Stars in the eyes of a lost Russian girl

Lake Placid serves as a sanctuary to people of all kinds. For one little girl, the feeling of refuge is stronger than usual. Ekaterina Alexandranova Petuhova Marshall, 18, found herself in Lake Placid seven years ago with a painful burden.

Ekaterina was lost in the world without a place to go. Her mother passed away right in front of her when she was just 5 years old, leaving her to the custody of an orphanage in Kaluga, Russia. She spent seven years there locked away, trying to survive.

In a recent interview, Ekaterina explains how life began to tilt around in her mind when she thought about the rules of the orphanage. If she was still there at the age of 15, they would have to kick her out onto the streets, alone in Russia. Cigarette smoke blown from the lips of 6 and 7-year-old children clouded around her as she decided to find a place to call home. Life was tough.

“There was never really anything to eat,” she said. “We were all very small and scared, but they always managed to make us work.”

The staff became physically violent with the children as their weak little bodies failed to complete chores, but Ekaterina stayed strong. She wasn’t going to let anything break her stride.

Kostia, an alleged affiliate of the Russian mafia, had been actively setting aside money for the orphanage over the years. He had even paid into a vacation program to make sure a few of the children were able to move around and possibly network for foster parents abroad. Ekaterina was selected to spend two weeks in America. She packed a suitcase gleefully and was flown to Connecticut, where she stayed with three Americans she refers to as “Steve, Ileene and Kourtney.” Upon her departure from Russia Ekaterina was severely malnourished, weighing approximately 48 pounds at the age of 11. Her journey was long, but well worth it.

Ekaterina had never really seen toys before, but when she arrived in America everything became playful and battery operated. Her fears and nightmares subsided while the family deliberated upon whether or not they were going to adopt her. Their time together was short, and the three decided Ekaterina needed to see America for all it’s worth. A road trip would serve as an introduction to this new and exciting world.

The journey staggered around a few different states and landed in Lake Placid, where they decided to play mini-golf at Pirate’s Cove. The day was hot and humid, the opposite of what the Russian girl was used to.

Ekaterina became flustered and ill under the rays of sun. So, the family requested a rain check so they could play later. They explained to Pirate’s Cove manager Scotty Marshall “This little girl is from an orphanage in Russia and isn’t used to the humidity. Could we come back later please?”

Scotty started walking toward the office, but something made her feet pivot like a weathervane caught in hurricane winds.

“Are you going to adopt her?” she blurted out to the three standing at the window. Ekaterina, still clueless to the English language, didn’t understand while the family explained their inability to complete the adoption process. So Scotty turned back once more to get the rain check coupon.

But then Scotty pivoted and ran back yelling, “I’ll take her! I’ll take her! I want to adopt her!”

The family was in awe. Standing there in the heat of the sun, they agreed to call the adoption agency. The group huddled around a telephone and made the phone call. Ekaterina would finish up her two weeks in America and then return to Russia.

Scotty’s husband Brian arrived in the midst of the situation. He said, “I never really come around to visit my wife at work that often, but on that day I was going to see if she wanted to go out to lunch.” He walked into the middle of an adoption without even knowing it.

After the initial call went through to the adoption agency and the fate of Ekaterina was set into motion, the family asked where a good place to eat would be. Scotty and Brian named about five different restaurants, and the family left with Ekaterina.

On this day, however, everything seemed to be fated. Scotty and Brian ended up at the same restaurant as Steve, Ileene, Kourtney and Ekaterina for lunch.

The second Scotty and Brian walked in, Ekaterina became excited and instructed them, in Russian, to join her for lunch. The language barrier kept her from even realizing what exactly was happening, but something made her feel very comfortable with Scotty and Brian. The adults discussed the situation. Someone needed to get her out of that orphanage.

Brian and Scotty looked across the table at a feeble girl, lost in the world with nothing in her possession but the twinkle of her eyes.

Lunch was short lived, but Ekaterina wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye. She ran across the restaurant into Scotty and Brian’s arms, small and bruised, and then gingerly said something in Russian. Scotty and Brian had no idea what she was talking about as they turned to one another with tears in their eyes.

Ekaterina would return to Russia in three days.

Back in the orphanage, she received letters from Scotty and Brian every day; they even visited twice, bringing toys for all of the children. They asked Ekaterina what exactly it was that she said that day, to which she responded, “I love you.”

One year later, the adoption went through and all of the paperwork was filed. Ekaterina wasn’t lost anymore. She had found refuge right here in the arms of a loving American family at the age of 11.

Ekaterina has been a student in Lake Placid schools since the third grade and plans to be a traveling nurse in the future. She is an avid kickboxer and enjoys horseback riding. Her story is told all over the world in association with the Playmakers Spread Optimism campaign. Playmakers is a nonprofit organization affiliated with Life Is Good.