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Table of Contents

Support Students, Support Transformation

Russia's Abandoned Children

When the Saints Came Marching Home!

Alumni Accomplishments

The Kenya Connection

Laurentian Reviews

Table of Contents

Russia’s Abandoned Children
By Jennifer 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 or e-mail her at