, Salem, MA

January 9, 2009

Family treasures visit from Santa

Susan Flynn

Ann Crowley had to grab the camera. Santa, a 12-year-old orphan visiting their home from Latvia, had accomplished a feat no one else in the family had ever managed. She got the dog and two cats, who hate each other, to fall asleep in the same bed with her.

"She told me today she's going to put the dog in her suitcase when she leaves," Crowley says.

Santa goes back to Latvia on Friday, following a four-week stay with the Crowleys in Beverly. It's not a date anyone is looking forward to at the moment.

"It's pretty awful to think about, actually," Crowley says.

Santa first met the family last summer through New Horizons for Children, a hosting program that gives orphans from Eastern Europe the chance to experience a loving American home.

She came again on Dec. 16, to spend Christmas with the Crowley family, which includes Ann, her husband and five children, ages 37 to 14.

Besides cuddling with the pets, Santa has spent her time swimming at the YMCA and eating pizza and strawberry ice cream. She went with Anna, the Crowley's seventh-grader, to school one day. They've visited a snow tubing park and the aquarium. They fit in trips to the mall, the movies and the Museum of Fine Arts.

When she was here last summer, the Crowleys took Santa to Santa's Village in New Hampshire, and, of course, got a picture of their guest with the sign.

"This is my village," Santa joked at the time.

In those pictures, and all the time in fact, Santa hid one side of her face with her strawberry blond bangs to conceal an eye defect. She was understandably self-conscious, especially in her environment, where fitting in with the other kids at the orphanage can be a matter of self-preservation.

Crowley did not want to overstep her boundaries, but she knew if it were her child, she could get the damaged eye muscles repaired, and she knew no one else would do it for Santa.

So after she left last summer, Crowley wrote to a few Boston hospitals explaining the situation. She included pictures of Santa.

The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary agreed to take the case for free.

On Wednesday, in the middle of an ice storm, Crowley and Santa and another woman named Santa, who chaperoned the 75 Latvian orphans on the U.S. trip, drove into Boston for the 7:30 a.m. surgery. They wanted the translator along, figuring the child would be nervous and have a lot of questions.

"The kid was so not scared and so cool, it was amazing," Crowley says. "They put the IV in, and she said nothing, nothing. Not even an 'ouch.'"

The first thing she talked about when she woke up was pizza. Crowley bought her one for dinner that night.

In 2003, the Crowleys adopted their daughter Anna from Russia, after first hosting her in their home. They cannot discuss whether they are considering a similar path for Santa. The program — and government of Latvia — forbids such talk. She is not here for a tryout, but rather the opportunity to get out of the orphanage for two months a year.

Crowley is a child welfare attorney. Her husband works as a state social worker in child protection.

"We know the need," Crowley says of their involvement. "We wanted to do something."

Seated at the kitchen table on Thursday night, Santa wore her new Hannah Montana sunglasses because her eyes were still sensitive to light. She also wore a clip in her hair to pull the bangs out of her face.

Crowley says Santa has spent more time looking in the mirror than ever before.

"There is great satisfaction," Crowley says, "in watching Santa bloom and open up and have these experiences she would not otherwise enjoy."


Staff writer Susan Flynn can be reached at sflynn@salem or at 978-338-2658.