The metronome ticks. St Petersburg is alive.
The sun rose over the Niva River as we journeyed to Orphanage 60 to speak to teens preparing for graduation. 60 is one of many government-run facilities in St Petersburg with numbers for names. Somehow it just makes sense here…
The smell of fresh paint and wood filled the air when we opened the door and walked up the steps to the office where the director and assistant director waited to meet with our team. We learned the orphanage had been recently renovated to become a public school – a school of close to 600 that just happened to still accommodate 45 orphans. Their rooms lined one short corridor, next to lecture rooms and offices. Their kitchen and eating area paralleled the larger school kitchen. When the other students went home at the end of a school day, the orphans stayed. They ranged in age from 12 -17, with stories of abandonment, abuse, financial difficulties, and more. Some would graduate at the end of their 9th grade year and pursue trade school education. Others would hold on until 11th grade in the hopes of being selected by a university. The dreams are big at Orphanage 60 – electrical engineers, civil aviation, forensic specialists, police officers, videographers and designers – all dreams requiring admission to school and a place to sleep.
Yes, a place to sleep. You see, the government offers orphans an extremely low-cost collegiate education. All the child needs is a safe place to call “home.” But what does home look like to a teen who has no family to live with? And if that orphan found a place to live, would they know how to cook, to manage their money, how to grow things and and craft a resume and look online for job openings. When asked that they wanted more than anything, several of the boys responded, “We want to learn to cook. We want to learn to speak English.” With a monthly stipend of only 350 rubels a month after graduating (that’s a little over $13 in USD), the struggles to survive without some type of support are strong. Transitional homes in St Petersburg are few and far between, and word on the street is that a couple of homes are being closed at the end of the year due to a reprioritzation at a US-based ministry. Several of the boys voiced their concern that their government had predetermined their vocation by making it so difficult to be accepted into schools that offer dormitory housing. Orphans overall seem prime candidates for trade school, which offers no additional benefits.
As the interview continued, a few of us toured the upgraded “school with built-in orphanage housing” to see what new facilities awaited us. A large commercial-grade kitchen was being built. The classroom would accommodate 12 students, and an orchard and garden assured fresh fruits and vegetables would be available most months throughout the year. Developing a curriculum of heatlthy, easy to prepare, fun items would be simple enough – barring complications with conversations and ingredients. In my mind’s eye I could see pieroigi stuffed with mushrooms or beef, poached chicken in walnut cream pesto sauce., soups and salads. And of course there would be cupcakes. The headmaster of the orphanage beamed when we discussed the concept, and asked if other children suffering from siginificant poverty might be able to join the class.
We also visited a newly equipped computer lab. Fift-six computers were in the room – most in boxes. And a handful of young women played games on the computers, rather than use them to learn business applications. More instruction was need – more tutors were needed.
The final conversation revolved around English. In order to graduate school, standardized English comprehension tests are taken. The students receive limited lessons in Enligh, and there is significant hunger for a tutor who will work with them on an regular basis, teaching both Oxford and conversational English.
We said our goodbyes as we pondered the possibilities of a “LifeCamp” done at the orphanages, Taught by volunteers with a passion for orphans and skills in their selected area, LifeCamp could provide a greater sense of independence for recent graduates. Our concept was received well by our in-country team, the students and even the faculty. The spark in their eyes said so much. They had a voice, and they had needs. And someone was willing to listen.
Our van drove us for a while, and then stopped shy of some imposing steps taking us underneath a major traffic circle. We followed them to a beautifully haunting World War II Memorial honoring the Seige of Leningrad. It showed in imagery and artifact the raging battle against the Nazis in the 40s. Hitler wanted Leningrad wiped from the face of the earth – he considered it the “heart” of Mother Russia. More than 250,000 bombs were launched and some say no structure went untouched in all of St Petersburg. Churches were used to store the dead and mass graves were used in an effort to quell disease. There was no electricity, no way to get food to people. In order to drink, people took saws to the frozen waters of the Niva River. More than 60,000 died of starvation alone. Of every 10 men who went off to fight the battle, less than 3 returned.
Haunting music played on radios and through loudspeakers each day during the heart of the war. The music alerted people to information to be shared. And then there was no information, a solemn “tick – tick – tick” of a metronome broadcast to everyone that ‘St Petersbrg was still alive.” We walked silently through the memorial, reading the inscriptions illuminated by candlelight. “Tick-tick-tick” the metronome resonated.
Rain had begun to fall as we departed the memorial and drove through historical buildings to Orphanage 2. Known by all as a precious gem in the city, this orphanage has children aged 3-12, living in small group settings. Our time was one of celebration for the orphanage, for Sasha had received gifts from her “forvever family,” a mom and dad and brother awaiting her arrival in a few short months. Two other children currently being considered for adoption received gifts from families in the United States. There were cheers and candy for everyone. Lots of smiles. But my heart wanted to cover a young lady named Sasha. With dark eyes, a huge smile and deep dimples, she could make any heart melt. And she wants so badly to be adopted. She has a little brother, and Buckner is trying to keep the sibling group together. I pray her day will come soon.
There’s also Andre – a talk, shy tender young man who wants to sit and talk. He too wants to know the love of a family. My heart breaks as it fall more and more in love with these kids. We give hugs and kisses one last time before leaving, and I walk around the orphanage, I hear the rap on the window above me as Sasha stands and waves. She runs from window to window, stopping to rap, wave and smile. Oh, how I wish I could simply open that sash, and take her with me!
We drive away as night falls on the city. I hear the “tick-tick-tick” reminding me of life – and I pray that life is good for this city, for these orphans.