published Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

After an abusive past, Ukraine-born football player Vasya Jones finally has a home in Chattanooga

 Vasya Jones, a football player with Silverdale Baptist Academy, poses inside of the Seahawks's stadium locker room Thursday.
Vasya Jones, a football player with Silverdale Baptist Academy, poses inside of the Seahawks's stadium locker room Thursday.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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  • Vasya Jones runs kickoff back for a touchdown
    Watch as Vasya Jones, originally from Ukraine, runs back the opening kickoff 88 yards to score a touchdown for Silverdale Baptist Academy in their win over Community High School earlier this season.

The boy stood on the ledge, holding on to a window frame for balance, and watched as the steady rain made puddles on the concrete four stories below.

The dreariness of the day seemed to match his mood and, at 14 years old, the orphan decided his future was too bleak to face another day of beatings and ridicule and hopelessness. The boy would simply let go of the window frame and fall to his death.

While he did not know how much he had in common with other orphans in the Ukraine, Vasya Osyapovich knew that each day that passed meant another day he did not have a family. It also meant another day closer to being released from the orphanage in the city of Sevastopol, into a life and a future that was even colder and more certain than jumping from the rain-slicked ledge he was precariously standing on.

Despite having met with an American family who told Vasya they intended to adopt him, the 18-month-long process of paperwork and bureaucratic roadblocks, in addition to constant predictions from teachers at the orphanage that the adoption would never work out, left Vasya believing he had no other means of escaping his grim surroundings.

"I remember that day very well," Vasya said, his English precise but with a hint of a Russian accent. "I didn't want to live any more. I knew my future was pretty hopeless, and I was just tired of everything.

"The teachers at my orphanage would constantly tell me that I was no good and would never get adopted. Even after I first met with my new family, after they had to go back home to start filling out papers, I went back to the orphanage to wait and the teachers there told me I would never see that family again because nobody wanted me. I was too old, they said. It was hell."

Just as Vasya was letting go of hope and his grip on the frame, a friend came into the room and grabbed his arm to bring him back down from the ledge. Four months after nearly taking his own life, and following the infuriating adoption process, Vasya (pronounced VAH-sah) was adopted by Dan and Margaret Jones, who brought him home to Chattanooga.

Now four years later, Vasya Jones is a senior running back and kick return specialist at Silverdale Baptist Academy. The fastest player on the team, he returned the opening kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown in a win over Community High School earlier this season and had a 40-yard scoring run in a win over Copper Basin High School. As a freshman, he was the Seahawks' leading scorer in soccer, collecting 10 goals during one three-game stretch.

But while the soft-spoken Vasya appears to be like other 18-year olds -- enjoying sports, music and the freedom of driving to a friend's house to play video games -- the path that brought him here is unlike any of his classmates.

  • photo
    Vasya Jones, a football player with Silverdale Baptist Academy, poses with his parents Dan and Margaret Jones who adopted him from Russia.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
    enlarge photo

And that day on the ledge is never far away in his mind.

"There is a purpose for everything," said Vasya, as he and his adoptive parents sat in an otherwise empty Silverdale Baptist football locker room after a recent practice. "Even though I had a tough life, I have an opportunity now to show love and leave a mark on other people's lives. It feels better than I ever dreamed it would."

living in abuse

For much of his life, Vasya had only known physical and verbal abuse. He lived with his mother, an alcoholic and drug addict, from infancy until he was 3 years old when his father returned from prison. Disgusted by the slums his wife was living in with their son, Vasya's father took custody. But what began as a loving father-son relationship soon turned abusive as Vasya's father fell into alcoholism. By the time he was 6, the boy was living on the streets alone.

He would sometimes sleep in barns or sneak into apartment buildings, pretending to live there, where he would steal food and find a warm, empty space to sleep.

"I would lay there sometimes and just cry," Vasya said. "It was such a depressing, hopeless feeling. I thought so many times that I would die. I was in survival mode.

"When I lived with my mom, I remember there were bottles all over the floor and the house was very dirty. I never had a bed. We slept on the floor.

"I still have knots on my head from where my father would hit me with a knife handle. He would sometimes be drunk and fall outside. It was cold so I wanted to help him up and get him into the house, but he would get angry with me for waking him and beat me."

