Newsweek: From Russia, With Love (archive story)

I am writing a book about the barriers to education that adolescent girls face across the globe. I met one 14/15 year old girl, Vica/Vika 15 years ago in Yaroslavl, Russia and I am trying to locate her to find out what happened to her. I do not know her last name, but I do know that she would be about 29/30 now. I featured her in a story I did for Newsweek about my experiences volunteering. If you happen to know of her whereabouts, please either send me a Facebook message or on my Twitter handle @ginnychan. 

Newsweek story from May 23 2001

Yaroslavl, Russia: My expectations were low. Even before leaving the United States, I was convinced that my four-week volunteer stint in a Russian orphanage would be one of the most depressing months of my life. I pictured children chained to beds, half-starving, staring up with blank looks in their eyes, their souls long since dead. I was wrong.

There are 11 orphanages here in Yaroslavl, an industrial city of 600,000 situated four hours northeast of Moscow. And far from being Dickensian nightmares, these institutions are places where children exude love, where their laughter echoes throughout the hallways. Whatever love and happiness I try to give them, I receive back tenfold. “I am not sure who gets more out of this, the kids or me,” says Nate Castro, a 25-year-old business developer who also volunteered-with his grandfather-to do a stint in this riverside city.

Each day when we arrive after school gets out, the children greet us in the foyer, shouting “hello” in strongly-accented English. They grab our hands, grin from ear to ear and walk us upstairs to the room we use. Our daily activities vary: sometimes we organize games, paint, or make beaded jewelry. For kids who have few possessions, they are very generous. At the end of each day, I have at least three items which kids have made specifically for me.

One 8-year-old girl with brown doe eyes and a raggedy blue sweater painted me a picture with the inscription underneath, “For you to remember me.” As the youngest volunteer in my group, I am constantly surrounded by at least 10 giggly girls, asking me all sorts of questions via my vivacious translators, Lena and Kristina. Vica, with long dirty-blond hair and slightly crossed eyes, asks who I think is cuter-Eminem or Leonardo DiCaprio?

Lida, who looks like a miniature version of U2’s Bono, asks if it is true that in Hollywood, Jean-Claude Van Damme really walks down the street just like everyone else? And Katya, who with her high cheekbones and svelte figure is a supermodel in the making, wants to know if there are still cowboys in Texas.

The conditions of the orphanages vary. My home-set up by Joseph Stalin to house children orphaned by World War II-is considered one of the best in the region. By Western standards, it’s decrepit: the bathrooms stink of urine, and the kids use newspaper for toilet paper. Hallways remain unlit during the day, and the stairs are in need of major repair work.

But on the walls there are brightly painted scenes from Pushkin tales and spacious rooms for the children. There’s a positive atmosphere, too. On our first day here, we were given a tour of the institution-officially known as the Fine Arts and Music Home-by one of the music teachers. All of us were inspired when we heard that she herself had been raised here as a war orphan, came back to teach here after attending a music conservatory and moved back into the orphanage after her retirement.

Not surprisingly, music plays an important role here. All the children, who range in age from 7 to 18, are expected to sing or play a musical instrument. There are weekly group and individual lessons, and I was thrilled when the children from my orphanage won in the group-performance category at the Children’s Music and Dance Festival held here earlier this month.

Some homes, of course, are worse off. Two of our volunteer group, for example, were assigned to home where 25 orphans are crammed in three rooms and have no bathing facility. The children were moved there while their former-and bigger-home was being renovated, but the money for the project ran out, and the old orphanage now stands empty while it waits for a $30,000 injection of funds to finish the project. Just this week, the home found out that they may have to disperse the children to other orphanages, breaking up the closest thing these kids have to a family life. Despite this, however, the children and staff are trying to remain upbeat.

And what about the volunteers? The 18 of us an eclectic bunch, to say the least: There are the two widowed sisters from England, Jane Austen-like characters who have more energy than all of than rest of us put together; an 18-year-old University of Virginia sophomore who’s traveling alone; two retired Florida doctors who have spent the last 15 years traveling the world with the Peace Corps, and a thirtysomething Ohio woman who quit her job in marketing while she reassesses her career.

What we have in common is a desire to experience the real Russia. And we’re all astonished by how well-adapted the orphanage children seem. “I expected to see a lot of sadness in these kids,” says Laura Stevens, a 31-year-old volunteer from Bellbrook, Ohio. “I was surprised to see the sparkle in their eyes.”

Michele Frey, a 48 year-old juvenile counselor from Austell, Ga., is also surprised by the good spirits of the children. “In the States, I work with children who have such a strong intensity of anger and aggressiveness,” she says. “I expected these kids to be more like [that]. There seems to be no power struggle between adults and children [here], which may be a reason.”

There are other differences, too. Russia is a bureaucratic place, and every time we take a trip we have to register with officials and hand in our passports when we check into a hotel, hostel or bed-and-breakfast. Nadia Savelieva, the Russian director of CCS, says that registering volunteers has become increasingly difficult. “I am really worried,” she told me. “Each time I go to register a new group of volunteers, I meet more resistance than the last time.”

Still, Savalieva believes the program is bringing definite benefits to both sides. “CCS is a great way to prove again that there is a common bond between our countries and to show that we are not enemies, but friends.”

CCS founder Steve Rosenthal has a similar view. “These orphanages are really easy for someone [who wants] to come in and make a difference in a short amount of time,” he says. Not just for the children, but for the volunteers as well.