Please visit our new Orphan’s Tree blog, directly on our website at www.orphanstree.org. Click on BLOG and follow us there!
Please visit our new Orphan’s Tree blog, directly on our website at www.orphanstree.org. Click on BLOG and follow us there!
Recently I was asked how I could justify working in Russia, a country that is in such opposition to ours. No doubt relations between the two nations have chilled of late. Headlines trumpet the adversity, and yes, I pay attention to all of that. And at the same time, I remained committed to press on with my ministry to Russian Orphans.
I’m an American, born on U.S. soil, raised in our U.S. culture, and educated in U.S. schools. In the upcoming Winter Olympics taking place in Russia, I’ll be cheering USA for anyone wearing the Stars and Stripes! At the same time, I love Russia and her people. Over the past three weeks, I’ve shared with you some of the stories of why I started working in Russia. You’ve read about Staas, the orphanage director Yelena, staff members Jenya and Katya and many others. But I haven’t told you about Lida, Leena, Tanya, Denis, Misha and Edik.
There are many, many success stories among the orphans I know. Katya, Natasha, Zhenya, and Sveta are working as full-time staff helping other orphans. Vanya, a successful businessman, provided a community center for his small town. Vova came from a special needs orphanage and is studying at the Repin Academy in St Petersburg, the most prestigious art academy in Russia. I know several Russian orphans with healthy families of their own, plus many more serving others in their communities.
I’m encouraged by the facts. Among the orphans with whom we’ve worked, delinquent behavior is at 6%. Nationally, it’s almost 40%. In the regions where we work, 17% of our orphans attend a college or university. Nationally, it’s 4%.
Of course there are many good reasons for continuing to work in Russia. Even if the respective governments are unfriendly, the people need not be! Selfishly, I receive so much from Russians. Every time I go on a trip to Russia, an orphan or a staff member shyly tells me they pray for me. I continue to receive so much more than I can ever give!
Over and over again, Russian staff members and American volunteers do the unexpected, go beyond what orphans could ever hope or expect. Staff members sacrificially provide the daily work so necessary to bless orphans. Volunteers go to Russia to be a blessing; and can’t believe how much they are blessed in return. I continue to work in Russia simply to be an encourager for those who have invested so much of their lives!
Earlier I mentioned Lida, Leena, Tanya, Denis, Misha and Edik. Those are the names that spur me on. I knew each of them – and all are gone. Most all of them experienced a violent and tragic death. One fell into prostitution, another was robbed and murdered, another one I loved died from poor decisions about alcohol. Those are the faces I see, lives that suffered private pains, lost dreams that were dashed – all whose lives were seemingly lost.
My answer about working in a country hostile to ours: Whatever you or I are doing, whether it is our job, our family, our friends – we are called to be a faithful presence. We don’t have the option of avoiding difficult times. It’s what we do – to be faithful to what we believe in and never give up.
Russia is a challenging country in which to work. I like challenges. More importantly, I love orphans and Russians!
Our bus pulled up to the orphanage in the town of Lakinsk, about three hours due east of Moscow. It had been a wonderful day as we had already visited two preschool orphanages, meeting little children between the ages of 3 and 6. There had been a lot of photo opportunities and warm memories of cute, cute little kids.
Of course we were running a couple hours late and didn’t have a good way to communicate that to the Lakinsk Orphanage. As we arrived at the tattered building with its peeling paint and kids everywhere, my first thought was, “What the heck have I gotten us into?” These weren’t the same little kids, but older, tougher orphans who were closely checking out this group of 28 Americans who had wandered into their space.
There was no time to be overly worried as the director of the orphanage, Yelena Kharatinova, welcomed us with her infectious smile and enthusiasm. Quickly she conferred with our interpreters Katya and Jenya and explained that since we were late, our meal was getting cold and we needed to eat right away. Although we had just been fed at the previous orphanage and weren’t at all hungry, we politely ate what was placed before us.
