The place we visited isn't an orphanage - it's a halfway house for children who will either go on to orphanages or be returned to their families. There are currently 22 children there, ranging in age from three to sixteen. Most of them stay for a few months, and some of the older children go to vocational schools from there, rather than orphanages. We contributed some of Jack's old toys, a few new clothing items, and I wrapped up some jewelry for the older girls. The Consulate staff and a local school gathered clothing and toys to donate, and each child received a box of chocolates and a stuffed animal from Ded Moroz (Russian Santa).
First, we met with the young children in their playroom. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (two of the local staff members) entertained the children and handed out toys. Then we had a few minutes to play with the kids before they went down for their naps. I should point out that this facility, though small, was wonderful. I was expecting the day to be difficult, to be honest. I'd seen photos from a different orphanage where many of the children had disabilities and the facilities were poor, but fortunately, that wasn't the case here. The building was a little run down in some places, but it was warm and comfortable. The children all seemed happy and looked healthy. When they went into their room for their naps, I saw a dozen neat little beds all lined up, like something from Snow White's cottage. The only time I felt sad today was when I thought about the fact that these children were either given up by their parents or taken away from them. Looking at these beautiful, sweet boys and girls, it was simply impossible to fathom.
And then there was this little angel:
Irina is the youngest child at the shelter. I was bending down, trying to control Jack (who is nowhere near as well behaved as these children were), when I felt a pair of tiny hands in my hair. For the next ten minutes, Irina played with my hair - braiding it, arranging it over my shoulders, peeking at my face and speaking to me in Russian. I had no idea what she was saying, obviously, but that didn't really matter. It was an unforgettable moment.
After the kids went to sleep, we headed to the local church for a little while. The village is really beautiful - there are a lot of these old, wooden houses in Yekat, but they are rundown and sad-looking. Here, the houses are well-maintained and freshly painted in bright colors. I wished I could get out of the car and take more photos, but unfortunately there wasn't time.
We couldn't go into the church itself, but there was a small building next to it with a room full of beautiful paintings and icons. I'm sorry to say I don't know anything about the history of the church (I spent most of the day having pretty much no idea what was going on - fortunately, I can understand a lot more Russian than I speak, but it's still tough).
After we visited the church, the older children arrived to meet with Ded Moroz and receive their gifts. The older boys seemed to love John. They had all kinds of questions about the United States (and my iPhone - one boy asked if it was a 4, a 4S, or a 5; he was probably disappointed to hear it was just a 4).
Sadly, we only had a little while to talk to the kids, who seemed eager to practice their English. There was a gorgeous little girl who managed to coax Jack out of the corner and he even spoke a little Russian with the kids. I would have been happy to stay there all day, but alas, the kids had to get back to their lessons and we had to get back to the city. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, it was really nice to be out of Yekaterinburg for a while.
Many of you probably know what's going on with Russia concerning adoptions. Essentially, Russia is ending inter-country adoptions from the United States in response to the Magnitsky Act. This BBC article sums it up pretty well. Here is the State Department's official statement on the matter. This article is also really interesting (read: depressing) - it's a translation of an article by a Russian journalist about the situation. And finally, if you'd like to know how the "Dima Yakovlev Law" came about (and you have eight boxes of tissue handy), I highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize-winning article. Amazing writing that will change how you think.
Today wasn't about politics. It was about sharing our abundance with those less fortunate than we are, about spreading a little joy to children who might not get enough of it, and reminding ourselves (and our child) how lucky we are. I know these kids will scatter to the wind. I'll never know what happens to Irina. And next year, if I get to go back, there will be 22 new faces at the shelter. But I'd like to think we made their lives a little better, even if it was just for one day, because they did so much more than that for us.