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by Anna Cherkasova, Science & Environment editor

There are some children, however, who even with greatest desire to study can’t do it really well. These children have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS); their symptoms include mental disabilities and short attention spans. It’s hard to tell by just looking at those children that they have FAS; they are otherwise perfectly normal people; but for some of them, the doors of universities are closed forever. They don’t have a luxury of choice; even if they want to, some of them just can’t study.

One of them…

As a child he had no father. Jenya Davidson is a 17-year-old boy, who was adopted 13 years ago, from Russia. Now he seems like an ordinary teenager, someone you could meet everyday on the streets of Honolulu. He doesn’t remember life in the orphanage; he doesn’t remember much of anything about growing up.

Jenya was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, a typical disease for children in Russian orphanages. Since there are few public health and educational programs for pregnant women in Russia, young mothers don’t know about the damaging effect of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. As a result they frequently give birth to children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Jenya is a victim of this disease. Looking like a normal boy, he nonetheless has all indicators for it: thin upper lip, short height, an extra toe–yes, he had a sixth toe on his left foot when he was three: it has been removed, and also poor memory. All are indicators that he is a victim of FAS.

“ You can love any child”

Thirteen years ago an American woman decided it was time for her to have a child. She didn’t need to adopt; she did it believing that she could love any child, no matter whether this child has her blood or not.

Gigi Davidson picked Jenya from the picture. “He had this impish look on his face,” Davidson said. After a few seconds of silence she smiled, “he’s just like this picture.”

During the first years, Davidson didn’t even know that her son had FAS. “He was very huggable child,” Davidson said. “He could turn on the charm from the beginning.” He wore his cowboy boots and hat to Epiphany Elementary School everyday, an adorable boy who was loved by everyone.
Soon after the children started to learn how to read, however, it became clear that Jenya had special needs. He was forced to change schools. Overall he attended nine schools in 10 years.

“ I hated school. Everyone hated it. I wasn’t an exception,” Jenya said.

“ But everyone didn’t have the same disease he has,” his mother explained. Those children didn’t want to study because they thought there were better things for them to do; he could study because FAS wasn’t preventing him from even putting words on the paper, Davidson said.

It wasn’t Jenya, however, who had the hardest time admitting that. His mom was the one who had to accept it first. Jenya doesn’t even remember himself until he turned 13.

Troubled times

Trouble is the first word he uses to describe this period of his life. Trouble with his mom, trouble with his friends, trouble with drugs, trouble with the school. Last summer he dropped out of Roosevelt, his ninth and last try to do well at school, and went to Hawaiian Youth Challenge, the five-month alternative high school program for troubled children.

“ It was the last resort,” his mother said.

“ At that point military [service] sounded like a good option for him,” said Oleg Valiev, Jenya’s best friend. “Military recruiting personnel have done a great job of persuading some teenagers who struggle with school to join the army or the reserve,” he added.

Valiev, an HPU alumnus, initially had a hard time understanding Jenya’s difficulties with school; after spending more time with Jenya, however, Valiev was able to see the struggle and accept the reality of Jenya’s condition.

Starting a new life

Jenya returned home two months ago. Out of 152 students, only 96 were able to graduate from Hawai‘i Youth Challenge, and Jenya was one of them.

Jenya is starting to discovering himself. He found a job as a group leader in an after-school program at a YMCA. “I love my job. Spending time with the children is my favorite thing to do,” Jenya said.
In a couple of years he sees himself as a police officer working for a Gang Resistance Education and Training (GREAT), program that keeps Hawaiian children off the streets, which also means, as Jenya knows more than anybody else, out of trouble.

FAS didn’t destroy Jenya’s future. He might not be able to graduate from HPU or any other university, but he now knows who he is, and he still remembers where he came from and appreciates every day this life gives him.

“ I think about it every night. Without my mom adopting me, I would definitely have ended up on the streets,” Jenya said.


Facts about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a set of birth defects triggered by alcohol use during pregnancy. Although a link had long been suspected, FAS wasn’t formally recognized until 1973.

Four main types of birth defects are linked to drinking, including:

· Mental retardation: Alcohol is the leading cause of mental retardation in the United States today.

· Impaired Growth: Babies born to drinking mothers are physically smaller than the babies of nondrinkers. Most never “catch up” as they grow older.

· Facial malformations: FAS babies often have a smaller-than-normal head size, misshapen eyes, and a flattened nose and face.

· Organ defects: Alcohol can disrupt organ formation and growth, causing defects in the heart, kidneys, muscles, joints, and sex organs.

FAS symptoms occur most often in children born to women who average five or more drinks a day, but even a drink or two several times a week can cause problems. Alcohol, when consumed by a pregnant woman, stays in a baby’s body longer and in higher (and more harmful) concentrations.

The full set of FAS defects is seen most often in the children of mothers who report heavy drinking throughout their pregnancy. In fact, research shows that 45 percent of such women bear FAS-affected children

It’s important to know that there simply isn’t a “safe” level of alcohol use during pregnancy. That’s why all alcohol containers sold in the United States and Canada today carry explicit messages advising against any use during pregnancy.


“He had this impish look on his face,” said Gigi Davidson of Jenya, shown at right in the Russian orphanage from which she adopted him.

Photos courtesy Gigi Davidson


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