I’ve been told I write in color. I do admit, I am fascinated by word pictures and believe every moment has a story captured inside it, just waiting to be told. And if I was to paint today, it would begin as a stark line drawing. Slowly and carefully, that drawing would be dappled with subtle hues that, upon close inspection, may not appear lovely. But stepping back and gazing upon the finished work, it would be seen as a masterpiece.
The Line Drawing
I was reminded today that some orphans are not born through alcoholism, drug abuse, neglect or abandonment. For some, the moment happens in a rush of shattered glass and twisted metal, flashing lights and sirens.
Our van joined a seeming unending caravan of cars and trucks on the highway leading out of St Petersburg to Tikhvin, a three-hour drive. The highway would quickly shift from two lanes to four lanes – then back to two – with little warning. The aggressive nature of the drivers added to the feeling of chaos as we swerved and swayed. In the distance, we could see brake lights and police cars. There had been an accident. As if in slow motion, we passed the two mangled vehicles – one a sedan and the other an SUV. Ambulance workers were tending to the injured on the right side of the road. Those who did not survive were on the left – their lifeless faces a reminder of how quickly things can change.
The Subtle Hues
We arrived at Tikhvin shortly before lunch. Because of its distance from St Petersburg, few groups and organizations visit or offer care for the lone orphanage in the city of 60,000. The director, considered to be one of the finest in the country, welcomes us with open arms. There are 53 children living at Tikhvin, ranging in age from 8 to 18. Seventeen of the children are eligible for adoption, but their older age makes them unpopular in a world that prefers babies or toddlers. For many, life at the orphanage is the only one they have ever known.
The director tells us about her most recent graduates – 4 young teens who have all chosen to attend technical school to become skilled laborers. Their chances of finding a job are greater if they choose to live in St Petersburg, because the economic crisis has resulted in significant job loss in Tikhvin. Though many orphans choose to graduate from school after the 9th grade, she does what she can to encourage her students to continue their education through 11th grade – university may be an option at that point. There is great interest in Orphan Outreach’s graduate program – the director has heard some of the success stories already, and hopes the program can provide her graduates with the support and care they need to truly succeed.
To prepare her orphans for life, she makes sure they are involved in improvements made to their “home.” When financial contributions are received from donors, the older children even get to participate in the shopping process – comparing quality and prices. More often than not in day-to-day life, however, the caregivers themselves pay for school supplies, training materials, paint, and other needs.
There are two computers at Tikhvin, used as a reward for positive behavior. The orphans do receive some training at school, but there is no opportunity to practice computer skills at the orphanage. They would love to purchase computers, but there are more pressing needs. Showers and toilets. Mattresses for the beds. Repairs to the floors. Warm coats and clothing for the children.
As we leave the orphanage, the director braves the blustery cold to stand by our van as a symbol of her gratitude and trust. We depart the city, visiting a nearby hotel to make sure there is room in Tikhvin for those who will return someday. I look at Reb, an amazing man from Austin who raised the funds for our vision trip by reaching out to business associates and friends, and say “Feels like home, doesn’t it?” “Yes, this feels right,” he responds. It does indeed.
From Tikhvin, we traveled to Volkhov, once the capital of Russia but now a community caught in economic hardship. The orphanage here is different than many – it is the only rural orphanage that focuses its efforts on children with special needs. There are 77 children in total here; the youngest is 2 and the oldest is 19. Because of the unique role the orphanage plays in helping children who are developmentally delayed or learning challenged, the government does provide some additional subsidy. And the director has a good business head about her – she has garnered sponsorship support locally to help pay for some recent improvements to the entry way and dining room. She is fortunate to have received plenty of clothing for her orphans. Her list of needs is small, but with winter approaching, it’s urgent. The heater needs to be repaired, and new windows need to be installed on the northern side of the orphanage to keep the icy cold air from blowing on the children as they sleep. Like Tikhvin, she also needs repairs to showers and new toilets.
We tour the facility and see friends we had met in November 2007 on a Shoes for Orphan Souls trip. While we visit the kids and keep them entertained with glow sticks, candy, and picture-taking (even showing some pictures from our previous visit), something like a miracle is taking place in the director’s office. I believe anyone who goes on a mission trip ends up carrying at least one image of a child with them – for me, there are three: Ulla from Lomonosov, Verohnika from Louphinka, and Josabeth from Antigua, Guatemala. For Reb, the image was of two boys from Volkhov. Those two young men – both gypsies – opened his heart and eyes to the plight of orphans in a powerful way. And today, he met with both boys to learn about their lives, their desires, their needs. The conversation was candid and honest as the boys shared their pain, their fears, and the “home” provided by the orphanage. Working with the director and Orphan Outreach, Reb was able to find ways to help them personally and stay in touch with them to encourage them over years. The most telling moment of the conversation was when Roman, a 12 year old boy with sky blue eyes and jet black hair, slipped on the sweatshirt and baseball cap provided by Reb. He then reach out and hugged him as tears started to flow. In that single moment, standing outside in the pouring rain to get photographs of the three new friends, the world was flooded in warmth and color. Reb’s smile said it all. This had been a most valuable journey.