s kind of amazing how that turns out.
Karen: Yeah, that’s so true.
Amanda: You go to Ukraine. You’re working with your relatives. How did you first come across really serving orphans and promoting adoption?
Karen: Well, when I landed in Ukraine, I didn’t have a clear direction. The ministry that my relatives were running was involved with Christian broadcasting, but also had a humanitarian arm of what they did, distributing aid, working with the elderly, providing aid for orphanages. I was sent to the southern part of Ukraine on a humanitarian aid distribution, which was supposed to be a three-day trip to go down there, visit this orphanage. Upon pulling up, it was a very typical Soviet structure. It housed about 300 kids. I spent three days at that orphanage. I hardly spoke any Russian at the time, but through those three days really just connected with a group of girls that was probably about 10, 11, 12 at the time.
What struck me was just how many kids were there living 24/7, going to school. Their whole life was in this orphanage building. I just remember thinking how much I needed a mom at 10, 11, 12, still needed a mom, here I was in my early twenties at this point. I just remember thinking how scary that would be to not have a mom at that critical point in your life. God really just put specifically older kids on my heart and advocating for them to have family. It just so happened that my relatives that I was living with, they were also in process of adopting. Adoption was very much on their heart. They were always talking about scriptures that pointed to God’s heart for adoption, God’s heart for the orphan.
I visited this orphanage and was also just enveloped in their vision and their mission and felt like God just really got a hold of my heart and made me so passionate about wanting to share their stories and to challenge specifically the church of how we might respond in caring for the orphan and not just in the institution, but actually what would it mean to invite children into your home.
“What struck me was just how many kids were there living 24/7, going to school. Their whole life was in this orphanage building. I just remember thinking how much I needed a mom at 10, 11, 12, still needed a mom, here I was in my early twenties at this point.”
Amanda: Right. Because it’s so much bigger than donating some clothing or some food, but it’s also so much bigger than one family adopting one child.
Karen: Right, exactly.
Amanda: Let’s talk about the ministry you fell into while you were there, bringing families into your home.
Karen: After, I’m trying to think how many years, eight or so years, fast-forward, I stayed in Ukraine. God showed me that there was more for me there. I was helping people with the adoption process and seeing just how convoluted and complicated it was and really just had a heart to start walking, specifically American families, through the process. Our ministry was also promoting adoption within Ukraine, but there wasn’t obviously the language barrier for Ukrainians adopting Ukrainian children. As Americans were coming over, I just wanted to find a way to bless them and help them through the process.
So I was able to get a larger apartment and I opened up a guest room in my home and started advertising it through a blog that I had and through word of mouth and would just host families as they would arrive in country to adopt their child or their children. They would stay with me anywhere from a night or two to sometimes several weeks as they were in process to adopt their children. It was just a really unique way to connect with families, especially on such an important part of their trip as they were coming to meet their child sometimes for the first time.
Amanda: There must be many, many moments that you remember from that time and hosting families in your home, but do you have a specific memory of a time where you thought, “Oh, this is what I was put here to do,” because you were able to help a family through this time?
Karen: By the time I was hosting families, I already was speaking the language. There were many times where I was able to help families navigate just the nuances of language and miscommunication with their kid. A funny story comes to mind of a girl, it was an older teen girl, and she was so nervous to tell … She thought that she had lice. Actually she did have lice, but she comes to tell me that she had lice in her hair. She just got into my apartment and she didn’t know how to communicate this to her mother. She was so stressed out. I was able to first of all help her get her the medicine she needed to get rid of the lice out her hair and then explain to the mom what was going on.
It sounds something like so silly and trivial, but in that moment, it was being able to be the bridge between the mother and the daughter about just an important thing and how do we get her what she needs right now to take care of this problem. There were other more serious conversations that I was able to help interpret between parents and children and for families also. A lot of times they’d come for an appointment of a specific child and then find out that that child that they’d come for wasn’t available for adoption because of some mistaken paperwork.
Just being able to pray with families and sit through that with them through really hard situations and explain my perspective, it was in so many of those moments that I definitely felt like I was exactly where God wanted me.
“It was in so many of those moments that I definitely felt like I was exactly where God wanted me.”
Amanda: Speaking of that language barrier, you didn’t grow up speaking Russian. There was a point where you said, “I have to do this to be able to do this work.” Can you tell us about that?
