What is the recipe for an independent life? Recently we discussed this question with members of our support group for young people who are either about to leave the orphanage system or have just done so and guests from an orphanage in a small settlement in the Archangel province. We were also joined by members of another group we run for families, parents who left the system around ten years ago.
These are the ingredients one group came up with:
1. Respect for yourself and for others
2. Being able to value yourself
3. Being able to win trust
6. Being able to work
8. Freedom and
9. Being able to be yourself
This isn't a bad recipe for us all. The trouble is that although everyone agreed that family, friends and a job are vital, they have only the vaguest idea of how they will find these things. We talked about how important it is to plan the first steps into independence and also where they can go to find support. We also talked about the fear that all of them feel when they think about taking responsibility for themselves. This is perhaps the biggest barrier to a successful independent life, and we must continue to support our young people so that they can find the courage they need inside themselves.
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We watched the film The Chorus with our young people who spent their childhoods in Russian orphanages. If you don't know the film, it is set in a French home for "difficult" children in the 1940s. The sadistic head master presides over a grim institution, but the children's lives change when a new teacher arrives and sets up a choir. You would think it was clear who was the hero and who was the villain, but our young people admired the head teacher because "he stuck to his decisions", " he knew how to put his feelings to one side and didn't feel compassion" and because "you know where you stand with him". The film started a whole discussion about which role models we should follow. This is so important because already we see our young people beginning to immitate some of the harsher teachers and supervisors who have looked after them. It might seem strange, but the older ones are already beginning to treat the younger residents at their hostel in ways which not so long ago they found so hurtful themselves. With our weekly discussions we try to help our young people rebalance their topsy-turvy view of relationships.
The group sessions we hold for orphanage-graduates already living independently show us the value of our years of patient work. Having been involved with our project for some time, they really appreciate our support and are motivated to improve their own lives. Serafim said recently, "Coming here is so important to me that I run here as if I was coming to see my family". Recently we went on an outing together to the IKEA showroom so that they could get some ideas on how to arrange their home so that it is comfortable, practical and reflects their personality, rather than imitating the institutions of their childhood.
Lastly, we have been discussing gratitude. We don't want our young people to take your support for granted. We'd love to put together a Christmas card from as many of our supporters as possible, so that they realise that there are real people round the world who care for them, and that the meetings they value so much don't happen by magic. Please do give us your messages to pass on this Christmas. Perhaps you'd like to say a little about why you support this project, or about who you are. Feel free to send us your photo. We'll pass it all on. You can add your comments or photos to our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/SaintGregs) or send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Confused and angry is how many of our young people feel. Over the summer and in September, many of the young people who used to come to our support group have left the institution where they live, either to move to another one or to start their independent life. While they lived in the institution the staff strictly controlled their every action. Now that they have left, these people who yesterday were part of their life don't want anything to do with them. For them it feels like yet another abandonment.
Fortunately, thanks to you, we can continue to be there for these young people as they go through this difficult and risky period. The authorities won't allow them to continue coming to our support groups within the orphanage, but we are finding other ways of reaching out to them. Over the summer we have invited them to join in with our activities for older orphanage-leavers who have children. Some of our parents on our programme have grown close to members of our younger group and could become mentors to them. We are planning to give them training to help them become successful mentors. Our social worker will also be making regular visits to our young people now living independently who have asked for support.
Meanwhile, we are setting up a new group in the institution for 10 young people who the authorities tell us are particularly troubled. At this stage we are still getting to know each other and building up their trust. With your help we look forward to supporting them through the coming years.
P.S. Our young people don't always like having their photo taken so I'm afraid we don't have any new pictures to show you.
Ludmilla's story shows so clearly how little the support we're giving young people in orphanages has in common with the attitude of the regular staff in those institutions. Ludmilla should be proud of herself, and so should you. She might not have found her job without your support, so thank you!
Usually in the summer holidays all the orphanage residents are sent to summer camps. This year several members of our support group, all of them over eighteen, decided that they would like to get a job during the holidays. They turned to us for help. They had a real difficulty in negotiating with the administration and care staff, who were determined not to take any risks and to take them to the summer camp with the rest. They also would have to find somewhere to live because the "children's home" would be closed through the summer.
To begin with five people wanted to work, but three of them were persuaded to give up on their plans. The other two were quite firm in their intentions. One of these was Ludmilla.
Of course, these first steps towards independence on their part needed support. Ludmilla decided not to talk to the administration about her plans, but to be as independent as possible. She regularly updated us on her progress and this is what happened.
Ludmilla and her friend found work as auxiliaries in the surgical department of a local hospital where they had both undergone treatment. Ludmilla describes how she found the job:
"I find it very interesting there, it's all familiar to me. Children stay there when they are having an operation. I can see how upset the parents get, how they cry and don't know how to help their children. At night I can spend time with the patients and look after them after their operation. The doctors like me and the patients' families thank me. I feel that I am needed and that there's something I can actually do."
Ludmilla solved her accommodation problem very simply. She and her friend rented a room from a friend. This was a huge step towards independence. Ludmilla phones us to tell to us what is going on at work and we give her support and encouragement.
We are delighted that Ludmilla has exceeded the low expectations of orphanage staff, many of whom see independence as just too big a risk and unwittingly reinforce a dependency culture, which leaves many orphanage leavers incapable of working.
"I thought that such miracles could only happen in church, when you stand for a long time looking at an icon - suddenly from somewhere the answer to your question comes to you. That is what happened to me in this group. I come here with a question, I talk and talk, and then, as if from nowhere, I feel that I have been given what I need." Ksenia aged 19.
A few months ago Ksenia was like all the other teenagers in our support group. She was scared and distrustful and would only come to sessions when there was safety in numbers. It's not surprising. Teenagers in the system can be sent to psychiatric clinics when staff find they can't cope with their behaviour.
Now that trust has been built up, the group can't get enough attention. Our colleagues have split them into small groups of three so that they get more individual attention, while still learning to relate better to their peers. Altogether 28 young people have regularly been attending our sessions, and 13 of them have come for individual counselling sessions.
We have noticed that our young people have developed better self-control through this process and are much better at communicating with us and each other. Equally, our work with their teachers has helped them to resolve conflicts better, to listen more, and to understand better the needs and concerns of the young people in their care.
This progress is thanks to your generous support. It takes patience and time to make a breakthrough with deeply troubled young people. We are rewarded by knowing that Ksenia and her friends will benefit from this experience for the rest of their lives.
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