And then it was time for introductions. Rather than the typical introduction in the director’s office, we were escorted into their “auditorium” for a most festive, fantastic program put on by the orphans. To say we were crammed into our seats would be an understatement. At the time, Lakinsk had the capacity for 50 orphans, and the day we were there, 74 kids were housed there. As we were leaving later that day, two more boys were being admitted. That was a sad, memorable sight.
On a happier note, the program directed by Galina, the dance instructor, was amazing. She had prepared the kids with what was obviously a great deal of discipline and patience. Younger children danced. Older kids sang and danced. All the costumes had been made by the kids under the supervision of their sewing teacher, Zoya. The music was upbeat and fun—just like the orphanage. The stars of the show were three young ladies, Natasha, Ira and Galina, who sang and danced. Each one was beautiful and charming. By the end of the program we were all pulled into the dancing.
And yet beneath the joy of the day, there was a concern shared by many on that trip. Beautiful and talented Natasha, Ira and Galina were going to be at Lakinsk Orphanage for only four more months. And then what? Where would they go? Who would protect them? Who might take advantage of them?
As we prepared to leave, the orphanage director, Yelena, expressed her gratitude with a meaningful gift. That always impresses me about Russians, their generosity. She pulled me aside and shared how significant it had been for “her kids” to have us visit them and to give them My First Bibles. Then she pulled out an old Russian key on a worn-out shoestring. “Here is the key to our orphanage, George, you are always welcome to return.” Neither of us knew it that day, but I would return many, many times!
Although it was a great visit, as we loaded the bus to leave, the mood was somber. It’s amazing how quickly emotional ties are made with orphans. Almost all eyes were tear-filled. I knew that almost everyone had the same question I was overwhelmed with: “And then what?” Vic Dourte and his wife Lois asked if we could go to the back of the bus to have a more private discussion. Vic had traveled internationally on a number of missions trips. He was right to the point. “George, I’ve traveled to quite a few countries, and many of them had much worse conditions than what I’ve experienced here. But my heart has been broken, and I’ve not been able to sleep on this trip.” Tears flowed as he continued, “It seems to me that the future for these orphans after they leave their orphanage is hopeless. Something has to be done for them, and I think you are to do something about it.”
Whew! What could I say? Just the previous week I had sensed God was asking me to do something for older orphans. Now Vic was telling me the same. I was grateful that others were seeing what I was seeing; perhaps I wasn’t just imagining things. On the other hand, it was frightening to consider the ramifications of taking on a new task for which I was so unprepared.
The key Yelena gave me as a gift that day? I still have it. It serves as a reminder that as we serve the Lord with open hearts, He will provide the key to touching hearts.
I enjoy traveling by train in Russia. I usually sleep well. It’s a way to see more of the country than flying over it. For me, it’s fun. But I remember one restless, sleepless overnight train trip between Moscow and St. Petersburg that was anything but restful. It was on that train when I suspected God was about to take my life’s work in an entirely new direction. And I felt profoundly lost and inadequate.
It was the early spring of 1994, and I was in the midst of a two-month My First Bible Project ministry audit for International Bible Society (IBS). My wife Kathy and our teenage daughters, Rebecca and Meredith, had flown over to spend spring break with me in Russia. It was the first international trip for our daughters, and I was doing all I could to ensure they had a great experience. I tried to give them a combination of experiencing my work along with some touring of Moscow and St Petersburg.
The day began like many others. Katya Celenina accompanied my family to Khotkova Orphanage, about 60 miles north of Moscow near Sergei Posad. The IBS Moscow staff had distributed scriptures through the project to this orphanage five months earlier. I was interested to see how they were being used and if there might be improvements we could make to the program.
After a rather cold and diesel-fumes–filled van ride, we arrived unannounced. The director, Yuri, obviously didn’t like surprises. However, Luba, his assistant, was eager for us to see and experience everything. Compared to Yuri, she was Ms. Enthusiasm. After the obligatory tea and orphanage briefing in Yuri’s office (with Lenin’s picture prominently displayed), Luba took us on a tour. Khotkova was an orphanage (technically, a boarding school) for orphans with speech impediments. It held 185 children, ages 7 to 16, with classrooms throughout. Luba insisted we visit many of the classes in session.
