Russian-born Santa Rosa student an optimist despite life's obstacles
Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 3:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 3, 2012 at 11:03 a.m.
For someone who was born with debilitating and potentially fatal defects in a Siberian village, immediately abandoned by his parents and tormented incidentally or intentionally at Russian orphanages, hospitals and youth camps, Val Silcock is quite a young man.
Still short of 21, the on-again, off-again Santa Rosa Junior College student supports himself by working as the techno whiz for a Guerneville-based health agency. He's a marvel to his boss, Mary Szecsey, director of West County Health Centers.
"Given the challenges he's had in his life, you just go, 'Wow,' " Szecsey said. "He's one of the nicest, gentlest, most competent young people that I know."
Silcock took some time off recently to return to Moscow to speak and offer thanks at a conference of the Russian medical charity that helped save him.
"I have been spoiled with the love of the people that have given me so much," the slender and thoughtful survivor of more than a dozen reconstructive and emergency surgeries told the assembly. "Without these people's care for me, God knows where I would be now."
Fact is, he's quite certain that he would be dead or severely disabled had no one troubled themselves when his parents beheld his physical defects upon his birth in December of 1991 outside the city of Khabarovsk.
Silcock's bladder was outside his body, an anomaly that's called bladder exstrophy and that occurs in one in 30,000 to 50,000 births. The newborn had other problems as well, including a malformation of his hips that spread his legs far apart and in time would have crippled him.
He said his parents did give him a name: Valera Nicolayevich Asheulov. (He would take on the surname Silcock later, in America.) He grew up with a degree of appreciation that "Valera" means strong and healthy, which he takes as a sign his parents provided him with the only thing they could, a wish for his survival.
He would carry resentment for his birth parents until he realized it was toxic to him. "After a while, I just forgave them internally," he said.
His first five years of life were a blur of hospital rooms and temporary living situations. Child health advocates saw that his medical needs exceeded the capability of hospitals in Khabarovsk and sent him by train to Moscow -- a distance of more than 5,000 miles.
Arriving in Russia's vast capital feeling miserable, the beleaguered lad was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was placed in isolation at a hospital and kept there for about six months.
"That was one of the worst times of my life," he said.
Finally free of TB, he came to the attention of a church-based charity in Moscow that provides medical care to children with life-threatening conditions.
He was 6 when he underwent his first major urological surgery to correct the bladder exstrophy. His recovery required that he be in a house with someone to look after him, so a couple agreed to take him into their home as a foster child.
Having spent his life to that point in hospitals and children's homes, he said, "I didn't even know how to sit at a table normally."
Silcock told the crowd of about 300 at the charity conference in Moscow weeks ago, "The family embraced me with love that I hadn't received from anyone, ever. They let me play on the computer, made food, took me for walks, told me positive things about myself and treated me like I had never been treated."
That first happy phase of his life, which included several corrective surgeries, ended, he said, when his foster mother was institutionalized with mental illness. Then short of 10 years old, Silcock spent months in a children's camp he said was hellish and then lived for about three years in a Moscow orphanage.
In 2004, the year he turned 13, international adoption workers in Moscow invited requests from families possibly interested in giving him a home. He remembers being asked to choose between a family in Italy and one in Huntington Beach.
He chose Orange County. He spoke no English when his adoptive parents, Ann Belles and then-husband Jim Silcock, picked him at Los Angeles International Airport and took him to one of the most remarkable homes in America.
"There were about 24 people in the house," Val Silcock said.
Belles and Silcock had adopted or become guardians to dozens of boys over the years. Many were born overseas with serious disabilities and had no prospects for adoption until Ann Belles and Jim Silcock learned of their plight.
The Los Angeles Times wrote in a 2000 profile of the couple, "The family's Huntington Beach home, located on a quiet, orderly cul-de-sac, has seven bedrooms, four bathrooms, 3,000 square feet, nine trash cans and two dogs. . . . The garage is a boneyard for 20 years' worth of old wheelchairs, braces, shower chairs and ramps. Out front are the family's four vans, three of which accommodate wheelchairs."
From the age of nearly 13 to 17, the orphan from Siberia was one of the Silcock boys. He enrolled at Orange County schools, learned English, became so good at computer games that he won cash in tournaments and displayed such strong math and computer skills that Jim Silcock enlisted him to take charge of the house staff's payroll.
Val Silcock said he'll always appreciate what Belles and Silcock did for him, but that being one of the many boys living three to a room was not easy. It became more difficult, he said, when the Belles-Silcock marriage ran into trouble and he found himself in the middle of it.
He was 17 when, in 2009, Belles asked a friend in Monte Rio if Silcock and a second teen boy could come live with him. That worked out for about a year and a half; then the teens moved out and went in search of jobs and a place of their own.
Today, the pair share an apartment in Santa Rosa with Val Silcock's girlfriend, Natalie Corwin. "I've never been in love before," Silcock said, smiling.
He works part-time managing the website for West County Health Centers and helping to produce and shoot video at the agency's fundraisers and special events.
"He's very talented, he can do just about anything," said Szecsey, the healthcare agency's executive director.
Silcock intends to identify a promising field and go into business for himself. He has studied computer science and sociology at SRJC and he's thinking he'd like to continue his education at Empire College.
His life will never be completely normal. His doctor-made bladder comes with lifestyle considerations most people wouldn't care to hear much about, and his medical history leaves him vulnerable to heart and kidney trouble.
Though he doesn't celebrate every aspect of what's happened since he was abandoned on Day 1 in Siberia, he does appreciate the lessons and perspectives of life that have come to him through his extraordinary experiences.
"I wouldn't have survived my surgeries if I wasn't optimistic," Silcock said. He said that due to his journey, he cannot tolerate anyone abusing or making fun of a disabled person, and he reminds himself constantly to be accepting of change.
If a conversation with other young people turns to complaining about how difficult or unfair their lives are, he's likely not to say a word.
Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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