In the fall of 1996, Ann and John Farnen embarked on the biggest change in their young married life: adopting two children from Russia.
Last month, sitting around a patio table next to their parents’ new in-ground pool, the Farnen siblings, Jessica “Jesse,” 20, and Joseph “Joey,” 22, bantered back and forth.
The running family joke is Jesse’s passion for a perfect lawn and landscaping. She would gladly cut grass and trim every day around their home off Old Collinsville Road.
Joey: “That’s because she thought she’d get paid three times a week!”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Jesse: “Maybe I’ll go into the lawn-care business.”
Not a bad situation for Joey: “What if I didn’t have a sister? Who’d cut the grass?”
Their parents watched them, Ann rolling her eyes: “They’re a tad bit spoiled.”
Originally named Galina and Igor, they arrived home with their parents on Oct. 18, 1996. Jesse was 8 months old and Joey was 2 1/2.
They always knew they were adopted.
“I thought it was cool,” Joey said of being different from his friends in school.
John, 54, grinned as he recalled them growing up.
“There were times when they were in trouble and we said we’d ship them back.”
No one ever took it seriously.
You know, it’s something you wanted, so you do it. We felt safe there.
Ann Farnen on traveling to Russia
Ann, 46, is still in awe of what they went through to make a family. At the time of the adoption, she was 26 and John was 33. She worked in her family’s restaurant, the Dandy Inn in Fairview Heights, and he was with Anheuser-Busch.
At age 22, six months before their wedding in 1992, Ann was diagnosed with cancer. A complete hysterectomy and chemotherapy followed.
“The plan was to get married in May and be pregnant by Christmas,” Ann said during a December 1996 interview.
The health setback did not stop the couple from wanting a family. They rejected the idea of adopting within the United States because the waiting list could be years long. It took about two years to find and bring Joey and Jesse home.
“It’s amazing that we did that,” Ann said of paper work, interviews, home visits, broken promises from one foreign adoption agency, moving to another (that got it right), taking out a loan and spending tens of thousands of dollars, to make that dream come true.
“I felt like I could tackle just about anything after that,” she said, looking around the table at their adult children. Ann is the owner of the Scrapbook Factory, which she started in 1999 in O’Fallon.
John works for Mercy Health in St. Louis. Since 2002, they have lived in Caseyville, in a big brick house shaded by mature trees and a wooded back lot.
John said the waiting was difficult back in 1996. But, six months after changing agencies and viewing videotapes of children from two different orphanages in the Kaliningrad region of Eastern Russia (Jesse and Joey are not related by blood), John and Ann headed overseas to bring them home to a small ranch house filled with toys in Fairview Heights.
Ann said they weren’t worried about traveling to Russia.
“You know, it’s something you wanted, so you do it. We felt safe there.”
Neither child remembers anything of that early period of their lives — just growing up with Mom and Dad.
The orphanages, Ann said, seemed clean and well-organized and the children were well taken care of. There was a playroom with toys that made it look very much like an American daycare.
“I remember Joey had his own bed and helped set the table,” she said. “There was always someone holding a child or feeding one.”
Ann remembers Joey called her “Mama” upon seeing her at the orphanage. “He stole my heart away. I think he knew I was his mother.”
Growing up Farnen
Two decades later, Ann has a pile of scrapbooks that show their all-American life, filled with photos of the siblings in grade school, hugging in the snow, at Disney World, fishing, with Fredbird at a St. Louis Cardinals game, dressed as pirates for Halloween, bowling.
Jesse’s eyes, behind wide-frame glasses, are blue. She likes to mow the lawn, play basketball and wants a business of her own someday, like her mom.
Joey has green/gray eyes and his father’s dry sense of humor. He plays the guitar and likes video games.
Both live at home and that seems to work.
“The last couple years things have changed a bit. They’re old enough to go do their own thing, so we have time together,” Ann said.
Jesse and Joey attend Southwestern Illinois College and work at the Dandy Inn, which Ann’s family owns. Joey is a bartender while Jesse works in the kitchen. She also helps out at Scrapbook Factory.
They are delighted their parents decided to put in a pool after selling their vacation lake house in Southern Illinois.
“They’ll never leave now,” said Ann, sighing.
Jesse already has been in the water: “Nice place to jump in after a hot day in the kitchen.”
The four joked about quirks and personalities.
Jesse on scrapbooking: “I did it once and stopped.”
She’s the adventurous one, Mom said. Joey is much neater.
John: “He was always laughing all the time — he and his mom.”
Ann: “You want to sit in a movie with him. He’s got a good sense of humor.”
John: “(Jesse) was the most trouble. She got ink all over the house once.”
Ann: “She’s not scared of anything.”
John: “He had the hardest time learning to ride a bike.”
Ann: “She did it the first time — a little wobbly.”
A different life
Brother and sister are aware of how fortunate they are.
“I plan to stay at home the rest of my life,” Joey said. “Eventually, they’ll want me to move out.”
While they both hold Russian birth certificates, they became American citizens less than two years after they arrived in the United States.
“All it took was paperwork that I had to take to Chicago and file with Immigration,” Ann said.
Life as someone other than a Farnen seems hard to imagine.
“I’m grateful,” Jesse said. “I wouldn’t have all this stuff — and an education.”
Joey has thought about what he’d be doing now if he hadn’t been adopted.
“I’d be enlisting in the Army or doing something illegal,” he said, half joking. “You get out of the orphanage at 16. Instead, I’ve got childhood memories like being at the lake and jet skiing.”
For Christmas last year, their parents gave them DNA tests.
Jesse’s ethnic makeup came back 99 percent Eastern European.
“That’s very rare,” her mother said.
Joey is 74 percent Eastern European and 17 percent Finnish.
Jesse tried to trace her lineage on Ancestry.com, “but nothing came back.”
Joey said he’s not opposed to going back to Russia some day to visit.
It’s an idea that doesn’t warrant any concern, said Ann, who summed up her feelings in 1996: “We were meant to have these children.”
The Farnen Family
- Home: In Caseyville since 2002. They brought their children home to a small ranch-style house in Fairview Heights in 1996.
- John, 54, works for Mercy (formerly Mercy Health) in St. Louis in strategic planning and design construction.
- Ann, 46, owns the Scrapbook Factory in O’Fallon. She started it in 1999 and has expanded three times.
- Joey, 22, is a 2013 graduate of O’Fallon Township High School and attends Southwestern Illinois College. He is a bartender at the Dandy Inn in Fairview Heights. He plays the guitar and is interested in business administration, early-childhood education and winning the lottery.
- Jesse, 20, is a 2015 graduate of O’Fallon High School and attends SWIC. She also works at the Dandy Inn, plus the Scrapbook Factory. She likes to play basketball and wants her own business someday, perhaps in lawn care.