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Year makes world of difference

Adopted Russian sisters know more English and more about family than they did last Christmas.

Like most children in this country, these four little girls are bombarded by references to PlayStation 2s and Celebration Barbies.

But the former Russian orphans have not succumbed to the commercialism so prevalent in their new country.

"Last year, they just wanted a ball. Now, you ask what they want, and they'll say, "a pencil,' " said their father, Dan Casson. "Their needs are very simple."

On a recent day, The First Noel played on a stereo at the Cassons' house. It was a fitting theme song for the Casson girls. Monday, the three oldest girls spent their second Christmas in the United States, but it is the first Christmas in which they understand the language and customs of their new country.

One year ago, Dan and Renae Casson flew to an area of Russia near the Black Sea to pick up Natasha, Tatiana and Anna Christa, now ages 12, 11 and 9, from three different orphanages. They had planned to adopt Tatiana the year before when they adopted Yulia, now 7, from a Siberian orphanage.

But their plans changed when the U.S. Embassy discovered that Tatiana had two sisters who weren't registered for adoption. The Cassons decided to wait an extra year so that they could get all three girls.

When the sisters came to the Tarpon Springs home last year, it was just a couple of weeks before Christmas. They had never experienced such a grand holiday, with its abundant food and gifts.

"They had no idea what Christmas was," Dan Casson said. "Now they're counting it down by the days."

In the time between the two Christmases, things haven't always gone smoothly. Shortly after the family returned last year, Renae Casson developed a terrible case of the flu that lasted three weeks.

"It was total chaos," Dan Casson said.

The girls did not understand English words other than Mama and Papa. They communicated with their parents through a makeshift sign language and drawings. When Dan Casson didn't want the girls to wear their shoes inside the house, he drew a picture of a shoe and put an X through it.

The girls also didn't understand safety rules that went along with the bicycles that they received at the Casson house.

"When they first got here, they rode in the streets," Renae Casson recalled.

But eventually, everything came together. The girls learned more words in English while still speaking Russian to each other at times. They continue to receive extra help from tutors and teachers of English as a Second Language at Sunset Hills Elementary School.

In particular, the three girls who were sisters by birth have reconnected. Natasha and Tatiana knew that they had sisters, but Anna Christa was so young when she went in an orphanage that she wasn't aware of her siblings.

"I (went) into my orphanage and think I wouldn't see my sisters anymore," Natasha said.

Now, they play with each other's hair and lean on one another when they sit on the sectional couch in the living room.

"It's more fun this way," Anna Christa said about living with her sisters.

Dan and Renae Casson, both 50 and the parents of grown children, said that they were content before they adopted the children. But they never imagined what their daughters would add to their lives.

"This is my best time," said Dan Casson, a financial planner who helps elderly people preserve their assets.

The girls all recognize the clear delineation between their lives in Russia and America.

One of the biggest differences is the food. Here, the girls like pizza, french fries and chicken nuggets. They were asked what their favorite foods in Russia were.

"Nothing," Tatiana said. "In Russia, we have soup with bugs."

All the girls like the swimming pool at the Casson house, and they love playing with the family's three easygoing bichon frise dogs, which allow the girls to pull their ears and fur.

Even though they don't ask for many material gifts, the girls have far more comforts here than when they lived in Russia.

Even Yulia, the youngest, vividly recalls details of her spartan life in Russia. She said she didn't like the bitter cold of her Siberian orphanage.

The best part of being in America, she said, is having a warm place to live and a family.

"Now we have a house," she said. "And we have Mama and Papa."