Victorious: Despite childhood obstacles as an orphan in Ukraine, junior triumphs

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Victorious: Despite childhood obstacles as an orphan in Ukraine, junior triumphs

The Southerner

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Victoria's ninth birthday, with her adopted father and little brother Stephen.

By Jolie Jones

A little girl looked through the crack of a door and saw her mom injecting a small needle into her dad’s arm.

Victoria Selene Dragstedt was born in Novoasosk, Ukraine, to parents suffering from alcohol and substance abuse. From ages 5 to 7 years old she lived in an orphanage. When she was 7, an Atlanta couple adopted her and her younger brother Stephen.

Looking at the Grady junior today, you see no trace of the Ukrainian orphan she was just a decade ago. The challenges she survived still influence her personality and her outlook on life. She’s more comfortable keeping to herself, especially when she’s around a large group of people. She’d rather blend in than speak out.
This reticence doesn’t define her. It’s a part of her. She’s multifaceted; some know her as a loud free spirit, while others see a quiet girl with a sweet smile. When asked about life growing up in Ukraine, Victoria describes it as a dream because she can only remember bits and pieces of her time there.


She lived in a house with her grandparents, her parents and three brothers. Her two older brothers remain a hazy memory; she can’t recall their names but remembers one of them having a learning disability.
“Our house was really empty,” Victoria said. “There was no furniture except I remember my grandfather had a really big bed.”

When she was 5 years old she suffered pneumonia and was hospitalized for two months. A few weeks later her grandmother told Victoria that she and two of her brothers were going to the hospital. Victoria, Stephen and one of her older brothers were taken to an orphanage instead.

“[Stephen and I] kept switching rooms, and I thought it was different orphanages,” Victoria said.
Her brother Stephen would lie in a crib for most of the day while Dragstedt befriended a 5-year-old boy who was her roommate.

“My mom came back and told me she was only taking our mentally challenged brother back home with her,” Victoria said. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

At age 7, she was transferred away from her brother into a different house where she lived with kids her age. Dragstedt described the orphanage as having rows of beds where both boys and girls slept in the same room. The orphans had lessons three to four times a week where they learned to read and write.

The children used their fingers instead of toothbrushes to clean their teeth. Daily hygiene consisted of standing in a silver basin and washing with a bar of soap and a sponge. Everyone’s clothes were washed together and thrown into a pile from which they would choose their outfits for the week. Kitchen duty was a chore shared between the orphans. Three or four children took turns each day wearing an apron and handing out plates, napkins and silverware to the other 50 children.


Halfway across the globe, Lester Dragstedt and Michelle Hollberg were interested in adopting after being told they couldn’t conceive children of their own. The couple first tried domestic adoption but soon grew frustrated.
“We went through the whole process to be foster parents,” Hollberg said. “We had to go to 10-week parenting classes. Things weren’t moving along.”

After exploring international adoption in several countries like China, the couple grew frustrated with their lack of involvement in the adoption process.


Their experience in Ukraine was different. After completing the necessary documentation, the couple flew to Ukraine, and were quickly interviewed by a government official.
A translator helped them communicate, and the orphanage director soon began pulling children’s adoption profiles from rows and rows of filing cabinets, which consisted of a description and a picture about the size of a thumbnail.

“We waited in a long line then went into a room and they showed us a picture of [Victoria and Stephen],” Dragstedt said. “We said, ‘those are our kids.’”

Dragstedt and Hollberg had originally wanted a 5-year-old girl, but they fell in love with 7-year-old Victoria and her little brother.

Immediately after their meeting, they traveled to Mariupol, where the sibling’s orphanage was located. The couple noted cold weather and a low standard of living in the small city.

“You can tell that people are making do on a lot less money,” Dragstedt said. “Everyone lives in government-made apartments. The elevators were all broken, and there was no heat or lights in the halls. We had to climb six flights of stairs to get into a cold apartment.”

Meanwhile, the siblings were introduced to multiple couples interested in adopting them. Due to Stephen’s illness, the pair saw many couples reject them.

Hollberg and Dragstedt later arrived at the orphanage only to hear the orphanage director say they could not see Victoria. She claimed Victoria had suffered too much heartbreak from other prospective parents. After the couple’s persistence, the director allowed Victoria to meet them but refrained from mentioning anything about adoption.
When they saw Victoria, Dragstedt said she was extremely skinny and looked like a 5-year-old had cut her hair. Her clothes were five sizes too big and she had a giant bow, nearly the size of her head, in her hair.

“She was grinning and smiling,” Dragstedt said. “She knew what was going on. She was flirty trying to get our attention, but also shy.”

Stephen was small and malnourished; he was two-and-half years old but wearing clothes sized to fit a 12-month-old. Stephen suffered from ear infections and pneumonia as well as malnourishment.


“After we adopted him, I sat for the first two weeks and all I did was feed him,” Hollberg said.
Victoria had been raised with her birth family and knew more about the family experience. Stephen was only 6 months old when he had been institutionalized.
In the orphanage they would put all the younger kids on a potty schedule: toddlers spent 15 minutes out of every hour sitting on a toilet.

After Stephen was adopted he had to be re-potty trained. At the age of 12 he still rocks himself to sleep every night.

Hollberg and Dragstedt, who divorced in 2004, are unaware of any information involving Victoria and Stephen’s biological parents and their past life with them. All they know is what Victoria remembers.
“In Ukraine they do not think there is a benefit to having any knowledge of their biological parents,” Hollberg said.
Victoria credits Dragstedt and Hollberg with saving her life and that of her brother. They have a better life then they ever would have had, Lester Dragstedt said.


Within four months Victoria was speaking English. Despite learning the language, she did not always find it easy to communicate.

“The hard part was when she felt sad or confused,” Dragstedt said. “She couldn’t describe how she was feeling.”
Victoria quickly adjusted into the American world and a stable home, and now says being adopted is just a layer of her and not who she is.

Her close friends, junior McKenzie Taylor agrees adoption isn’t what defines Victoria.
“I don’t know who she was in Ukraine, but I think who she really is has come from living in America,” Taylor said. “She’s a very caring and mature person. You really have to get to know her for her to open up to you.”
Despite her unusual circumstances Hollberg and Dragstedt have always felt they were a regular family.
“Six months into school, one of her friends asked her if I was her real dad or her adopted dad,” Dragstedt said. “Victoria said, ‘it’s my adopted dad and my real dad.’”

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