Karen: Yeah. In Ukraine, you have both the Ukrainian language and the Russian language. Where I was living, there was more Russian being spoken. I knew early on that if I was going to stay, I was going to have to study the language. I ended up taking some courses here in the U.S. when I was home on a short stint and then went back and then just really immersed myself in that and did a few more classes. But really, I say most of my language acquisition just came from living there, having some Ukrainian roommates. Got to the level where I was proficient in my conversational, speaking Russian, understanding most Ukrainian, but able to use the language that I had studied was a huge gift.
Amanda: Because they probably didn’t teach you the Russian word for lice in school.
Karen: Yeah, this is true. That was probably one that I learned … I just thought, as you said that, I was like, oh yeah, the word for lice, I do know that. Yes, those were ones that you definitely learned in context after visiting. Lice is common in large institutions with kids. I remember I think probably after visiting one time, I probably quickly learned that word for lice.
Amanda: We had two daughters. When one was turning 12, she had a birthday party with I think 12 other girls from her Girl Scout troop. A sleepover and it was a spa day situation. You’re already tired enough when that’s over. As soon as the last girl got picked up, I got a phone call, “I’m so sorry, but our daughter has lice.”
Karen: Oh no!
Amanda: Right? You’re just like, oh boy, this is going to be really fun. I remember how horrifying that felt in the moment, and I had to go call all the other girls’ parents, right? Yet we weren’t going to lose friends over it. I can just imagine this poor child feeling like, “Oh, they might just send me back.”
Karen: Yeah, yeah.
Amanda: What is it like to be the interpreter where sitting in the middle is much more being a social worker or a family therapist than it is simply being an interpreter?
Karen: Yeah, that’s a good point. I think that there’s so many things especially … I mean, for any listeners that speak another language, it’s one thing to interpret words, like exactly what’s being said, but then when you’re interpreting meaning as well because you understand the culture, and I think that so much is that so many things can get lost in translation when words are just being translated. But when you understand the orphanage context and what things meant for them there and I think just having lived there for so many years and working in that context, I was able to explain deeper meanings of things.
And even systems, the bureaucracy, every country has its bureaucracy, but Ukrainian bureaucracy was unique to that situation. Just helping families really wade through things. I think because I was an American that understood the Ukrainian culture, I could explain it to an American in a way that sometimes maybe their Ukrainian interpreter lost some of those nuances. I always felt that that was a cool gift that God gave me, being able to bridge that cultural gap.
“Having lived there for so many years and working in that context, I was able to explain deeper meanings of things.”
Amanda: And now that you’re back in the United States, and we’ll get to the book here just in a minute, I know our listeners are very excited to hear about that, but coming out of a situation, being bilingual, being that bridge in between cultures at very specific and sometimes traumatic moments, how do you feel like that skill or that time in your life, do you feel like that affects your day to day now?
Karen: Yeah. I’m trying to think specifically. Yes, I think especially with … It always makes me curious too when I meet people from other cultures. Because you understand that when you speak another language, it kind of just gives a richness. There’s still some words that I prefer the Russian word. It has a deeper meaning behind it. I think that just knowing that people that do speak a second language or a third language or have a different heart language to know that they have other ways of expressing things.
I always love when I find out someone speaks another language to just ask more there about meanings of words and how they use them. And also even in studying the Bible, I find that when you can dig in and find the meanings of words that that can be so helpful and enrich our faith. Yeah, I definitely feel like it has played into a lot of parts of my life.
Amanda: Speaking of things playing into different parts of your life, you came out of SPU with a theatre and a communications degree. You end up going to Ukraine, working for a broadcasting company, but really promoting adoption and doing these homestays and all this. But you ended up actually using your degree in some pretty interesting ways along the line. Do you want to tell us about that?
Karen: Yeah, yeah, it is amazing how God brings things full circle. So kind of twofold. Within working for the Christian Broadcasting Network, because of our media side of things and humanitarian side of things, we would tell a lot of the stories of lives being transformed, of families that we helped, children that we helped. A lot of those scripts would get written in Russian or Ukrainian and then I would help translate them into English and then contextualize them for a U.S. audience. I did a lot of writing.
We would produce those stories and sometimes I would help with the production aspects or the editing, the post-production, editing the timeline, which I felt even though I didn’t maybe directly study a lot of those things at SPU, skillsets that I learned of storytelling definitely figured into that process. And then to my surprise, I also started teaching drama part-time at an international school for missionary kids in Kiev. There was a school there that was in English and they found out that I had a background in theatre. Every spring I would produce their spring play at this international school.
