Nyet. There’s something about “no’ in Russian that sounds so strong, so final. And today, the word seemed to spring up everywhere. Certainly I’m not going to discount the beautiful moments we encountered, like exploring a 100-year old building or feeling the mist of the fountains at Peterhoff or losing ourselves in the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt as the sun set on another day. But because of “nyet,” my heart is heavy.
We maneuvered winding, potholed pocked roads to Loupohinka, a rural orphanage about 2 hours outside of St Petersburg. Rather than spend time with children, our goal was to talk to the director – about needs, about groups wanting to travel to the sprawling, aging facility, about working with recent graduates to provide them with the best chance for success as they entered the workforce. She greeted us at the door with a wary look on her face – she seemed cynical and tired. Quickly she pulled out stapled sheets of paper, each filled completely with financial needs. There were lines for clothing and boots and coats for the kids. There were lines for toothpaste and shampoo and ointments. Donations are limited here – visitors don’t come often. And there were other lines – for a heater and kitchen supplies and a government-mandated sprinkler system. Inspectors come to see what progress has been made, but without money, the director is left simply to plead for more time. She has been able to cobble enough funding together to install sprinklers in the rooms where the 56 orphans sleep, but has no more money. There are no businesses nearby to help, no sponsoring companies willing to take care of the problem. And the government offers no stipend. In fact, because of the economic crisis in Russia, all but money for food and salaries has been removed from her budget. And winter is fast-approaching.
The organization we are traveling with, Orphan Outreach, offers suggestions on ways to help. Working with church and business partners in the United States, they have been able to provide money for a stove for Loupohinka. And a group of people passionate about the plight of Russian orphans will mean other much-needed supplies will arrive in a few weeks. The director seems appreciative – until the topic changes from money to gifts of time and talent. Her staff is doing well. Her children are doing well. Guests may come during limited windows of time – but she doesn’t have much time for them at Loupohinka. Other members of the staff, including her husband who teaches wordwork to the children, are jovial and engaging, but the director seems uncertain of the help others could truly provide to her children. She’s even seen the benefits of visits from groups like Grand Parkway, a Texas-based church that has fallen in love with the orphanage and its children. But her skepticism is strong.
We later learn that, when she visited the facility and was asked to become the director of Loupohinka, the director retreated to the forest for two days to pray and weep. The task was so great – she didn’t think she had the strength to do it. Her hard veneer hides a heart so driven to protect the orphans from harm that it keeps love at a distance.
From Loupohinka, we traveled along the Gulf of Finland to Lomonosov, where we eat a simple lunch of borscht and salad with a local pastor who ministers to the poor and fatherless in the area. The third floor of his church houses young men who are struggling with alcoholism and drug abuse, and his church is always open to meet the needs of the community. He himself has fostered children from orphanages in the area, and his team visits the children of Loupohinka to offer encouragement, read from the Bible, and pray. That is, they were – until funding ran dry for those people. They meet with us, hoping to hear good news. But it is confirmed a US-based organization who has supported their efforts for years has chosen to go in a different direction – and is ending the financial support of their ministry. Alternatives are discussed - perhaps one of the many churches that feels empassioned about the plight of orphans in Russia will step up with assistance. And in the midst of the troubling news, the faces of the pastor and his staff simply glow. They are thankful for all they do have – for help from friends and for the love of God they are able to share with so many. They show off the new beds they have purchased with financial gifts given through Orphan Outreach and its partners, praising God for His kindness.
After a short stop to Peterhoff Castle to stand in amazement at the solid gold statues adorning massive fountains that flow to the Gulf of Finland, the delicately manicured lawns and gardens with ornate designs drawn from flowers and shrubs, and the gold-roofed structure standing on the side of hill overlooking it all, we traveled back into St Petersburg to visit Hospital #15. Unlike hospitals in the United States, this old battered building offers medical respite to orphans. It smells of medicine and sickness, and the sofrt-spoken workers do their best to keep the facility clean despite its age and condition. The last time many of us were at the hospital, we visited older children including one young gypsy boy dying of AIDS. With no family support, the hospital had become his only home. Today, we were introduced to seven toddlers – each being “evaluated” to determine whether or not they should be designated orphans by the government. In the United States, 2/3 of children removed from their homes will be reunited with their families. In Russia, only 10% will return home. The rest will be placed in orphanages around the country. Our sweet little newcomers were bewildered by their surroundings. Most couldn’t yet speak in complete sentences. Dressed in the hand-me-downs donated to the hospital for the children there, the seven were a rag-tag team. They sat in a small room and were fed apples, cookies, and marshmallows by the workers. The room was quiet – hauntingly quiet. Then Brad pulled out his iPhone and showed a video of Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore singing “Listen to our Hearts.” The lyrics cut through the silence, and a small red-headed boy began swaying to the song. Then a stocky blonde boy joined him. Smiles began to fill the faces of the kids as we then watched Mat Kearney videos. We all took out our cameras and phones to take and show pictures, and laughter came.
While some of our team videotaped the “grandmothers” who come each day to hold the precious babies at the hospital, we took our seven new friends to another room filled with toys. Though many of the toys were broken, many had batteries that had long since died, the children snuggled up next to us to play. “MaMa,” one dimple-cheeked angel said every time she wanted me to hold a new toy or play a song on the xylophone. Hearing those words cut to the quick. Wanting to take her home, to show her what life would be like with a real mama and papa and big brother and beautiful sister – the tears flowed. Brad and his “band of boys” played with blocks and cars, and used a violin as a make-shift guitar to play airband.
We packed our things to leave, saying our goodbyes to our little tiny team of seven. The smiles disappeared as the children realized what was happening. “PaPa!” whimpered one of the boys as he reached out to Brad. The little red-headed musician clutched his violin, bottom lip quivering. And my dimple-cheeked angel began to cry. We were the first to visit them. And we were now the first to say “goodbye.”
So my heart is burdened tonight – sleep is interrupted by the sound of that word. “Nyet.” I want these orphans to hear “dah!” – YES – with good care and safe environments and bright futures. I want those who want to care for them to hear “dah!” – YES – with funding and support and helping hands. I want those in the United States who feel a kinship with the people here in Russia to hear “dah!” – YES – with open arms and attitudes that say, “we love your friendship.” And for those orphans who can be adopted, please Lord, let there be one “dah!” – YES – after another.