In classroom after classroom, Luba asked the children if they had been reading their My First Bibles. Yes, they replied. In fact, they were using them one day per week in class. At one point, Luba asked if they had a favorite story. Several of the children spoke up, but one boy really impressed me. Frail, pale and blond, 11-year-old Staas shared quite eloquently, despite his speech impediment, that his favorite story was Jesus taking the children on His lap and loving them. Something about his angelic countenance and his serious contemplation would never leave me.
Before departing, we distributed a suitcase full of gifts that Bob and Mary Jo Steinke, neighbors from Colorado Springs, had sent with me to use when and where I thought best. Supplemented with fresh fruit we purchased that morning, the food and gifts proved to be real treats for all the kids.
On the van ride back to Moscow, Katya shared Staas’s story. Like so many, Staas and his brother Sergei were orphaned as a result of their mother’s death and their father’s alcoholism. In those crazy, mixed up, early post-Communist times, somehow the alcoholic father had managed to divert the state funds intended to support his sons in the orphanage. Despite that, and somewhat miraculously, the Khotkova Orphanage kept Stass and Sergei in residence. In light of these facts, the Bible story Staas chose, Jesus inviting children to come to Him and holding them, was even more moving.
Staas was 11 years old but looked all of 8. What was his future? When would he find his way? I knew kids left the orphanages at 15 or 16 years old. With only four years to go, what would happen to this frail boy lost in post-Soviet Russia?
Late that night, as we boarded the train, my mind was working overtime. The depth of the hopelessness of these orphans’ futures began to sink in. It was overwhelming. What could anyone do? The Russian orphanage system was well established and there was no way to change it. Why was I so consumed with the plight of Staas? He was but one child in one orphanage. And I, of all people, wasn’t in a position to do anything. Or was I?
I so wanted to go to sleep on that train and wake up content with my work for IBS in Russia. It wasn’t to be. My mind was flooded with questions without answers. What if I started a ministry for Russian orphans? What would that entail? What would be the short-term, mid-term and long-term goals? Would Russians ever support a Western-based ministry outreach to their orphans? For that matter, would Westerners support a ministry for kids in a country of a former enemy in a land so troubled and so far away?
** This is the second of a four part series on why I started working with orphans and why I continue to do so. You can read the previous post here if have not yet.
*** Next week: How an orphanage visit in 1994 confirmed my future in orphan work.
(This month, I’m going to attempt to respond to two of the questions I am most asked; “How did it come about that you started working in Russia?” and “Why do you continue to work in Russia?” This is part 1 of 4 parts.)
How did I get from here to there?
The “here”? Well, I’m sitting on the deck of my home situated in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies. It’s a spectacular fall morning, the air soft and sweet. I’m surrounded by the sights and sounds of what makes front-range Colorado an ideal place to live. The vistas are spectacular. The sky’s a robin’s-egg blue, and the air pure as any on earth. And that’s just the physical setting.
At 62 years old, I’m truly blessed. I have a beautiful wife, two wonderful daughters, two great sons-in-law, four precious grandchildren and the gifts of long-established friendships near and far.
And the “there”? At this very moment, my heart and mind are thousands of miles away, thinking about, and praying for, those who have defined my life’s work for two decades. My calling to help Russian orphans was really unexpected. Frankly, 22 years ago I didn’t have any interest in, or knowledge of, Russia. And I knew next to nothing about orphans, let alone Russian orphans. That began to change in August 1991. During that week of the coup attempt of Gorbachev, I led a group of donors and board members on a trip to Russia to see the work of the Moscow Project. My life was changed forever.
Simply put, the Moscow Project was all about distributing Bibles in Russia. The Soviet Union had not yet collapsed, but the veil that was the Iron Curtain was coming down fast. Dubbed the Evil Empire by the Reagan Administration in the ’80s, the former USSR was in the throes of a real socio-economic crisis. The Russian people were once again facing chaotic upheaval. Serving with a Christian ministry seeking to provide aid and assurance, I was exposed firsthand to this nation’s orphans and their immeasurable suffering.
