Open Hearts

TV news vet Janet Zappala and her husband reach out to a little girl a world away.

It’s the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and Janet Zappala has every reason to be frazzled. She’s expecting a houseful of relatives for the holidays, plus a call from her son, Brad, who needs a ride home from the airport, where he’s arriving from the University of Miami. And to top it off, Whole Foods just called about a turkey she needs to pick up.

A 15-year television news veteran most recently with Comcast’s CN8, Zappala should be running around in a pre-holiday frenzy—but she’s not. Instead, she’s sitting calmly in her home office in Wayne, looking polished and put together as she tells the story of how she and her husband were lucky enough to find their daughter.

The smile that comes so naturally to Zappala these days is one of contentment. “This is a very happy time in our lives,” she says.

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Janet Zappala with daughter Natalya, son Brad and husband Steve Brody. (Photo by John Wynn)It’s been a whirlwind of late—one that began in September 2007, when she and husband Steve Brody welcomed Natalya into their home. Now, the former empty-nesters are consumed in the busy routine of raising an 11-year-old—days filled with dance classes, ice skating and homework.

“We wanted a little girl so much,” says Zappala. “Our life with Natalya has far exceeded our expectations. We feel so lucky to have her as part of our family.”

Luck. Fate. Destiny. All are words that could easily describe the journey that led to an orphanage in Kyrgyzstan, the country in Central Asia where they found Natalya. It took Zappala years to realize this happy ending. In 1993, she came to Philadelphia from her native Los Angeles for a job as an anchor and reporter at Channel 10—a single mother with a young son from her first marriage. Within two years, she’d met Brody, who was also divorced and had two sons.

Zappala and Brody married in 1998 and planned on adding to their family. Fertility issues initially thwarted their plans, so they had to make adjustments. “Adoption was always an option—one of Steve’s sons is adopted,” admits Zappala, an Emmy-winning journalist who’s also a certified nutritionist with a new book in the works. “We really wanted a child, and we knew it was the right thing to do.”

After some failed attempts at adopting here in the U.S., the couple explored their international options, deciding on World Links Adoption agency in Scranton. “I felt an immediate connection with the owner, Tatiana Suslin—she’s wonderful,” says Zappala.

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At a daylong orientation, the agency stressed three facts to Zappala and Brody: The adoption process wouldn’t be quick; it wouldn’t be easy; and it wouldn’t be cheap. Suslin has helped navigate hundreds of families through the maze of international adoption. She formed the agency in 1996, after she arrived in Pennsylvania from Russia. “A neighbor asked me to help her with adopting a child from Russia,” says Suslin.

Given the number of American families looking to adopt from other countries, Suslin soon realized she could make a career out of facilitating the process. Two years later, World Links Adoption was operating as a licensed agency.

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Over the past decade, Suslin has placed children from Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Ukraine, Guatemala, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Poland, Russia and other countries. Zappala’s daughter was one of 19,613 international children welcomed into American families in 2007. Suslin says the cost of such an adoption averages about $30,000. That includes traveling to the country for a first meeting and bringing the child home, along with various application and processing fees.

Zappala and Brody knew they were facing a time-intensive and expensive endeavor, but nothing would deter them. The couple also knew they wanted a girl, preferably 4 years old or younger. In March 2005, Zappala flew to Moscow. Once there, she boarded another plane on route to Perm, near Siberia. “There I was, by myself, on this dilapidated plane flying over the Euro Mountains,” she says. “Of course I was nervous, but I was so excited. And when you have such a passion and you’re on such a mission, your fear is dissipated to a great extent.”

A representative from the agency met Zappala, joining her for a two-hour journey to an orphanage. “There were all these children running around,” she says. “And you stop and think, ‘Oh, my goodness—all these children with no families and no parents.’ There are so many people who want to adopt, and if they could just see all these children who need their love.”

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Zappala met a 10-month-old baby girl. “She was adorable,” Zappala recalls. “She came right into my arms, and I fell in love.”

Within hours, Zappala was certain the baby was the one. But shortly after she returned home, Suslin called with devastating news: Russia was freezing adoptions indefinitely to reaccredit its agencies. “I was so disappointed,” says Zappala. “I came back home thinking we had a child—and just like that, she was taken away.”

In the meantime, Zappala was consumed by her mother’s battle with cancer. “She and I had such a wonderful relationship,” she says. “She was my best friend.”

Zappala put adoption plans on hold to care for her mother and mourn her loss. But by late 2006, she’d resumed her search. Suslin began e-mailing Zappala photos of children—one a 9-year-old girl.

“She was so cute,” Zappala says. “But I was imagining the oldest child we would adopt would be, at the most, 5 years old.”

Zappala’s concerns were legitimate. What if the child didn’t want to be adopted, or had a hard time adjusting to a new family in a new country?

Suslin tried to reassure the couple. “She told us what a great kid Natalya is,” Zappala says. “She also said how much Natalya expressed wanting to have a family, and how she understood what being adopted meant.”

Zappala and Brody took a leap of faith and flew 17 hours to Kyrgyzstan. It turns out Natalya was worth the trip. The couple spent four days getting to know her with the help of a translator.

“We loved her, and she seemed to love us,” says Zappala. “She told us she wanted a family.”

That’s all the couple needed to hear. “I just wanted to know how quickly she could come home,” says Brody.

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Kyrgyzstan’s adoption requirements aren’t as strict as Russia’s, but there was still plenty to do. “We were waking up in the middle of the night to talk to people from Kyrgyzstan about the adoption because of the time difference,” says Zappala.

Five months later—after a detailed home evaluation, after all the background checks were in order, after police clearance was granted and immigration procedures were complete—the couple welcomed their daughter home. “It feels like I was living here forever,” says Natalya with only a trace of an accent.

On this day, mother and daughter are cuddled up together in an oversized chair in Zappala’s home office reminiscing about the past year. “I was so excited when they told me I was going to be adopted,” says Natalya.

During her first year here, she has traveled to California, New York, Florida and New Jersey. And while the language barrier made the transition difficult in the beginning, Natalya is now fluent in English and excelling in her fifth grade classes at a Main Line private school. “It took me about a week to learn English,” says Natalya.

“It took you a little longer than that,” laughs Zappala, who cites three months of tutoring and ESL (English as a Second Language) courses. “Natalya is so driven to learn.”

The prospect of having a little sister was an adjustment for Brad. “I was skeptical when I first heard about the adoption because I didn’t know we’d find someone as wonderful as Tash (the family’s nickname for Natalya),” he says. “The whole experience has been great.”

Zappala likens the adoption process to childbirth: It’s a pain you forget the minute it’s over. “All the blood and the sweat, and the frustration, aggravation and money, is all worthwhile,” she says. “People may say Natalya is the lucky one, but I think we all are.”

Inspired by her experience, Zappala offers support to prospective adoptive parents through World Links. “They all end the conversation with the same question: Should we adopt?” says Zappala. “My answer always is: Check your heart, and you’ll know if it’s something you really want—that will keep you going if you want to quit. ”

To learn more about World Links Adoption, visit

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