One of Those Amazing Things You Never Could Have Planned

The most magical moments are those you never could have planned. At CAFO2014, that came with a remarkable young woman named Zhenya.

Early this year, CAFO held its t-shirt design contest. The winning design was submitted by 20-year old Zhenya Reynolds.

When we wrote to congratulate her, we learned Zhenya isn’t only a talented designer and advocate for orphans. She’s a former orphan herself – adopted from Russia at the age of 8.

She shared with us:

As I prayed about the design for the CAFO t-shirt and considered Isaiah 1:17 [“…Defend the cause of the fatherless”], God reminded me how much I have been helped and shaped by the people who have sought to ‘defend’ me.

I am a former orphan, adopted at age 8 from Russia. I once had no real hope… spiritual, physical or emotional. But many people, starting with my family, cared enough to step in and ‘defend’ this orphan. They stepped into my hopelessness, loneliness and pain to share the hope of Christ with me, leaving their fingerprints of love indelibly etched on my life. Every orphan needs someone to touch his life and leave the fingerprints of God on his heart.

So this t-shirt design is a call for Christians everywhere to step into the pain of the fatherless and leave the ‘fingerprints” of God as they defend the cause of the orphan.

Zhenya brings a glow wherever she goes — with bright, beautiful eyes and a presence that conveys both strength and grace.

Over the twelve years since she was adopted, there’ve been plenty of highs and lows, times of growing and of wandering. But today Zhenya’s great desire is to bring love to orphans. She’s especially drawn to Russian-speaking orphans, and intends to move overseas when she’s finished school.

In May, Zhenya attended CAFO2014 with her parents and several siblings. I planned to acknowledge her design of the winning t-shirt from the stage on the conference’s closing night.

But that morning I received one more piece of intel from her parents: it just happened to be Zhenya’s 21st birthday.

So that night, the entire CAFO2014 audience sang Happy Birthday to Zhenya!

It was one of those out-of-time moments. The auditorium gleamed with many moist eyes and (I suspect) the twinkling eyes of God who rejoiced with us in how He’d woven it all together.

There were tears in my eyes, too, as I stood next to Zhenya Reynolds: a former orphan adopted and beloved by God and her parents…a blooming designer…a beautiful young woman on a mission to embrace orphans with the same love she’s come to know.

ORDER the 2014 Orphan Sunday T-shirt Zhenya designed.

WATCH the video of the CAFO2014 Audience Singing Happy Birthday to Zhenya.

READ MORE of Zhenya’s story below.


Christ’s love and the love of His people have transformed this former orphan into a child of the King. My name is Zhenya, I’m 20 years old. I was adopted at age 8 from the western part of Russia near the border with Ukraine and Belarus. I was blessed to be adopted into a large family and now have 11 siblings, 8 of whom were are also adopted from Russia.

I wasn’t orphaned because of the death of my parents… I was orphaned due to neglect. Two of my four birth-siblings and I lived in a little apartment with our birth-mom. My other siblings lived with my grandma because our birth-mom couldn’t take care of them.  Our birth-mom wasn’t home much – she would be home for a day and then disappear for up to two weeks at a time. There were days when our landlord would kick us kids out because our mom hadn’t paid the rent. Even in the middle of winter we spent several nights sleeping under a bridge without coats because it was our only option. As for my birth-dad I don’t know much about him, except that he was gone most of the time. In the end, he tried to hang himself in front of my two younger siblings and me, but was stopped in the act and taken away by the police. One hard thing about being an orphan is not truly getting to know your birth-parents.

As the oldest of the three kids living with my birth-mom, I was responsible for a lot at a very young age. I had to try to feed my siblings and keep them safe, which often required me to beg. God blessed us with a grandma on my birth-dad’s side who truly cared for us. She fed us many times, but was already sending my older brother and sister to boarding school, and couldn’t afford to keep the three of us as well. Finally, a neighbor told the government that we weren’t being taken care of, so the government came and took us to an orphanage. That day is very deeply etched on my mind…the fear I felt, the confusion as to why it was happening, the tears that my mom shed trying to convince them not to take us. I knew she wouldn’t actually change and do better, but it was good to hear her say that she was going to take care of us. I so wanted to believe her! Somehow, even after all her times of neglecting of us and the many times she was gone when we wanted her right there with us, we ­didn’t want to leave her. We loved her. No matter how hard the situation is at home, children still have some connection to their parents and don’t want to go through the pain of being torn away from them.

Caretakers in the orphanage generally worked hard and tried to care for us. But there were a lot of hard things about living in the orphanage. The hardest thing was being separated from my siblings most of the time.

And while it wasn’t hard to find friends in an orphanage with 300 kids, it was even easier to find enemies. The orphanage had bullies, and they victimized many. I spent much time worrying for my own brother and sister that a bully would hurt them and I wouldn’t be able to help them. There were many ways in which the bullies were mean, but one of their meanest acts was to walk up during meal time and take your plate away, leaving you with no meal. There was nothing you could do, as they were bigger and would get even if you told on them. They picked on the weaker kids, which was very hard to watch. Even siblings would turn against siblings. The few people that were supposed to stick together as a “family” often didn’t.

But as children we tried to make the best of our time at the orphanage, and we had many amazing times and good friends. We came up with different ways to play on the playground even though it was very old and didn’t have any swings or other equipment to play on. Somehow we found ways to have a great time, most of the time laughing and making friends. There was a 16-year old girl, Marina, who was my room partner and became like a sister to me. She took care of and stood up for me, although she also corrected me when necessary (which was a lot). She became very dear to me. I was so blessed to have someone like that, because many of the children there didn’t.

In the orphanage many of the kids had lost hope about ever having a forever family. They felt they didn’t have anywhere to turn, so they would start getting into bad things, hanging out with people twice their age and drinking. It was normal for a kid of 10 to smoke and drink. It was easy to tell the difference between the new kids who still had hope, and those who lost hope and understood what it would mean if they never got a family.

But as for my siblings and me, God gave us the gift of a family to adopt us. One day an American couple came and our director called us into her office. The director told us that this couple wanted to adopt us. I was scared. I had heard that “if you go to America you die.”  So I ran away from the orphanage for several hours, until a friend finally told me to come back.  When I met the Americans I felt safe and they seemed very kind. As it turns out, they were the family God designed for me. They would be the first to admit they were not perfect, but they loved me and they showed me the love of Christ. They showed me why adoption is important, as it is the physical representation of what God has done for every Christian He has saved.

All nine of us Russians in my family are very different now that we’ve been adopted. We have been transformed by love, both the love of our family and the love of God. God has used our past to show us amazing things about Himself and about how He is able to heal the broken hearts of orphans. He is able to rescue us and make us children of the King. We able now to look back on our past and to bless Him for what He did, and now we can use our lives to glorify Him in the way we live as rescued people. I encourage all Christians to consider how they can play a role in rescuing the orphan.