Every Saturday morning the Harbor director, Lyuba, and a few of Harbor residents (in turns), engage in their own ministry to the community, spending a few hours at one of the 70+ orphanages (housing 100-120 orphans each) in St. Petersburg. The main objective is to give these young adult orphans experience in playing appropriately with babies and toddlers. Adult orphans who become parents have a high rate of orphaning their own children, and the hope is that with some experience under their belt, these potential parents from the Harbor will stop the cycle of abandonment in their own lives. A secondary objective is to enrich the lives of the babies and toddlers who so desperately need physical contact and stimulation. I’m excited about being able to invest in impacting both sets of young people at once.
Lyuba has invited me along on these visits with the intention that I might supervise this outreach on my own some day, but this first visit was only Lyuba and me. Wondering what to expect in terms of physical conditions of the building or the children inside, I only knew that there were 134 children from birth to age 3 living in this “Dyetsky Dom” (Children’s Home) and that four different doctors, who rotated weeks, were the key to allowing me into the Dom. Lyuba has built relationships with these doctors and many of the staff, since she is a regular face at the Dom. I was an unknown, and orphanage directors and the doctors can be unpredictable as to whether or not they allow foreigners in “their” facility.
The Dom’s neighborhood is unpleasant — a large factory chimney pumping thick columns of smoke skyward sits just next property. There is a large communications tower nearby, several warehouse-type buildings, and a prison decorated with razor wire. The Dom is large and yellow with a high fence surrounding the grounds. Once through the guard house, I was pleasantly surprised to see plenty of brand new playground equipment dotting the wide strip of grass that encircled the edges of the property along the high fence. Evidence of remodeling, such as scaffolding and building materials, also lay about. We walked past a couple of staff workers pushing several strollers with babies all bundled up for their daily walks. My heartstrings started to ping.
Inside the Dom was dim and quiet. With 134 babies in this place, I expected a little activity! The hallways were empty, but we could see into rooms, like a hospital nursery, where very young babies slept. Lyuba hunted for the doctor or some administrator to alert them to our visit. My hopes of actually touching any babies was dwindling. Lyuba had even said that there was a possibility they may not allow me access to the children because I do not have my current vaccination record here, and even so, I do not have all the vaccines they would require. But this is Russia, and there rules, and then there are rules. I needed to stay quiet and see what rules the doctor du jour enforced.
Finally we found the doctor, a soft-spoken grandfather-aged man, who seemed pleased to meet me and interested in why my family moved here. Having three children was a surprise to him, as it is to many Russians, but I got the impression that this fact was in my favor for interacting with the children here. With three of her own, she must not be scoping around for more! During the long chat in his office, I continually wondered if we would actually play with some babies. Finally, we stood up and Lyuba told me to leave my purse and coat. Aha! So we were on our way to play.
Our first room had eight babies from 3-8 months. Two were in walkers rocking back and forth to music. A staff worker sat on a couch playing with one, and the other five lay in a large playpen on their bellies; I couldn’t tell if they were all awake or not. We could pick up any one we liked. How could I just pick up one? I reached into the playpen and scooped up a baby. His name is Daniel (Dan eel). As soon as I cradled him in my arms, he broke into a heart-stopping toothless smile and cooed. I was mush. Daniel and I talked to each other almost constantly, as he searched my face with his big, blue eyes. After 25 minutes or so another worker emerged from an adjoining room to start preparing the babies for their naps. After Daniel headed off for his nap, I held Vika, a darling 8-month-old girl who snuggled her head on my shoulder as I sang to her. Once all the babies were down, we headed to another sector of the Dom in search of more babies.
As we wandered the halls, I noticed remodeled rooms with bright murals, new shelves with toys, plants on windowsills, and new replacement windows. Clearly the remodeling was on the inside too. Some floors had a new laminate-type covering, but others had old, buckling linoleum. Lyuba pointed out newly painted halls and approved of the refurbishing. Each group of children live together in a “corpus” with sleeping room, playroom, and kitchen. Some areas even had two playrooms or an enclosed porch.
The second group the doctor assigned us to were eight AIDS babies, ages 1-2. Lyuba and I arrived as staff awakened them from naps and brought them to the lunch tables. Four children sat around a very low table on their own chairs. Long bibs draped onto the tabletop. Workers placed large, shallow soup bowls on top of the bibs, and the kids dug in! No high chairs, no finger foods, no help feeding. Each child managed an adult sized soup spoon and shoveled the soup without spilling a drop. In just a few minutes, they went directly to the play area — this time an enclosed porch is a few bins of toys and several individual play areas with low padded walls.
It became apparent that diapers are not changed between nap and lunch, nor between lunch and playtime. I pointed out a few times that certain babies had very full diapers, but the workers only waved off the concern. Little Anya had only “spilled water on herself,” for example. Yeah, right. The rule must be one change before nap. Period. Even Lyuba didn’t understand this policy.
For 45 minutes we played with these babies, so they had plenty of time to charm me. A few were very distant and had little facial response. A few gingerly played with stacking rings and balls. Only a couple could walk, and three just didn’t move from a sitting position at all. The delays were immediately obvious, but something else was odd, and I couldn’t put my finger on it right away. Yes, the silence! A room of eight toddlers should be loud! These dear ones barely made any vocalizations. Lyuba and I talked to them and offered toy after toy. Slowly they started to respond. Little red-headed Anya proved herself the social director by removing toys from bins and then distributing to everybody. Seryozha commanded attention for more stacking rings with short grunts. One little boy, who looked the most ill, sped around the room pushing anything with wheels. The need for diaper changes eventually began to suffocate us, and the staff finally appeared to relief us — and the babies!
The subsequent Saturday Lyuba and I, plus two young men from the Harbor, played with two different groups of babies. Along with more playtime, we even bundled up a few tots and took them outside for their daily stroll. I particularly remember two little boys in the first group — Roman and Maxim. Roman practically jumped into my arms and occupied my lap for a long time. He enjoyed listening to me chatter away in a mix of Russian and English. Maxim wandered over and stood next to me placing his head tenderly on my shoulder. He was content to just stand and rest. In the second group, teeny tiny Lena and curious Olya kept me busy with stacking rings and balls.
As we played, I could only think about what lies ahead for these dear ones. Lyuba says that of the 134 residents here, she would be surprised if even one were ever adopted. Why? It’s the system, designed to make adoption so difficult. So, what did I really bring to these babies by visiting these two Saturdays? Maybe a small change in their routine, a bit more attention and stimulation? As I played, I tried to enter the moment with them in love and offer up a prayer for each little person I touched for God to watch over and draw them to Himself.
And next Saturday, I will do the same.