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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A true story that will tug your heart strings

From Russia, With Love: Golfers
Help Find Missing Brother
Sisters Anastasia and Maria Kostina never imagined how they would impact the lives of one family when they arrived in Lafayette, La., last year without a place to stay during tournament week.
They were rookies on the 2007 Duramed FUTURES Tour and they were the only Russian golf professionals competing in America. All they needed was a host family for the week.
Phone calls were made and the next thing the sisters knew, they were staring across the dinner table at a Russian boy with a Southern (America) accent. The boy, Misha Mann, now 7, had been adopted by an American family in Lafayette and his new connection with the Russian house guests would begin a journey that will forever link the lives of three families -- spanning from Lafayette to Siberia to Moscow.
And all because a golf tournament came to town.
Lafayette residents Sandy and David Mann had not signed up to host players during the Tour’s Louisiana Pelican Classic, but when they heard the Russian players needed a place to call home for the week, they jumped at the chance. They saw it as an opportunity for their adopted son to learn about his homeland and to meet other Russians.
It was an instant connection. The child clung to the sisters and thumped his chest, telling his mother, “But mama, these are my people.” The Kostina sisters cooked his favorite Russian soup and Misha ate six bowls of the familiar treat. His mom froze the rest in portions that he would take to school.
“He literally climbs us,” said second-year professional Anastasia Kostina of Nakhabino, Russia. “And he ran and jumped on me and knocked me on my butt on the driving range.”
But last year’s initial connection between the Kostina sisters and the Mann family turned into a much deeper family bond stemming from a discovery that was made when Sandy and her husband traveled to Russia to pick up the three-year-old boy from a Siberian orphanage.
In examining his papers, they learned that Misha had a brother still in Russia. The two boys had been separated when Misha was three and Evgeniy was just over four years old. They were placed in different orphanages and never told what happened to each other. Evgeniy was begging for food when the orphanage found him.
“When we went to get Misha, they wouldn’t tell us anything about his brother,” said Sandy. “It was a dead end. I was like, ‘Lord, you’re going to have to show me where this child is.’ I just wanted to know that he was OK.”
And then the Duramed FuturesTour came to Lafayette and with it came two young pros who could help the Mann family find answers to their questions and solve a puzzle half a world away. The Kostina sisters listened to the story, read Misha’s birth certificate and called home to the Moscow area to ask their father, Alexander Kostin, if he could help.
Kostin began making phone calls. He called the orphanages in Siberia and he found the phone number for Evgeniy’s foster mother, Vera. In three days, he was able to bridge a gap that the Mann family had struggled with for 2½ years.
“It was just incredible,” said Sandy. “We had searched and searched for this child and I had explored all my avenues, then along came these two golfers. Russia is a country with almost 142 million people and only three professional women golfers and two of them ended up in my house in Louisiana. What are the chances of that happening?”
But the story doesn’t end there.
Kostin, who has never met the Mann family, hired someone in Siberia to set up a computer at Vera and Evgeniy’s home. He also had Skype installed – a software program which allows users to make free calls over the Internet to other Skype users. With a special camera, users can also see each other on the computer screen.
Back in Louisiana, the Mann family also installed Skype and they hired an English tutor twice a week to help teach English to Evgeniy. And then they dialed up Siberia.
“They put the two boys on the phone together,” said Maria Kostina, also a second-year member of the Duramed Futures Tour. “Evgeniy said ‘I love you’ in Russian to Misha. At the same time, Misha said, ‘I love you’ in English to Evgeniy. Neither understood what each other had said. But Evgeniy remembered his younger brother even though Misha didn’t know about Evgeniy.”
Later, while riding in the car, Misha began to put it all together. He asked his mom if the Russian boy he had been talking to over the Internet was his brother. That’s when he learned about his missing link.
Now, the two families talk every morning before Misha goes to school. The boys hold up pictures of things to each other and listen to each other’s music. Evgeniy sent Misha items using the Russian alphabet.
Last week, when the Kostina sisters returned to the Mann family’s home for the Louisiana Pelican Classic for the second year, they participated in the phone calls to Siberia with the two families and helped translate. Even when the Kostinas are on the road playing tournament golf, they have three-way phone calls, translating for Sandy with Misha’s “babushka” (grandmother) at the orphanage.
“Golf is a lot more than just golf,” said Maria, who gave her favorite Russian National Team shirt to Misha. “It can change lives. It can bring people together.”
“We have made friends for life because a golf tournament brought us here,” added Anastasia. “This has all been pretty unbelievable.”
To assist the orphanage where Misha once lived, the Manns now communicate with Misha’s babushka to buy toys and to bring Christmas cheer to the children there. With the help of the Kostina sisters, the Manns communicate with the caregiver and wire money to Russia.
Babushka buys food, vitamins, supplies and toys for the children and sends photos of the children with the items they have received. In two years and using a hot chocolate stand in their front yard around Christmas, the Manns have raised $21,000 from family and friends to send to Siberia.
They are now having a playground built at the Siberian orphanage for the children who once played with their son.
This week, Vera (Evgeniy’s foster-mom), along with a translator, will travel 48 hours by train to the Russian embassy in Siberia to apply for travel visas. The Manns had their Louisiana senators and congressmen write letters to the embassy requesting that Vera and Evgeniy be allowed to travel to Louisiana this summer. The goal is for the two brothers to be reunited.
And of course, if the visas are approved, the bridge will continue. Vera will call the Kostina sister’s father in Moscow and he will call his daughters in the United States and the Kostina sisters will call Sandy in Louisiana, who will tell Misha that his brother is coming.
“It was fate that brought us all together,” said Sandy, who also has a daughter. “It’s a real relationship that we have with those girls, not just a host family situation anymore. It’s been a gentle process and all the pieces are finally coming together. The Kostinas really are our bridge and we are forever linked.”
All because a golf tournament came to town.