The last time Vasya saw his mother was after running away from the orphanage to check on his father. Vasya worried that something terrible had happened to him, a fear that turned out to be accurate when he was told his father had passed out and died due to exposure to the cold. With no other family to turn to, he soon returned to the orphanage.

empty nesters

The realization came suddenly for Dan and Margaret Jones. With their two children out of high school, they were now empty-nesters. The fact that they had vacant bedrooms while somewhere in the world other kids had no bedroom to call their own led the couple to pursue adoption. They decided to look into adoption outside the United States, and within hours of searching online, Margaret stopped immediately when she saw Vasya.

  • photo

According to Family Hope International, an American organization that works to connect potential host families with Ukrainian orphans, there are more than 100,000 Ukrainian children under the age of 16 that either live on the streets or in an orphanage. Only 3 percent of those orphans will be adopted once they reach 9 years old and most orphans are released back onto the street, or “age-out” of an orphanage by 18. Of that total, 70 percent of the boys will serve time in prison and 60 percent of the girls become prostitutes. Ten percent of all Ukrainian orphans will commit suicide before the age of 18.

"I thought, 'That's our son. We have to find this child,'" Margaret said.

It took more than a year from that day before they finally met him in person. They were able to have limited communication through letters and occasional phone conversations, with the language barrier complicating meaningful communication, but between the seemingly endless amounts of paperwork and red tape involved with adopting a child outside the U.S., the Jones family and Vasya admitted there were times when it felt hopeless.

"Just when you would think things were working out, something would happen to delay the process," Dan Jones said. "Adoption is tough, and the emotional roller coaster is not for the faint of heart. There was a lot of praying involved and looking back on it, we can see God's fingerprints all over our story."

The couple visited Vasya twice during the adoption process and their oldest son, Stephen, visited once when he was 18 and working on a mission trip with the organization Bridges of Faith, which ministers to Ukrainian orphans.

But each time he returned to the orphanage, Vasya was reminded just how unlikely it was that his story would have the fairytale ending he dreamed of.

"I remember anytime another kid would get adopted, I would feel happy for them, but then I would wonder if I was ever going to be so lucky," Vasya said. "The closer it got to me actually being adopted by my new family, the more the teachers would tell me, 'They don't really want you. You're too old. You're garbage and you're going to wind up dead in the trash just like your father.'"

Even after the family had been told the adoption had been approved, it wasn't until the three of them boarded a Delta Airlines jet in Moscow, headed toward Atlanta, that they felt safe. When they landed at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport in September 2007, more than 20 family and friends were waiting to welcome Vasya home.

Soon after, the boy who remembered celebrating his birthday only once and whose only previous Christmas present was a shoebox filled with toy cars, a hat, a flashlight and some markers was quickly Americanized with Saturday soccer games and trips to the mall to shop for clothes.

But his most prized early possession was the solitude of having his own room and a bed to himself for the first time.

"I used to dream about what it would be like to have a mom and dad and a family," Vasya said. "Just to feel like you belong is such a wonderful feeling.

"Last year I went on a school trip to Washington, D.C., and the thing that stood out to me from that trip was the number of people who have fought and died for me to have the opportunity and the freedom I have now. I've even thought of joining the military after high school, just to somehow give back for the life I have been given."

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about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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NoMyth said...

Nice story. Seems like a great kid. Nice family. There is nothing more selfless than adopting a child that needs a family and support. Bravo to the Jones'!

October 18, 2011 at 12:27 a.m.

Nice read...You TFP types should consider doing a similar in-depth piece on Tim McClendon...By all accounts he is a wonderful young man who may or may not be developmentally delayed...I've been told the principal adult figure in his life at this time is the Signal Mountain head football coach...Some who know him say the young Brainerd resident's home life leaves quite a bit to be desired...

October 18, 2011 at 7:57 a.m.
eileen said...

Thanks for the uplifting story TFP. And thanks to the Jones family for following God's lead and fulfilling Vasya's dream.

October 18, 2011 at 9:55 a.m.
Veritas said...

"Bridges of Faith, which ministers to Ukrainian orphans", why not simply help without strings attached. Ukrainia has been Christian for over a thousand years, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church have survived the Horrors of Communism, and now the Church must deal with Prot missionaries teaching their heresies to these orphans, "if you want our help you must convert", there are always strings attached when dealing with Prot missionaries.

