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'The last day in Ukraine, I was thankful to leave'

Goodrich 'America and Me' essay contest winner, reflects on finding a family

From leftLisa, Maksim, Kristen, Emily and Annie were all born in Ukraine, but within the past three years, were adopted by Vicki and Paul Jankowski of Goodrich. (click for larger version)
April 03, 2013 - "My name is Lisa, but once upon a time, my name was Ivanna, and I was an orphan living in the streets of Kiev, Ukraine."

This is the opening line of Lisa Jankowski's essay "My Heroes that Saved My Life," which was chosen as the first place winner from Goodrich Middle School entries in the "America and Me" essay contest. She will now compete with other first place winners from around the state.

Farm Bureau Insurance sponsors the contest, now in its 44th year, for Michigan students in the eighth grade. The contest, according to, "encourages Michigan eighth grade students to write about their American heroes, especially the people who have made a big difference in the students' personal lives."

Lisa Jankowski's heroes are Vicki and Paul Jankowski, the parents who rescued her from a dismal life less than two years ago.

"My favorite part about being here is that I have a family and they love me," said Lisa. "I really love my family and I dont know what I would do if I didn't have them. Here I have family that love me and there I didn't have anyone that could show me love like my parents do and my sisters and brothers."

"Fifty thousand children live in the sewers or streets of Ukraine. When the Soviet Union fell, Ukraine and its people became poor. Even now, some children are thrown away by parents, and some run away."

Vicki and Paul have been married seven years and have a blended family of five children that range in age from 23 to 35. Three years ago, they were planning to retire when they went to a presentation at their church in which the speaker talked about the children of Ukraine and the dire circumstances in which they live. The presenter showed a video that made a dramatic impact on the Jankowskis as they watched a little girl speak in Russian about her dream to have a family and a little boy that wanted to be a carpenter when he grew up to build homes for every child.

"I ran up (to the speaker) to find out who these children were and how we could help them," said Vicki.

Only a few weeks later, she and Paul traveled to Ukraine in search of the children that had touched their hearts. They found three girls, teens and pre-teen, at the orphanage, now named Emily, Annie, and Kristen that they would fully adopt by October 2010. Another girl, then named Ivanna, and now known as Lisa, pleaded with them to take her, too.

"I never knew who my father was, my mother had me very young, and she died when I was five years old. After that, our grandfather put my older brother and me into an orphanage. I was only eight. My life in the orphanage was better, but I felt unloved. It was cold and lonely but at least there were more kids like me."

The Jankowskis were overwhelmed with trying to assimilate the three girls they had brought back to the United States, but couldn't forget Lisa and her older brother, Maksim.

"The orphanage gave us food, shelter, and schooling. My brother, Maksim, and I stayed the longest in the orphanage. Maksim turned 16 years old, the age when an orphanage will no longer keep you, but our orphanage was kind and continued to protect my brother. For so long, I had hoped someone would adopt us. I felt sad when people told me no one would adopt us. I tried not to listen to them, but they told me that repeatedly."

In July 2011, the Jankowskis returned to Ukraine to adopt Maksim, now 18, and Lisa, 15.

The last day in Ukraine, I was thankful to leave because I knew if I had not been adopted; my life would have been tragic.

"We arrived in America on July 27, 2011. I finally felt like I had a home and a family. I felt extremely loved. My father taught me math, and my mother taught me how to be a girl. My family loves me very much, and that is how I am still alive here in America. They saved me from death, and they helped me to live and to know that I am loved. I am very thankful to have a family that will love me, and will protect me, forever."

"All of my children are over the top blowing their teachers away," said Vicki. "They are thirsty for knowledge...When you ask them what they are thankful for, they say they are grateful they get to go to school. In Ukraine, only rich kids get to go to school."

To Lisa, her life in Ukraine seems long ago and far away now, as she notes that everything she wanted and prayed for in life is here now.

"My parents are my own Michigan Heroes because they gave me a future to live, and because of all the children they could have adopted, they chose me."

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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