That was in English, but it was just a fun, creative outlet to each spring work with a group of young people and pass on my love for the theatre. It was amazing how God brought so many things that I thought I was surrendering to him and giving up by moving overseas and was able to put so many things directly into use on the field in Ukraine.
“To my surprise, I also started teaching drama part-time at an international school for missionary kids in Kiev.”
Amanda: Isn’t it amazing how often that happens when we think we’re releasing, when we’re sacrificing something, that usually comes back to us in bigger and better ways than we even thought possible?
Karen: Yes, for sure.
Amanda: Speaking of bigger and better, this book, and it’s an amazing book, I hope everyone who hears this goes out and buys it, what first gave you the idea to write this book?
Karen: Well, in some ways, there was a woman, an adoptive mom, one of the earlier families to stay with me, and I would tell her various stories of previous families that had stay with me. She just said, “You should write a book.” I joked with her later on to say, “I think that your words were the seeds of this project,” because I think it just put that idea in my head like, “Oh, what if I did write a book? What story would I have to tell?” Even though I’m not an adoptive parent myself, I’ve had this really unique vantage point of having walked through the process with so many people and seen the really hard stories and the really good stories and everything in between.
Just with my background being a storyteller, I just felt like that might be my gift to the adoption community is to tell their story in a succinct way. That was probably the seed of the project. And then at the same time, as I hosted families, I had put up a map of the U.S. on my wall and my entryway of my apartment and I would just pin the locations of all the families that stayed with me. As the years went by, I had tons of pins all over my board and I just thought, oh, not only do I now know a lot of families across the U.S., they are truly scattered all throughout the U.S. It was the perfect little road trip.
It was like, oh, I could actually visit all these families and interview them. It just then started to become a dream. And then before I knew it, I was putting the dream to paper and reaching out to the families to see if they would be open to me telling their story.
Amanda: As you’re crisscrossing the U.S. interviewing more than 60 families, what would you say was the biggest surprise during the interview process?
Karen: Well, in some ways, I say that one of the biggest surprises was just how easy it was to pick up where I left off with all of these families. I think when you go through a shared experience in a foreign country, the foreign country had become my home, but for them, they were all out of their comfort zones when they were in Ukraine. I think having that shared experience and knowing that I was this random person who at one time had been a stranger, but yet I’d gone through one of the most challenging and intimate parts of their life going to a country to adopt a child.
I think it was like as I walked into their home, I mean, they had been in my home in Ukraine, but as I walked in, it was just so natural for them to want to share. I think they had shared with me on the front end of their journey being vulnerable and out of their comfort zones and now they were being vulnerable again, but with perhaps the more challenging parts of their stories. And because I had seen them on the front end, I think they felt the safety to just share whatever they wanted to share with me, knowing that I would honor their stories as I told them. I think that that was just a sweet surprise was how easy it was.
Some of these families I hadn’t seen in seven years. There was that fear of like, oh, is it going to be awkward to ask them these really hard questions? But it was surprisingly very easy and very comfortable to just pick up where we had left off.
Amanda: What were some of the bigger takeaways after processing all of these interviews?
Karen: The book title, Adoption Through the Rearview Mirror, I think that was the whole perspective of the book was what does it mean to look back at where you’ve been, knowing that where you’ve been is in the past and where you’re going is before you, but what can you learn from the past? I think that pausing and seeing even in the midst of really difficult and challenging situations how God had worked or how God was working now or perhaps where they felt like prayers had been unanswered, but they hadn’t lost hope because they knew that the story was still being written, like the going forward.
If anything, I think it was just continually looking at the perspective that had been gained. Once you’ve gone through an adoption, you’ve gained so much perspective. You’ve gone in perhaps with some rose-colored glasses of how things would be. When things don’t turn out exactly how you had hoped, how do you keep going forward with hope? I think that that was how families truly encouraged me was I saw that so many of them in spite of difficult things were still choosing to cling to hope and remembering that God was still writing their story and the story of the children that they had adopted.
“Once you’ve gone through an adoption, you’ve gained so much perspective.”
Amanda: The subtitle of the book, Adoption Through the Rearview Mirror, subtitle, Learning From Stories of Heartache and Hope, I really love that because isn’t that what we do day in and day out? Isn’t that what we do from the Bible? Isn’t that what we do from each other’s testimony? We can learn from others’ heartache and know that it’s normal and know that maybe we should be a little more grateful than we are. We can also learn from each other’s hope and victory and say, “If they can do it, so can I.” Right?
