Paulina Detherow was only 5 years old when she was adopted from an orphanage in Ukraine, so she doesn’t remember a whole lot about it.
“There were a lot of kids. There was one huge room with a lot of beds end to end to end, and I think we were arranged by age,” recalled the music major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Planning to graduate in August, Detherow, who plays clarinet, now lives in Red Bank with her adopted mom, Hannah, and Dawn, the daughter of her mom’s biological daughter, Jennifer.
“My mom adopted her granddaughter and now she’s my sister,” Detherow explained with a shrug of a smile.
Keeping track of her family tree can be something of a climb. Along with Jennifer, who was born in the U.S., there are brothers Andrew and James and sister Tatiana, all of whom were adopted from Ukraine.
Detherow and Andrew were adopted at the same time in 2001. James was adopted in 2002 and Tatiana in 2003. Her mother has been a single parent the entire time.
“She really connects with allowing kids to have a great life and allowing them to have the ability to succeed,” Detherow said. “My mom is my biggest supporter.”
Although she’s been gone from Ukraine for 21 years, Detherow said the country’s recent invasion by Russia is frightening. She doesn’t know any members of her biological family, so part of her wonders whether any of them are still alive, she said.
More unnerving, though, is the fate of Olga Sergeevna, the director of the orphanage where Detherow lived in the city of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi on the Black Sea. She and Sergeevna have been in touch since Detherow was in middle school.
“She’s still in Ukraine and I’m just worried for her safety and all the kids that she takes care of,” Detherow said.
Detherow hasn’t been in direct contact with Sergeevna since the invasion began but has seen a few posts on the orphanage director’s Facebook page. Through those, Detherow knows Sergeevna helped safely evacuate some orphans to Poland several weeks ago.
“She stayed back because she has family in Ukraine that didn’t want to leave and so she just could not leave.
“I was going try to send her some money, and I’m trying to find a way I can do that.”
While a mystery to Detherow, her Ukrainian birth mother left a lasting effect. Drinking heavily while Detherow was in the womb led to a lifelong battle with fetal alcohol syndrome.
“It has definitely affected my ability to understand certain things I’m reading and doing tests. I have bad test anxiety,” Detherow said.
She receives help from the UTC Disability Resource Center, she said, and also is able to take extended time on her tests.
“And then I just do the best I can on my classwork and stuff.”
Since enrolling in UTC in 2019, she has created a second family.
“I have really enjoyed being part of the UTC music family. Everyone is very supportive,” she said.
“I’m thankful to have made so many accomplishments that I possibly would not have made this far in my education.”