I think I fell a little more in love with St Petersburg today. Perhaps it’s her shy laughter I find so attractive. Or perhaps it’s because, despite the 9-hour time difference and the huge language barrier, we really are more alike than we realize.
We wound through urban streets this morning, then carefully drove down something much more like an alleyway than a road. The baby home was nestled in a grove of trees hidden away from the bustle of the city. This would be the first visit to the baby home for everyone on the team; it is now home to 36 of the children who used to live at Lomonosov, a baby home outside the city limits. The Russian government decided the orphanage, a former sea captain’s home with lots of acreage, would be more profitable serving something other than children. With the stroke of a pen, the orphanage closed and the babies were shipped to other locations. The baby home, already serving more than 60 children, would grow exponentially because of that decision. And it would learn quickly how to care for HIV-positive children, something only Lomonosov had done prior to the close.
The head nurse, Galina, was reserved at first as she shared basic information about the home. There are more than 100 beds here, and most of the orphans there are considered “social” orphans – they have been removed from their homes due to alcohol or drug abuse, and parental visits are encouraged. Her reservations faded away as we walked through the essential items needed by the children – baby wipes, diapers, baby oil and lotion, clothing, underwear, bibs, blankets, teething rings, bulb syringes and developmental toys.
Galina proudly showed us the facility she has been serving since the early ‘80s. Babies rested in large wooden playpens as caregivers quietly tended to their needs. A few goofy faces and “peek-a-boos” later, there were smiles and giggles from the little ones. The toddlers greeted us enthusiastically, holding our hands and sharing their toys. Valushka, a precious girl with a congenital heart defect, watched Reb intently, carefully mimicking his every move. We then walk into the HIV area, where one of two powerful air purifiers had been installed. Sixteen more are needed for the baby home – sixteen more at a cost of $350 each.
We talked about the benefits of Desitin ointment and the practicality of plastic bibs with pockets, the best digital thermometers, and how chilling teething rings helps to reduce pain. We lovingly talked about what it feels like to get to wear new clothes and how much fun it is to purchase them for a little one. And we shared knowing smiles with the caregivers feeding little ones warm cereal – trying to keep inquisitive eyes focused on breakfast rather than all the excitement around them.
At that moment, we weren’t a team taking notes or a team of orphanage workers. We were simply friends – moms, grandmoms, aunties.
The St Petersburg sky was a crystalline blue, and the sun’s warmth made an afternoon of respite and relaxation even more special. We laughed our way through negotiating with street vendors near the Church of the Spilt Blood, and then toured Peter and Paul Fortress, a powerful and awe-inspiring presence on the banks of the Niva River, The picture-perfect day was made complete by the four wedding parties we saw – the brides in flowing, ruffled white, surrounded by her well-appointed groom and his attendants. In front of the cathedral at Peter and Paul, the photographer snapped photo after photo of a young couple kissing, while a videographer circled the couple, his camera shooting every angle of the embrace. With so few churches, weddings are a common thing every day in St Petersburg. But the beauty of the brides and grooms was an instant “joy-maker” for all who saw. Old couples, young children, even a team from Texas found themselves caught up in the moment.
At dinner, we were joined by Anytoli, a gentleman who has served orphans for what seems like decades. His distinguished silver hair and scruffy beard were a nice foil to his black turtleneck and jacket. He shared story after story of caring for kids, preparing them for life beyond the walls of the institutions they lived in. He talked of taking a wrong turn and ending up in Moscow in the middle of the night during a military crisis, surrounded by police and military as he pleaded to simply return to his orphanage – his van full of donated honey he had travelled 1100km to receive. His Ford had no radio, so he was unaware of what had just taken place in the United States. A kind police officer heard his pleas, and escorted the van to the road to St Petersburg. It was only after returning home he discovered what had taken place in the United States – it was September 11, 2001.
Anytoli talked about the teens who had graduated the orphanage over the years, and their challenges in trying to survive. He talked about the teens desperately needing shoes to be able to attend school or go to work, and waiting patiently for shipments of new donated shoes to arrive since the orphanages had no money to purchase them for the children. In some ways the conversation, though, could have been one held over a dinner table in the United States. “The kids, they don’t understand how to take care of themselves. They are used to having someone else wake them up, someone else fix them breakfast,” he said. “And they don’t know what to do with the money they make. They forget they have to purchase their own food and pay bills.” He says he wishes he had spent more time teaching the graduates about life, that perhaps he could have found different words to say to get them to understand how tough it is to take responsibility when there aren’t others around.
At that point, we weren’t missionaries or a former minister of education. We were simply parents.
St Petersburg smiled a little bit more today – as if to say “we really are alike, you know. We make mistakes, we mess up priorities. And most of us don’t care much beyond ourselves. But some of us do want to see kids smile. We want to see teens laugh. We want to see weddings and blue skies. We want to feel the kindness of strangers. We really do want to be loved and valued.”
Yes, perhaps we are simply the same.