Russia’s Abandoned Children
Mynter Cherkasov ’83
As I head off for another day of teaching and mentoring orphans in
rural Russia, I am reminded that it was my education professors 20
years ago at St. Lawrence who inspired me to go into teaching. I remember
listening to Tom Fay, then of sport and leisure studies, and feeling
the strength that can be conveyed from a teacher who truly believes
in learning. But I never imagined that I would be applying the strength
I obtained in those motivational days to the situation I am in now.
The estimated number of children in orphanages across the former USSR
is two million and the number is growing by thousands each year. Today’s
problem is not children without parents, but parents who cannot care
for their children as a result of economic hardship or substance abuse.
In 2002, my husband, Pavel, and I moved to chaotic Moscow to work
with an international educational group that helped orphans move from
institutions to independent living. We quickly became captivated by
the warmth and potential of the children we were meeting. The stories
of their lives included caretaking 15 younger siblings and realizing
that reading was something most people learned back at age 6. Many
of these teenagers had no idea how to boil water or shop for food.
It was enough motivation to inspire us to begin our own organization
to improve the lives of Russian orphans.
The Russian system of orphanages still categorizes children according
to intelligence, physical normality and behavior. There are three tiers
of care, and when children are assigned to the lowest level of institution,
they will not receive schooling of any type, nor will they be integrated
into society after age 18.
We also learned that every town in Russia has an orphanage, and so
when we tired of the Moscow traffic and hustle, we began looking for
orphanages in the countryside where international organizations had
not yet reached out to help. Pavel and I discovered a rural orphanage
in Vyschgorod, about two hours from Moscow that housed over 100 children
categorized as “learning disabled.” We began visiting regularly
and organized activities based on art, carpentry skills and sport to
engage their interests and build trust. It didn’t take long for
us to feel like the “Pied Pipers” when we arrived at the “internat,” because
a regular crowd of 40 or more children would gather and follow us everywhere.
One of our first outings was a hike with 26 children to a river nearby
that they had never seen. After watching the orphanage staff line up
and march the kids around the deserted schoolyard for 30 minutes, we
finally headed off across the dry dusty fields in the direction of
a small red onion-domed church on the horizon. The boys ran ahead kicking
a soccer ball, and the girls struggled across the bumpy ground in their
plastic high-heeled shoes.
In the newly cut hay stubble the kids caught mice in their bare hands,
and then raced to let Sasha (our 2-year-old) pet the quivering creatures
before putting them down. Once we reached the river we pulled out watercolor
supplies and drawing pencils. A few kids, still full of energy, explored
rocks and rapids, pushing the limits of supervision and yearning to
go farther. The rules at orphanages tend to be strict; curfew at 8
p.m., and no breakfast until 10 a.m. That leaves long hours wishing
for river trips! We marveled at kayaks moving swiftly by, and thought
how much fun that would be.
The walk back was long and hot; the kids withered a bit with the exercise
and June sun. We noted a massive dump pile smoldering from the fire
someone had started in it recently. Jenya, one of the teenage boys,
tried to hide a cigarette from me, and I joked with him, until he stuffed
it back in his pocket. At 15, he looked 11 and had the eyes of someone
40. It’s an eerie mixture.
Our days at the orphanage proved to us that these children were desperate
for human interaction and caring relationships. Current statistics
for orphans leaving the institutions at age 16 give a 50% probability
that they will go to crime, drugs, prostitution or suicide. Our “Magic
House” programs aim to arm teenagers with life skills and job
training as well as give crucial information about Russia’s exploding
HIV/AIDS epidemic. With these tools, we hope the children we work with
will have a chance to realize their dreams and potential talents.
Those who wish to find out more about the program that Pavel and Jennifer
Mynter Cherkasov ’83 have established can visit www.housemagic.org or
e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.