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Hannah's world - three years later

By Marjorie CoeymanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2003

In 1999, Monitor readers met Hannah, a 3-year-old Russian girl who was adopted by American parents. Photographer Melanie Stetson Freeman chronicled Hannah's journey from the stark orphanage in which she lived outside Moscow to her new life in Massachusetts.

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The transition wasn't easy as Hannah adjusted to a new family, new home, and a world in which she had her own clothes, a big sister, and much more personal attention than ever before.

Today, Marjorie Coeyman and Ms. Freeman update us on what's happening in Hannah's life: She has a baby brother and a Boston terrier. She attends school and takes music lessons. Hers is a story marked by resilience, determination, and a lot of love.

Today what seems normal to Hannah Faith Rocklein is riding in her family's shiny SUV, gliding through the school day among a pack of well-fed, Baby Gap-clad first-grade classmates, and settling down for the night in the perfectly appointed pink bedroom she shares with her big sister, Abby.

She rushes off to school in the morning with an HFR-monogrammed backpack poised on her small shoulders and chunky sneakers with flashing lights emphasizing each step. She loves watching a video of "The Wizard of Oz," plunking her way through a piano lesson, and taking a family vacation at Disney World.

But it was only three years ago that this little girl was hungry almost all the time and didn't have as much as a pair of shoes to call her own.

Her name then was Anna Sinyaeva. She was the occupant of bed No. 15 in a state-run orphanage two hours outside Moscow. A mother struggling with alcoholism had deserted her. Her father's identity was unknown.

The transformation of Hannah's life and prospects through adoption by an American family is in many respects truly a Cinderella story come true. The child who once seemed all alone in the world now has loving parents, a sister and a brother, a home in an affluent suburb, and even a chubby Boston terrier named Sadie with whom to romp.

And yet, unlike the fairy tales told in books, Hannah's transitions have not all come swiftly, and they have not all been smooth.

Before adopting Hannah, Mary and Bob Rocklein were advised not to take the 3-year-old child. Her medical records suggested signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. A doctor who had examined her called her unresponsive and developmentally disabled.

But the Rockleins, who first saw her pictured with the label "Waiting Child" in a brochure from an adoption agency, somehow felt she was meant to be their daughter. For Mary, who was adopted herself at the age of 2-1/2, the desire to add this girl to their family was especially fierce.

So in August 1999, disregarding the warnings, they flew to Moscow, finalized adoption proceedings, and brought Anna - renamed Hannah - home with them.

Things would never be quite the same again at the Rocklein household.

Becoming friends and sisters

First there was Hannah's adjustment to her new surroundings. Her big sister, Abby - Bob and Mary's biological daughter - was initially consumed with jealousy. Hannah herself was floored by the enormous change she was being asked to process in so short a period of time.

The immediate result was constant fighting between the girls and outrageous temper tantrums - including spitting, kicking, and screaming - from Hannah.

Yet the passage through this difficult period proved remarkably rapid. And when the family emerged from those dark days, they found themselves in a place they hadn't expected.

Within weeks, the two little girls had forged a close alliance.

Although Hannah and Abby look enough alike to be biological sisters, their characters could hardly be more different. Hannah is a born adventurer, eager to experiment and investigate. She experiences so little fear that her parents sometimes pray for her to learn a bit of caution.

Abby, however, is shy. She tends to cling to the familiar and see danger where none actually exists.

But with the powerful new bond between the girls, the Rockleins almost immediately became conscious of a change coming over Abby. Very quickly her new little sister - entirely unconsciously - was teaching her to play more freely and explore more widely.

"Hannah brought Abby out," says Bob. "I fully credit her with that, I really do."

At the same time, Hannah's needs awoke in Abby a deeply maternal side. She quickly took on the role of guide, teacher, and mentor in Hannah's new world. She answered the questions, set the example, and - when the adults around them were baffled - served as Hannah's interpreter and ambassador.