"We have kids that a lot of people think are almost grown up, but it's never too late to have a family," Kidsave co-founder Randi Thompson tells PEOPLE

By Diane Herbst
Updated October 15, 2015 11:05 AM
Credit: Courtesy Randi Thompson

When communications executive Randi Thompson embarked on a work trip in 1993 to Kazahkstan, she visited an orphanage for kids ages 7 to 15, and saw sights that continue to haunt her today.

“Kids wasting away,” Thompson tells PEOPLE. “I couldn’t go to sleep at night. I thought, ‘How was this possible? ”

Thompson, of California, and her business partner, Terry Baugh, of Washington, D.C., who was also traumatized by the horrid conditions of the Russian orphanage she visited when she adopted her first child, felt compelled to do something.

So they founded Kidsave in 1997, an organization that finds adoptive families for older orphans.

Baugh and Thompson, who are both adoptive mothers, knew that potential adopters shied away from older kids, so they tried an out-of-the-box idea: To bring small groups of older orphans to live with families in America for 4 to 6 weeks in the summer – for a sort of meet and greet.

The families don t feel any pressure and neither do the kids as they naturally get to know each other.

Baugh can speak to the process first-hand, as she adopted her son Constantine through the program in 2000.

“It’s like a chemical reaction,” Baugh tells PEOPLE. “Some people fall in love, and for others, they were willing to help.”

Adds Thompson, “We have kids that a lot of people think are almost grown up, but it’s never too late to have a family.”

Kidsave partners with orphanages – first in Russia and now Colombia – to find kids who want to be adopted. The children are prepped for the trip with Kidsave staffers, who tell the kids they are coming to America for a cultural visit and that at the end of the trip, they will be returning, Thompson says.

Meanwhile in the U.S., families work with Kidsave volunteers and staffers on how to interact with their new summer charges.

Once the visit is over, the kids, who are on tourist visas, return to their institutions. Potential adopters are not allowed to let the children know of their interest or plans, in order to prevent a letdown in case something doesn t work out.

“So many things can happen along the way,” says Thompson, noting that families are able to communicate with the kids once they return, including face-to-face visits.

When a family wishes to adopt, the proposal is conveyed to the child. If the feeling is mutual, an adoption agency steps in to arrange for the adoption, a process that can take up to 15 months to complete at a cost of $25,000 to $35,000.

For the past 16 years, the formula has been working. Since the first orphans arrived in the summer of 1999, Kidsave has found some 1,800 of these older children adoptive families. The success rate is high, with 80 percent of kids who visit America finding a permanent family.

“It used to be almost impossible for older kids to find homes,” says Jeanne Miranda, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, who has created a form of therapy to help older adoptees and their adoptive families better cope.

“I think a lot more people would adopt a kid if they met them, but it doesn’t happen,” says Miranda, who has adopted two children through Kidsave. “It is a huge benefit, the kids get seen in a community and have an opportunity where they would otherwise sit in an orphanage in Colombia.”

Buoyed by this success, Kidsave started a one-of-a-kind foster child program in Los Angeles in 2005 that matches foster kids ages 9 to 17 with families wishing to adopt.

The foster kids live with their new family at least two weekends a month for a year as the child and family get to know each other.

So far, over 100 boys and girls have found their forever families or a deep connection to an adult who acts like family, Thompson says, adding that they ve reached a 75 percent success rate.

“I’ve been with L.A. County for 31 years and it’s the only program that has looked outside the box to find permanent homes for kids,” says Sari Grant, who oversees foster care placement and recruitment for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

“It has made such a difference for them,” Grant adds. It motivates them, it makes them feel someone cares if they do well in school, that someone is going to show up for their graduation or is going to be there for them, because they don’t have that.”

Former Colombian orphan, Francy Egan, 16, had given up hope of finding a forever family. At 8, she was removed from her biological mother due to poor living conditions, and for several years, she bounced between foster families and institutions.

“Having a family is pretty much everything I wanted,” she says. “I thought I would never get adopted, the only kids adopted were the babies.”

After a 2010 visit to the U.S. with Kidsave, a family in San Francisco changed all that.

“One night, they called me and said, ‘Oh you want to be adopted?’ and it felt like someone had asked me something I wanted to hear my whole life,” she says. “My heart raced and I was crying, ‘Yes, yes.’ ”

For various reasons, it wasn’t a good match, but Kidsave staffers, who pride themselves on never abandoning any of the kids in their program, made sure Francy found a home she felt was family – and in 2012, Mark Egan and Rachael Quinn Egan of Montclair, New Jersey, adopted Francy at the age of 13.

“It is amazing,” Francy says of finding her family. “They have helped me in every single way. Now having a family, it’s the best thing.”

Rachael Egan, Francy’s mom, likens Kidsave to “old fashioned matchmakers” who allow kids and families “to spend time together” to learn if there is a mutual fit.

Kidsave’s success has been noticed by other countries as well. The organization has partnered with the governments of Colombia, Russia and Sierra Leone to find older orphans homes with residents of those countries, using their model of kids staying with host families. So far, some 15,000 children in those countries have found new homes this way, says Baugh.

Thompson and Baugh are ecstatic that they can help.

“I couldn’t think of anything more important than changing lives for kids without families, Thompson says.

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