CLOVER - Five years ago on a humanitarian mission to Ukraine, Karmelle Chaise saw something she still can't get out of her aid worker's mind or her mother's heart: a lone child in a squalid orphanage silently rocking back and forth like a metronome.
"When you see a child literally aching to be held, it stops you like nothing else," said Chaise, a mother of two. "You can't turn away and you can't not help."
Several weeks later, Chaise returned to the former Soviet state with her husband, Keith, and adopted her two children, 3-year-old Avonlea and 1-year-old Eden.
And now she's on a mission to help the orphans she had to leave behind.
At the invitation of two Ukrainian orphanages, she's leaving Friday to start a program to teach caregivers the importance of human touch to infants. She and other volunteers will teach the unskilled workers the science and art of how to hold, rock and even massage children.
Chaise is taking along two physical therapists and another adoptive parent volunteer, along with a suitcase of DVDs and literature to spread the word that along with food and shelter, children need to be held.
The trip has two purposes: to help physically rehabilitate the children, and to help make the children more adoptable.
Chaise knows of several other Americans who went to Ukraine to adopt children, but their plans fell through.
"They were so traumatized by the orphanages and the physical condition of the children," she said. "They returned childless to the States."
Chaise, who developed Hepatitis A along with her husband while adopting their children in Ukraine, wants potential adoptive parents to realize that some children do have significant health problems -- fetal alcohol syndrome, hydrocephalus, severe motor-skill developmental delays -- but that many have a resilience that, with help, allows them to become normal, healthy children.
She also wants them to know that the caregivers are not evil, just woefully understaffed and underfinanced. Some caregivers are responsible for up to 50 babies.
Chaise has established a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, ORPHANBABY, and has begun The Human Touch Project, but she's doing this on a shoestring budget out of her bedroom in Clover. She has no Web site, no foundation underwriting her administrative costs, and no church helping her defray her travel expenses.
The trip to Ukraine is being paid for by the volunteers, who are taking vacation time from work. A college professor is allowing her graduate students to earn credit by studying the physiological/psychological effects of human touch and stimuli on infants.
Chaise says the driving force behind her efforts has been the blossoming of her own Ukrainian children. On a recent afternoon, the children cavorted in their yard with their dogs, Josie and Ginger. With a little coaxing, Avonlea ("Avi") played a spirited version of "Silent Night" on her violin while her brother climbed a tree and quietly listened. Their Southern accents and "yes ma'ams" hide their lineage.
The children are practically unrecognizable from how they were in August 2001 at Kharkiv's Baby House #2, a stark warehouse with broken windows and up to five children in a crib. Babies sometimes go undiapered.
Neither of Chaise's children weighed more than 14 pounds. Both suffered from rickets; neither had developed teeth because of vitamin deficiencies. Avonlea had only patches of hair, and her bones were so brittle, she broke her shin bone when she attempted to walk. She couldn't sit up because she had so little trunk control, and she did not speak or smile until two months after arriving in the United States.
Eden lived in a playpen with three other babies. Since arriving at the orphanage, he had never been outside, never seen blue sky. His eyes are still sensitive to sunlight.
"He was so pale," Chaise said. "We were leaving the orphanage and we carried him outside. The sunlight actually frightened him, and he tried to block it with his hands."
Chaise said her and her husband's first reaction to the bleak situation was to adopt more children. But then they realized they couldn't save them all.
"We decided the best thing would be to determine what the staff's specific needs were, and then develop a plan to meet those needs," said Chaise, who has a master's degree in community development and worked as a fundraiser for Heifer International, a nonprofit that helps place livestock with families in developing nations. "We decided that we could get the best bang for our buck by focusing on getting physical therapists to the caregivers."
Dr. Patricia Moretti, who teaches counseling and psychology at Santa Clara University in California, has been helping provide research for The Human Touch Project for two years.
"Karmelle leads with her heart. It's hard to refuse her," said Moretti, who hopes to visit Ukraine in June on Chaise's next trip. "The funny thing is, if she's successful, and the Ukrainians adopt her programs, she will have worked herself right out of a job."
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