Vasya Jones runs kickoff back for a touchdownWatch 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.
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.
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.
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."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has 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. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...