In some respects, it’s hard for me to describe what I thought an orphan was back then. I’ve come to know that using the strict definition—children without living parents—includes just a small percentage of Russian’s orphans, let alone orphans worldwide. Orphan Annie–cute, mischievous and always loveable–is of course unrealistic as well. To think most orphans are adopted is equally absurd. TV images from those days, babies wrapped in blankets in Eastern European nations like Romania all headed for loving homes in the West, were purely fanciful. In truth, most Russian orphans are young adults and even older adults, still dealing with all the issues they endured through their life’s circumstances. Perceived to be a burden on society, they have little to no hope of becoming confident young adults with identified gifts and talents.
In September 1993, I visited my first orphanage in the northern part of Moscow. Orphanages had been closed to outsiders during the Soviet era, and until the early ’90s, it was unusual for guests to visit, much less foreigners. But International Bible Society was starting the My First Bible Project for orphanages, and I was allowed to visit and meet many directors and caregivers.
I’ll always remember that first orphanage. I was with Katya Celenina, my interpreter, and another ministry staff member who was working on the project. We pulled up to the orphanage with a trunk full of children’s Bibles and New Testaments wrapped in brown paper. I didn’t really know what to expect. When we arrived, I realized that the orphanage staff and children probably didn’t either. The kids were well dressed and exceptionally well behaved, something I would see over and over again throughout the next several years. We were shown their bedrooms with every bed perfectly made, their pillows precisely placed in a triangular shape. I was wishing my daughters’ rooms could be so neat.
The staff gathered all the orphans together in the gym, and we handed out the Bibles. Afterward, we passed out some candy. I’m pretty sure they were more excited about the candy! After a brief meeting with the director, we departed. It was a truly friendly meeting. And as we drove away, many of the stereotypical images of orphans I had at the time were validated.
Cute. Loveable. Perfectly behaved.
In the ensuing years, however, I realized my superficial views of orphans and their life circumstances were just that—totally superficial.
** Next week: How one orphan dramatically impacted my life and the lives of many others.
We look for inspiration in all sorts of fun places. You might say we’ve always got our sensors set to detect anything that might help us understand life around us a little better. Sometimes that’s in the form of understanding how things just are. Sometimes it’s in how they might be. Sometimes a look into past thoughts about today might give us a clue as to what we might expect for tomorrow. Forgive me. Recently, Jenya and I have been on a little Sci-Fi kick, with a twist. A series called Prophets of Science Fiction has proved very interesting, exploring the many seemingly crazy ideas that Sci-Fi authors have written about that ended up coming true. But of course, along with it comes consideration of the very ways in which we think about the future.
Arthur C. Clarke, we learned, famously declared three laws of prediction.
1. When a distinguished but elder scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
George did a nice job in his post, “Numbers Numb“, giving us a glimpse into that feeling back in 1994, considering the extent of the needs of Orphans. Even just considering the number of Orphans in this world is enough to scare one off, and then when you look at their specific needs, it can be heartbreaking. Then again, looking at an individual, and his or her specific circumstances, can both be easier to wrap our minds around and more inspiring to our hearts.
For me, in my first visit to a Russian orphanage, way back in 1998, I was struck by a young boy named Artyom who, though in an institution for orphaned kids with mental challenges, took me by the hand and toured me around his room, the hallways, and other parts of the building naming various things in English. From beds/dressers (see photo) and my own camera to stickers on lockers of butterflies and zebras and moonbeams, his guided tour was in my own native tongue. Where did he learn so much English, I asked. “Bon Jovi!” he exclaimed! I think back on that day often, and with a great deal of appreciation for what that little boy taught me.
