I visited Russia for the first time in late July this year, part of a charity’s work in and around orphanages. What did I have in mind as we began to see the outskirts of Saint Petersburg out of the window? I can’t quite remember exactly, but I know that being handed the entry/departure card was one of those things that fit in with my views of how things worked. Lose your departure card and it’ll be that little bit harder to get out of the country.
Paperwork. Queues to be looked at by stony faced officials who stamp. Getting questioned by suspicious officials in their broken English about why I had so much luggage with me (I’m part of a group, I wanted to shout, look at who is around me!). Then there was old cars, dilapidated roads and some crazy driving from the natives. Russia conformed to some stereotypes that I already had before arrival.
The week was to be spent near a small industrial town a few hours from St Petersburg, during the day helping a day centre care for a large group of disabled children, some orphans, some not. A few weeks before setting off we had arranged what we were to do each day to keep the kids entertained, to keep them active. We realised the importance of this later in the week, perhaps the Thursday or Friday. Usually our time with the kids would end in the afternoon, when some of the younger ones would have a nap, and the more experienced of our group would give some seminars to any interested/available carers and parents #learning English, improving care for the kids, etc#. Those who weren’t giving seminars wandered around the centre, a plain but big building, far better than a lot of similar institutions across the country. We found the kids in the groups they were naturally divided into by age, sat in their rooms not doing anything, perhaps the radio on in the background.
So, perhaps, we knew that we were making an influence, no matter how minor or fleeting, on these kids lives, because we were doing things with them that wouldn’t have happened if our group had not have come in. They need mental stimulation, like any child does, and that maybe something that is lacking, especially during the hot afternoons of the Russian summer.
Each afternoon, just before lunch, was an outside period. The small grassy area would be covered in children, from a few years old to 17,running around, playing with balls or in the small sand pit, with a few adults looking over them. We managed to get a few of the older boys who liked football (and who all supported Zenit) to play a game at a nearby field with goal posts. Games only lasted twenty minutes but were immensely fun, if very tiring. It might feel horrible at the end of each game to have sweat running down your back, 30-5 degrees heat still scorching your back, but it’s made better by the fact these kids have managed to play a sport with a group of guys, something they can’t do very often.
I remember during one of these play-times I gave one of them a piggy-back for a few minutes, he enjoyed it. Naturally, the other boys who had seen it wanted to join in. I was able to carry two of them at a time on my arms, running around for a few minutes at a time. Eventually though, in the same heat as I had played football in, this gets physically tiring. It’s quite hard to tell some kids, over-active, Russian kids, that I want, nay, need, a rest. I would end up having to jog around trying to find my girlfriend, inevitably with another bunch of kids #younger girls with no interest in being lifted up endlessly#, who can speak Russian to tell them to desist. That only last a few minutes, moments maybe.
This week opened my eyes, as I was told it was numerous times. I mentioned in a post a while back (here) that the charity was Christian based. Very Christian. Each morning was punctuated with a prayer, which I was sat at the table for but abstained. Aside from this it wasn’t obvious that this was a Christian endeavour, not that I don’t think it would’ve bothered me. This trip boiled down to trying our best to help these children in the limited amount of time we had.
I left feeling I had done something positive, found out how anotherpart of the world lives, considered the differences between twocountries. I left feeling that I’d been through an experience,something that has changed me and will change me in ways I won’tinstantly see. I had this thought and realised that for those kids,the carers and parents, it’s not an experience, it’s life, but it’s nice to think that, even if only for a week, we helped them out.
(This trip was part of a Love Russia summer camp. Check them out)