October 18, 2011 at 10:41 a.m.
ChattaVol06 said...

glad to see the final part about Vasya taking a trip to D.C. and noticing how many people have fought and died to give us this wonderful personal freedom in the United States of America. He probably has a greater appreciation than most average American citizens. Kudos to the Jones family for adopting this kid, and kudos to him making the most of it in school and athletics. Love reading stories with positive endings about people making an impact on this world, even if it only impacts a small handful of individuals.

October 18, 2011 at 12:42 p.m.
Shock said...

Veritas - you sit in your comfortable chair in front of your electronic convenience many in the world would kill for and make unkind comments about a group of people helping those less fortunate than themselves. Unless you know some facts about this particular organization, you are conjecturing. I am not religious, but find your comments small minded.

October 18, 2011 at 2:42 p.m.
headcoconut said...

ChattaVol06 said... He probably has a greater appreciation than most average American citizens.

That's because most newcomers have no knowledge of the darker sides to American history. Many discover the truth sooner or later.

October 18, 2011 at 3:36 p.m.
bryseana said...

This made me cry. Very touching story. Best wishes to him and his family.

October 18, 2011 at 3:36 p.m.
NoMyth said...

@headcoconut, your comment has nothing to do with the story. You obviously don't admire this country (and should probably leave) whereas most in this world consider it to be highly admirable. The US has many problems and past sins for which we cannot be proud; BUT, when compared to the rest of the world, the US remains a beacon of hope, freedom and prosperity.

October 18, 2011 at 8:19 p.m.
headcoconut said...

NoMyth said... BUT, when compared to the rest of the world, the US remains a beacon of hope, freedom and prosperity

You must have never traveled outside the U.S. much, or at all for that matter. There is no atrocity, injustice that has been committed in another country which hasn't equally taken place on American soil, and against America's own people.

October 18, 2011 at 8:27 p.m.
NoMyth said...

@headcoconut: Actually, I have traveled extensively on every continent (except Antarctica) and everyone I have met wanted to know more about the U.S., to visit here, and expressed interest in living here. Your statement on the wrongs committed on American soil is painfully inaccurate. While the U.S. has our share of issues, most foreign countries and/or governments have committed wrongs against much higher percentages of their people than has ever occurred in the U.S. It is the primary reason that immigrants continue to flock to our country in any way possible. On balance, all Americans can hold their heads high. You should do the same or relocate.

October 18, 2011 at 8:45 p.m.
headcoconut said...

Not so, NoMyth. What's painfully inaccurate is the inability to look closer at home before pointing fingers at those other countries.

October 18, 2011 at 9:57 p.m.
Volsfan15 said...

Vasya is a friend of mine and I went to school with him. I'm glad everyone got to hear his story and I hope it inspires everyone else like it did me.

October 19, 2011 at 12:42 a.m.
Volsfan15 said...

I also played sports with him and I want everyone to know that he truly does give all glory to God on and off the field.

October 19, 2011 at 12:46 a.m.
asalexander said...

What a wonderful story about Vasya. We adopted our now 5 year old daughter, Anna, from an orphanage in Kansk, Krasnoyarsk, Russia. She has MANY special needs but is a wonderful little girl! We have no idea how thankful we should be to have the lives we have here. Anna had nothing before we adopted her. Of the diagnoses she has received, one is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the abuse and neglect in the orphanage. We pray for the children that remain there- every child is deserving of a loving matter what their age is!

October 19, 2011 at 1:07 p.m.
IamVasya said...

I am the Vasya that the story was written about. I'd like to respond to a couple of comments that have been made. First of all, I am so happy to be an American. I agree with NoMyth that America is a place many people in other countries wish they could enjoy. My life has been awesome since becoming a citizen of the United States. This country saved my life and gave me happiness and love. My goal about going into the military are very strong and I will defend what this country stands for. Nobody's perfect, but I am thankful for what is good about this country. God has blessed me beyond anything I ever could have wished for. Thanks to Stephen Hargis for allowing me to share my story.

October 19, 2011 at 5:26 p.m.
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