Though my Bride-to-be’s work with these kids had been going on for a few years already, and though many blessings had already come of her’s and her colleagues’ dedicataed work, I still entered that orphanage more overwhelmed by “the problems” that were so emphasized by all the social scientists than by the hope that Jenya clearly had and that obviously drove her in this work. The numbers – the percentages of these kids who would end up with this kind of life or that – it was all wrapped up in my pocket as I walked in the door. But the faces, the personalities, the joy and the obvious potential, and even just simple human value of each one of these precious kids was all I could walk out with.
When this burden was first put on the hearts of Jenya, George and Katya, they naturally looked to the experts, the scientists, for a proper understanding of the full extent of the problem. Of course it helped to put a label (or name) on the precise nature of this situation that they had a mind to address, but oh, thank God they also opened their hearts to the caregivers who in difficult circumstances gave their all for the kids, to friends and loved ones for support, to God for hope and courage and faith to believe they could make a difference, and to the individual kids He placed before them for that connection that let them see not just what must, but what could be done.
The scientists could only identify what was happening to the kids as they progressed through the system (really just being cared for while they waited to be dumped out)… Effectively, a very bad prognosis without much hope for a cure. They were right about the possibility of limits for these kids. They were wrong about the impossibility of changing that. But those who cared enough to imagine better, to write a little fiction in their hearts about each and every kid’s potential, and to venture a little way past the limits, ended up making the impossible a reality. We don’t use the word “magic”, of course, but rather “miracle”, and rightly so!
I was also struck by a post from Rebecca. As I read the title, “Older Orphans” I was already reflecting on the problem of what to call these people we strive to serve. In a blog post or newsletter or grant proposal, or even in just speaking of our work in meetings or simple conversations, it becomes necessary to give a name to this group. I think “Older Orphans” is a pretty good one. Rebecca did a great job on the topic, including, like a bonus question, the idea of “graduating” (I like to say “aging out”, except when I want to be ironic). For me, though, the most important part might be that the question remains constantly on our minds. To have settled comfortably on a name to call these kids (or to describe what happens when their orphanage time is up) is useful and allows our minds to move on to the work at hand, but I think it’s the faces, personalities and simple smiles of these precious fellow children of God we’ve met that inspires our hearts to dream a little more, and to never be quite comfortable with any label short of their individual names as they grow into the people God created them to be.
My little buddy Artyom was adopted soon after we met, and I can only pray that somehow, somewhere we’ll meet again, and that his life (I believe in Switzerland) will have been beyond our wildest imaginations. But for those left behind and in our care, because of that ability to look past the limits both in those early days and every day since, to understand what science said but give it the only respect it deserved (to be bypassed), we now are blessed to witness the miracles that have happened and continue to manifest.
There’s another fun thing this Arthur C. Clarke once said, something to the effect that a person predicting a future of as little as twenty years from now will most certainly be laughed at. Only whether now or later is a question. If he/she predicts accurately, they’ll be thought a fool now, for it will seem impossible, and if they predict anything remotely believable, they’ll surely have grossly underestimated and be laughed at later.
Roughly 19 years ago, a few friends turned their hearts and minds away from the short-sighted science of what was happening to these young people, and instead opened their hearts to dream of these beautiful smiling faces, looking up to them full of supposedly false hope, growing up to simply do well enough in life to return to help with the next generation. Guess what? They’re now laughing at their own previous lack of imagination as they watch these young men and women far exceed anyone’s daringest hopes for them. They looked at them and said not, “This is an orphan who will age out of this institution unprepared for life and face a certain doom”, but instead learned their names and came alongside them as friends to help them along their way. (I’m amazed, sometimes, at how Jenya so easily speaks of so many by name, and know that I couldn’t possibly remember them all without spending as much time with them as she does.) There is still much to do, to be sure, and still the challenge remains to continue to imagine more than we think possible, and still the promise remains for nothing short of miracles.