Amanda: I love that you’ve been able to collect all these stories for those who are either going through it, thinking of going through it, or maybe they’re come out the other side and they just need to know that others have gone through what they’ve gone through.
Amanda: Now that you have completed this part of the journey and the book is out there to touch lives, what do you wish everyone knew about adoption?
Karen: I’ve obviously alluded to a lot of these stories were hard, and I think there is enough literature and stories out there that people know that. That’s obviously why not everybody adopts, is they recognize the challenges in that. I often say adoption is broken. It’s born out of brokenness, because for whatever reason, the biological parents weren’t able to parent the children. Adoption is truly born out of a brokenness, but yet it can be beautiful as well. I always say some of the stories you see more of that brokenness and others you quickly see the redemption, and it’s resting in between that.
I think that for people considering adoption, it would be that reminder of not to walk into it without counting the cost and to not consider what the challenges would be and how do you prepare yourself, how do you have a support system, a community and resources. But then to the whole community, just reminding ourselves that if we are in Christ, we have been adopted into God’s family. There is this spiritual parallel, and adoption is so close to the heart of the Father. If we’re not adopting ourselves, how are we involved in that? How are we either supporting adoptive or foster families or kids at risk of going into foster care?
There’s so many ways that we can be involved. I would just ask people to consider how God is maybe speaking to you on the topic of adoption, whether that is your family to consider it or to think about how you might support the cause and to help families that are walking that path.
“I often say adoption is broken. It’s born out of brokenness, because for whatever reason, the biological parents weren’t able to parent the children. Adoption is truly born out of a brokenness, but yet it can be beautiful as well. I always say some of the stories you see more of that brokenness and others you quickly see the redemption, and it’s resting in between that.”
Amanda: Yes, absolutely. There’s so many ways to help beyond adopting that child into your own family. I think your story is so powerful because of that very thing. Your story isn’t that you adopted five different children out of Ukraine. Your story is that you were able to help so many families, dozens and dozens of families, along their journey and how powerful that is and how sometimes we forget that there are ways we can help that maybe aren’t the one plus one equals two. Maybe there’s other ways that we haven’t considered yet. Maybe being a theatre major, that could also be a way, be a road to what God has for us, from one theatre major to another.
Amanda: All right, everyone, Adoption Through the Rearview Mirror, it’s available on Amazon. Go check it out. There’s so many wonderful stories, laughter and tears, I promise you. All right, Karen, it’s been so wonderful talking to you. Please come back after your next project, but we’d like to end with our famous last question. If you could have everyone in Seattle to one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us to?
Karen: Without a doubt, I would say follow Jesus. It’s the best decision I ever made in my life. I know that if we were all following Jesus and surrendering our wills and turning our lives to him, that every city on this earth would be a better place. It starts with each individual looking to him. That’s what I would say.
Amanda: That’s a great answer. I know we said it’s our last question, but I’m going to ask one more. What’s next for you? What’s your next project?
Karen: Goodness! Well, I’m teaching right now in a school. I’m putting that theatre degree back to work and teaching some drama right now. My heart is still very much connected to Ukraine. As listeners likely know with the war continuing there, my heart is very much knit to friends and loved ones there. I’ve gone back a few times to volunteer and help with some humanitarian relief going on. My hope is to return early next year and do more of that. I don’t know. I’m just praying for how God might continue to use me in that realm.
I said I was coming home for a season. That season’s now been three and a half years that I’ve been back in the U.S. Just perfectly considering what God might have next for me in the near or later future, but definitely still have a heart that is very much connected to what God is doing in Ukraine.
Amanda: How can we pray for Ukraine at this time?
Karen: I mean, the recent news is intensifying. I mean, praying for peace sounds so generic, but I think ultimately the church has been very strong. I have a lot of Christian friends there and a lot of pastors that have remained in country when many people have fled. I would just continue to pray for the church to be a city on a hill in a very dark time. A lot of people have come to know Jesus through this war because they have seen the church remain, and that’s who’s been providing aid and support and relief is NGOs have been connecting with churches on the ground and they’ve been distributing.
I would say pray for the church, pray that they would remain strong and just praying for protection over people as the reality of bombs and missiles still rained down. Praying for protection and praying for faith is what I would ask for prayer for.
Amanda: All right. Well, we will do that. I will surely commit to pray with you, and I know a lot of our listeners will as well. Well, Karen, thank you so much and I hope you’ll come back after your next project begins.
Karen: Thanks, Amanda.