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One part luck, two parts determination

It is hard to know one's destiny in life by age 19, but Natasha Merrikin is sure of hers: to help children.

"Kids are my life," said the sunny Sequim High School senior, in a fading Russian accent. "I would do anything for kids."

Merrikin could easily have a more hardened view on life - until age 14, she lived in a desolate orphanage in the Eastern European country of Belarus, where she said she faced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her caretakers.

"I had a tough childhood," Merrikin admits, but she speaks frankly of her upbringing.

Born in Belarus' capital city, Minsk, Merrikin said she never knew her mother, who gave her up to the doctors just minutes after giving birth.

"I don't know how she was feeling, I really just don't know," Merrikin said, without a trace of anger. "I know she didn't give me a name. She told the doctors to name me, so they gave me a name - Natasha."

For three years, Merrikin remained in the hospital, facing various ailments due to the 1986 Chernobyl power plant explosion in neighboring Ukraine. Soon after her third birthday, she was transferred to what she now calls "a kindergarten orphanage," where she went to school and lived until the age of 9, when she was moved to a different orphanage for middle- and high-school students.

Conditions at the new orphanage were bleak, Merrikin said.

"(The caretakers) would say I was stupid to my face," she said. "We were considered 'slow-minded' because we were orphans. They would say, 'Your mother didn't even want you, and now we're stuck with you.'"

The food was so bad, Merrikin recalled, that "I wouldn't eat for three days. It was making me sick."

During that time, Merrikin came to Seattle through a program that brought ailing children to the United States for health procedures. She stayed with a host family for six weeks while receiving surgery on both eyes - "One went well, the other didn't," she said.

After her recovery, Merrikin returned to Belarus, and the orphanage. It was through that trip, however, that Merrikin said her journey to Sequim began.

A Sequimite that Merrikin refers to only as "a friend" visited Belarus a few years after her initial U.S. trip and chatted with her.

"(My friend) asked me if I'd like to have a family and I said yes," Merrikin recalled.

Back in Sequim, Merrikin's friend was having computer troubles and called up computer specialist Mark Merrikin.

"My picture was on his desk, only a corner sticking out," Merrikin said. "(Mark) came to fix the computer and my picture caught his eye. He asked, 'Who is this girl?'"

The friend explained that she was in a Belarussian orphanage, was nearly 15, and needed to be adopted soon, because in Belarus 16 is considered too old for adoption.

Mark responded, "I'll adopt her."

"Just like that," Merrikin explained, still in awe of her father's quick decision.

Mark and his wife, Joan, visited Belarus for three weeks to fill out paperwork and complete the adoption, but Merrikin was beginning to have cold feet.

"When I was at the orphanage, people told me they only wanted to adopt me and to make me a slave, or a prostitute or sell my organs," Merrikin said. "I was scared."

After spending more time with the Merrikins, she said she began to feel like part of the family.

"They were very good to me ... I could see they wouldn't do anything to hurt me," she said.

After moving to Sequim, Merrikin began to succeed academically and socially. Although she had completed the eighth grade in the orphanage, Merrikin said she technically only had a fourth-grade education. She began by taking only three ninth-grade level classes at SHS, but managed to make the honor roll during both her sophomore and junior years.

"I am really just so amazed by her," said SHS career director Mitzi Sanders, who has become a mentor to Merrikin. "She's an inspiration to everyone she meets, including me."

Not one to dwell on the past, Merrikin is moving forward with her new goals. After graduating in June, she plans to attend Peninsula College and transfer to Seattle University and pursue a career as a social worker or a psychologist and help orphaned children. She would like to visit her old orphanage in Belarus, as early as this summer if she can save up enough money.

"I want to ... tell them, 'I was at your place, they told me I can't do this or that, so if I can do this, you can do it too,"" Merrikin said, her eyes flashing with determination.

Merrikin already has begun her quest; each summer, she volunteers with Global Family Alliance as an interpreter for children who visit the United States for health treatment.

"She has worked so hard and she is determined to help people that are back in Belarus," Sanders said.

For Merrikin, her quest to help the children who are still in the position that she managed to overcome just comes naturally.

"I lost my hope almost and when I came here I got it back," she said. "(The caretakers in the orphanage) said, 'You're stupid and when you get to the U.S. you'll fail.' I want to prove them wrong. I feel lucky and amazing, I can't even describe the words."

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