I would encourage anyone who finds even the slightest warmth in their hearts towards these young people to dig just a little deeper and imagine what might be done. Perhaps you might find a positive hope that is almost certainly right. Perhaps you might find a thought of impossibility that is very definitely wrong but fixable. How might we take even just a step past a perceived limitation and do something we thought impossible? What miracles await if we do? How might we reach beyond what we’re doing and actually come face to face with these young people? How might the repercussions of such simple steps ripple through time and space, changing lives and revealing miracles… Will we shudder in fear of the sadness that might be their plight, or will we simply begin by learning their names and seeing where it takes us? It’s quite simple, really. Who will we say they are?
Kerry J Haps
Photos: Artyom with Jenya, another boy and The Amazing Chest of Beds
Last week I wrote about meeting Andrey Selivanov, leader of the Vladimir dacha and a man I consider a secretly incredible hero who dedicates his life to others while asking nothing in return. In this post I’ll take you north to Kostroma, where I met a similar hero named Mikhail Makhov, leader of the Kostroma dacha.
Not too long ago I read an article in the news that I found a bit disturbing. The article told the story of a 60-year-old sports writer who decided to take his own life. While heartbreaking stories like this one are all too common today, this man’s story caught my eye because, according to the article, he spent a year creating a website and using it to document the reasons behind his decision. This man claimed that he was not depressed or angry, and actually had a happy and fulfilling life. He wrote that he made the decision simply because he had reached the age of 60 and no longer believed he had anything left to contribute to the world at such an old age. This man believed it better to end his own life than realize how much left he still had to give to the world as he grew older.
On the day I visited the Kostroma dacha, I was still trying to recover from food poisoning that had hit me two days before. That was okay though, because as we prepared to leave for the dacha that morning Mikhail insisted, with an empathetic smile across his face, “We will go to the dacha and relax and eat healthy food, and you will feel much better.” He was a kindly man just about to turn 70, yet seemed to have the energy of someone half his age. Despite the protests of my roiling stomach, it was difficult not to believe his encouraging words.
We drove out of Kostroma with seven orphan grads and, after Mikhail led me on a tour of the dacha still under construction, the kids all went straight to work. Like at the Vladimir dacha, the Kostroma participants were working to finish harvesting their fields of potatoes stretching behind the dacha. Mikhail made the trip to the dacha in a dress shirt and slacks and a nice pair of dress shoes. Yet he rolled up he sleeved, grabbed a shovel and began digging up the field like he thought there was treasure buried in somewhere in there.
Feeling a bit more energetic out in the fresh country air, I let a couple of the grads give me a crash course on sifting through the dirt where Mikhail had dug and making sure I found all the potatoes hidden in it. At one point, Mikhail stopped digging long enough to suggest I take a break so as to not make myself sick again. Feeling a bit feverish, I took his advice without hesitation. I sat alongside the field for a bit and marveled at the man three times my age—who looked more appropriately dressed for a wedding or business meeting—advising I take a breather and then going straight back to work, tearing though the dirt like a machine and leaving the grads far behind him.
It wasn’t just Mikhail’s work ethic that impressed me. He also leads Orphan Tree’s leadership program, which I have written about in an earlier post, and the trip to the dacha made it easy to see why. The moment we stepped out of the van at the dacha, every grad set about the tasks that needed done under Mikhail’s direction. He seemed everywhere at once, always willing to lead by serving, and that willingness showed in the enthusiasm with which each of the grads went about their work as well. Like Andrey, Mikhail also owns a house nearby the dacha and dedicates so much of his time and energy to the orphans who he inspires, both at the dacha and in the leadership program. Every one of them regarded Mikhail with love and respect not seen nearly enough anymore, like seven adoring grandchildren.
As I read the article about the writer who ended his life at 60 because he thought there was nothing left to give to the world, my mind immediately went to Mikhail, who at 70 years old is still teaching and inspiring orphans with his serving attitude and natural leadership. Mikhail is a secretly incredible man who God uses every day to help better the lives of orphans without any regard of age. He’s rolling up his sleeves and digging through dirt in his nice clothes ahead of everyone else. I can only pray that I have half of the passion and energy of Mikhail when I reach his age. He is truly a hero with no need for a cape; he prefers dress slacks instead.