A four-hour journey over snow-packed roads leads to the village of Tikhvin in the Leningrad region of Russia. It’s a lovely place, with a nice shopping district and lots of families. Though far from St Petersburg, it offers most of the creature comforts of a larger city. And like many villages, hidden from the shopping and the families is a non-descript building filled with the forgotten.
When she arrived at the orphanage eight years ago, Irina found a prison. Children ran away to escape the conditions. The building was in ill repair, and care was minimal. Her love for children became a promise to those kids. “Stay with me and I promise to care for you no matter what.” What has transpired is nothing short of a miracle in this country that so harshly devalues the discarded.
Irina found others who, like her, believed God had a better plan for the children. She and a small team set to repair the physical damage to the orphanage. They found partners, like Orphan Outreach and the Baptist Church of Tikhvin, who believed in their cause. As government funding continued to shrink, they found favor in their stewardship. One by one, rooms were refurbished. Floors were strengthened, bathrooms were updated and made safe, bedding was provided to each child. She took every ruble donated and stretched it to five. Volunteers came to offer mentorship for the children. And orphans who aged out were not kicked out – they were cared for and given a place of refuge.
Today, none of the 53 children think about running away. Of the 24 girls and 29 boys aged 4-18, only 13 are biological orphans. The others are social orphans – removed from family members due to abuse, neglect, or illness. The children beam when showing off their special place to live. Artwork is displayed on shelves and walls, and in the sewing room, everyone learns how to create patterns, sew, crochet, embroider, and tat lace. The kids love reading and laughter and Justin Beiber. Irina knows it’s because of the promise kept to them. “We don’t call this place an orphanage. It is a home for children. And no one works here – we all come to serve.”
In the common area on the first floor of the children’s home, a wall is dotted with beautiful faces. The little team shares the stories of each child with such careful detail. “She is now in her second year of medical school…he is in design school…she was adopted and we love her new family… she lives in St Petersburg and just had her first baby…” In Tikhvin, there are no real orphans. Every child has been adopted into this home of love, and no child is forgotten.
A new promise has been made – this time to those orphans who leave the home to go to vocational school or college (every child living there has aspirations of continued education). Irina and her team have promised the graduates they will have a place to always call home, a place where they can rest and live life as an adult as they get their footing. Construction is well under way for a transitional home with a living room, kitchen, and apartments for men, women, and even young moms. In a perfect world, a second social worker would be hired to run the program. But $500 a month is more than Irina can afford right now, and her staff are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure the transition program is well-run. “We do this because of our love for the kids. All our strength comes from the Lord. There are days we grow weary, but He helps us. And when we see the graduates do well, we know our work is not in vain.”
I pray for the stories yet to be shared on the wall dotted with beautiful faces. And I’m thankful for promise keepers like Irina.
If you’d like to know how you can partner with Irina and the Tikhvin chldren’s home, get to know the folks at Orphan Outreach.