Max Waterhouse

Most children say “good night” to their parents face to face, and the word is whispered back with the implied promise of tomorrow. Children in an orphanage dream of parents — parents whose faces they’ve forgotten, never knew or have even yet to see. No promises for them; they cling only to hope that one day, someone will claim them, love them, bring them home.

In 2000, Max Waterhouse was a 5-year-old resident of a Russian orphanage in Perm, a city known as the “gateway to Siberia.” To many Americans, Siberia is synonymous with cold and isolation, and those two words seemed to define Waterhouse’s early childhood.

“I’d been an orphan my whole life,” Waterhouse, now 17, says. “My parents gave me up when I was born. There aren’t many details. It’s kind of a mystery.”

Waterhouse faced another challenge: he was born with a form of dwarfism that left him much smaller than his peers. Inexplicably, his caretakers placed Waterhouse with younger children of similar size, disregarding the effects this would have on his cognitive development.

Meanwhile, in Decatur, Ga., Jon and Andrea Waterhouse were looking to adopt. A friend, who happened to be a little person, referred them to an adoption website for children with dwarfism. When the couple found Max on the site, it seemed as if fate was guiding their mouse.

“We’d always wanted to name our first son Max,” says Andrea. “His birthday was also the day Jon had proposed to me. We were drawn to him immediately.”

It took nearly a year, but a trip to Russia was finally arranged, bringing the boy face to face with the parents he’d be saying “good night” and “good morning” to for years to come.

“I was pretty much in love with them the first time I saw them,” Waterhouse remembers.

Soon, he was watching the land of his birth grow ever smaller aboard a jet bound for home … and family. He can still clearly describe his arrival in the United States.

“Back then, people could come up to the terminal, so the minute I got off the plane, there was my whole extended family. It’s always exciting when you find out there are all these people who love you no matter what.”

It was more than exciting; it was a fairy tale come to life. But fairy tales eventually settle into reality, and as time went by, Waterhouse realized that not everyone would be so welcoming when it came to his size.

Standing tall

“At first, I took [teasing] very hard, and it brought me down,” Waterhouse says. “But once you’ve been through so much, there are only two paths you can go. You can accept who you are and become strong with it, or you can let things keep bugging you and bugging you to the point where you just break. Now, I wouldn’t change a thing about me.”

That inherently strong sense of self was fortified when Waterhouse enrolled in a graphic arts class at Decatur High School in ninth grade. New instructor Mark Jones resurrected a SkillsUSA program that had lain dormant for a decade and convinced the student to run for regional office.

“The first thing I had to do was write a speech, and speaking is one thing I don’t enjoy doing,” Waterhouse says. “But I’ve learned that once you believe you can do it, you have no fear. You can stand up tall.” Waterhouse delivered his speech, won the election and extended his extended family.

“Max has benefited greatly from SkillsUSA,” his mother says. “The programs and training have allowed him to carry himself with a level of professionalism not typically found in a teenager.”

Today, Waterhouse is SkillsUSA Georgia’s treasurer and an active member in Little People of America, the nonprofit organization that helped make his adoption happen. He has two younger siblings, Levi and Violet, and competes in the Dwarf Athletic Association of America’s National Dwarf Games, a yearly amateur competition covering a variety of sports.

Waterhouse credits the teamwork lessons he’s learned in SkillsUSA with helping his performance at these athletic events. “One of the main things I love to do is serve and help others and be a leader if I can.”

He is considering a career in engineering or law school, “but my biggest thing I want to do,” he adds, “is go into youth work as a minister. I want to be the one who’s helping the youth, understanding who they are and being there for them when they need it.”

As Waterhouse looks to the future, he can’t help but spare an occasional glance to the past, to a metaphorical gateway that led not to Siberia, but to a family’s love warm enough to thaw the Russian winter he left behind.

For the Waterhouse family, Max’s success story makes Russia’s recent, politically motivated ban on American adoptions of Russian children all the more heartbreaking.

“Seeing firsthand how many children are in need and the conditions of the orphanages, it’s a tragedy to limit these forgotten children for a chance at a family,” Andrea says.

“If kids don’t have parents who can take care of them,” her son adds, “they really don’t have a future, and Russia is a hard place to live. I was lost when I was younger. I didn’t know what I was going to be. I was a scared little kid.

“I learned a lot from my parents and school about who I trust, that they’ll be there when I fall, and they have been. I’m in a better place than where I started. I’m happy where I am.”