“We are not just interested in money. We want a good relationship. For the past year, we have these programs – bible studies and the graduate program. It is good. Our hearts are open. Please come anytime.” – Vladimir, director at Tolamchova orphanage
It’s happening again. That “just one more day” feeling is overwhelming me as I pack my bags. I’ve got a notebook full of stats and scribbles, 300 new pictures on my iPhone, a few videos on the camera, and eight mysterious bites on my body from some bug that obviously wasn’t impressed with my visit to one of the many orphanages. And I’ve got a head full of questions, ideas, thoughts, and ramblings. Tomorrow we will spend a few hours being bonafide tourists, then we’ll board a plane to London. Sunday afternoon we’ll be back in the United States. Maybe I’ll celebrate with a turkey burger and sweet potato fries, like I did the last time I returned from this precious country. But right now, all I want to do is hug my son and daughter-in-love, spend a few precious hours talking to my dearest friends, and share what I have seen and heard.
We load in the van for this last full day in Russia, and set out to the countryside. The landscape is dotted with farmhouses – many old and in need of repair. The red, gold, green and blue of the homes matches the trees and fields and sky. Farmers sit on the side of the road, bundled to brave the cold, selling their fruits and vegetables, We venture to Tolmachova, an orphanage on the outskirts of a town called Luga. There are 51 orphans there, but the director predicts they will be at capacity (65) by winter. He says it always happens that way. The children range in age from 3 to 18, and the facility has received some renovations due to generous contributions from a family in the United States with a heart for the fatherless. Some of the bathrooms have been updated, and an all-purpose room has been outfitted with a small kitchen so the orphans can learn basic cooking skills. New windows are being installed in some of the rooms to block the bitterly cold air. And the government-mandated fire detection system has been retrofitted into the ceilings of the rooms. The evacuation signs are ready, but they are in St Petersburg – someone from the orphanage will have to meet the signmaker along the road between the bustling city and the poor farming community. Sending money and having the signs mailed is too risky.
Orphan Outreach has been working with Tolmachova, and has a social worker on staff there to help the graduates who attend tech school. Recent graduates are learning gardening. A new school model, combining tech school and university, has been launched in nearby Luga, but it is too early to tell if it will be successful. The director explains that, for his orphans, it is often wiser to graduate in 9th grade rather than continue attending school. Unless they are extremely motivated and intelligent, their chances of attending university are limited. And waiting until 11th grade to graduate also severely limits their options for technical training. So the Orphan Outreach social worker counsels the 14-year olds on life beyond technical school – on getting and keeping a job, budgeting, managing time and resources. I think about my own life at the age of 14, and try to imagine on my own.
One young lady has defied the odds at Tolmachova and is now attending St Petersburg University, a first for the orphanage. Receiving a degree from the university will ensure her a good-paying job. But because the university doesn’t have a subsidy program in place for orphans, she is struggling to get by. Her government stipend of 1500 rubels – $50 US dollars – a month doesn’t pay for much. There is concern that, without additional help, she will give up. The director shares, “It would be a shame if, after all she has done to further her education, after all her hard work and risk, she would be denied. We will do everything possible – we will do the impossible – to keep her in school.” Petitions to the university on her behalf are discussed by the team.
We tour the facility, and meet volunteers from a Baptist Church in Luga who are doing crafts with 8 children too young to attend school. They visit each week to encourage the orphans and offer bible study. And they help with activities like birthday parties, collecting gifts from others in the community so each child receives something special.
After leaving the orphanage, we drive into Luga. Though we had been told a visit to the baby home there would likely not happen because the director was considered “difficult,” we were granted an invitation. One of three baby homes in the Leningrad region, it is home to 65 children under the age of 4. Unlike the other baby homes, this one receives additional help from the municipality, and has social workers dedicated to reuniting babies with their families if at all possible. Adoptions are also common. But visits and humanitarian aid are not. The director graciously welcomed our team – and said her staff would love more visits.
Driving back to St Petersburg, the team discusses what can be done for the orphanages we’ve visited. The conversation continues through dinner. There are needs as simple as diapers and as big as heating systems. There are opportunities for visits to orphanages and opportunities for adoption. And there is a huge opportunity to help this generation of orphans in Russia be history-makers in their country by learning to live healthy, independent adult lives. I wonder what that Russia would look like. I pray I get to find out.