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Playing a game of chess was a favorite past time of Rocio Gora, 7, and Helen. Helen stayed with the Gora family of Cottage Grove for a month as part of the Kidsave Colombia program. Due to privacy requirements, Helen's face could not be photographed. (Bulletin photo by Emily Buss)

Finding a home for Helen

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life Cottage Grove, 55016
Cottage Grove Minnesota 7584 80th Street South 55016

Ten-year-old Helen sat quietly on the couch. Her handshake was soft and her English was limited. But despite her shy appearance, the Gora family of Cottage Grove said she is anything but. Helen, who stayed with the Gora's for the month of July, is searching for a permanent place to call home.

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A native of the Colombian capital of Bogotá, Helen is extroverted, funny and curious. Similar to normal pre-teens, she loves to dance, play basketball and listen to her favorite musicians, Shakira and Ana Gabriel. Despite having lived through hardship, Helen enjoys life.

Boarding a plane for the first time, Helen came to the United States courtesy of the Kidsave International program, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to finding a home for children ages 8 to 14.

The organization first began helping Colombian children 10 years ago, and by forging a partnership with the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), the program has successfully placed 80 percent of the children into loving homes.

"A lot of people want to adopt the babies and toddlers," said Delta Kirkland, Kidsave program manager. "When adopting older children, there is a concern in terms of their history. Some of these kids have been in foster care for a while or been through, at times, some pretty tragic things. There is also the concern about connection with a family. As the kids become older, it brings on new territories that you don't have to face with an infant or toddler."

Helen is one of the luckier ones, Kathy Gora said. While she could not divulge sensitive personal information regarding Helen's background, she did say Helen was a miracle.

"For what she has gone through, she is still so happy and outgoing," Gora said. "She loves to ride bikes, which she learned how to while she was here, and she loves to read."

Sharing a passion for all things Hello Kitty and Harry Potter with the Gora's 7-year-old daughter Rocio, who was adopted from Guatemala when she was a year old, the girls stayed busy.

With the help of ICBF social worker Monica Jory Rios, Rocio, a strong student in the Spanish immersion program at Nuevas Fronteras in Cottage Grove, aided the language barrier.

"I am not fluent in Spanish," Kathy laughed. "I used Google Translate a lot and Rocio is a big help."

During her visit, the Goras took Helen to the Highlands Park splash pad and the swimming pool in Hastings, as she is "quite the water bug," Kathy said. They also visited Como Zoo and the Mall of America.

"Mucho gusto," Helen said when she talked about Nickelodeon Universe, where she braved the many roller coasters.

She also discovered a love for Hawaiian pizza, Kathy said.

While Helen indulged in the American life, Kidsave was working to find her a family. The Goras traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, for two weekend trips during Helen's stay to participate in events where Helen could interact with other Kidsave children. Kathy also set up afternoon lunches with area couples interested in meeting Helen.

"It was a chance for potential families to meet Helen," Kathy said.

"Visiting families who are interested can attend the weekend events and spend time with the kids in a situation that's interactive and doesn't make the kids feel like they are on display," Kirkland added.

Since partnering with ICBF, the Kidsave Colombia program has helped children who have lost parents from civil conflict and HIV or AIDS, while others have been abandoned because of extreme poverty, parental drug use, arrest and even children who have served time as child combatants.

With offices in Washington D.C., and California, it's not an easy commute for the Goras, who are talking with other area families about starting a chapter of the organization in Minnesota.

Kirkland said there was a program in Minnesota at one time but as with most nonprofits, finding dedicated volunteers can be difficult.

"We would love to build a chapter (in Minnesota) again," Kirkland said. "We rely heavily on volunteers for communications, media, recruiting, everything. It's a big job, which is why it's been challenging to build a community. It takes a group of people who are ready to team up and provide the resources to make it happen."

Kathy said while she is not ready to take on the leadership role quite yet, she is hopeful a Kidsave chapter will re-emerge in Minnesota.

As the Goras enjoyed their last few days with Helen, who flew back to Bogotá on Aug. 2, Kathy was reminded how important it is for every child to have a family and a place to call home.

"We definitely enjoyed her company and are grateful that Columbia is allowing this to happen," she said with watery eyes. "Kidsave is a great program and I think when people meet and see these children they might be more open to adopting."

For more information about Kidsave, visit its website at www.kidsave.org.

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