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 Children  Russia Project #11238

Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children

by St Gregory's Foundation
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Summer camp for orphanage-leavers with children
Fetching drinking water from the spring
Fetching drinking water from the spring

We have come back to the city after the summer camp season, full of enthusiasm and full of stories.  We ran two summer camps, one for parents with teenage children, who were joined by members of our support group for young people who are about to, or have just left a children’s home, and a second summer camp for parents with young children.  Today, we’d like to report back on the first camp, and we will tell you about the second in a separate report to come soon.

So, we had four families with us and also four young people who have no family.  We were expecting two more from this group, but one couldn’t get time off work, and the other was taken ill before we left.  Combining these two groups gave the young people a chance to see family dynamics at work before they even start their own family.  We quite frequently do joint group activities, and it is something that interests everyone.  The young people who took part are amongst the more committed from their group.  They had even come out to our summer camp base in the spring to help get it ready for the camp, and they continued to work on its maintenance alongside our other activities.

As it turned out, three of the families had a very similar background.  The mothers had also had their first child when they were young – 17 or 18 – with their first husbands.  At first the child had lived with their husband’s relatives while they finished their studies.  In some cases this had continued until the child was four or five years old.  Zhenya’s story shows some of the difficulties this can create:

“My son, Sasha, is 14 now and we have been members of the support group for two years now.  This year, as well as the group sessions, we have also been going separately to individual sessions with the psychologist.  I don’t know how we would live together if we didn’t have this help.  I have got a new family now, I had a daughter who’s 5 now.  Sasha is always trying to go back to my first husband’s relatives in the village where his grandad brought him up.  He is very fond of that family and I don’t understand it.  It’s very important to me that he has a good relationship with my husband and daughter.  I feel very guilty about his early childhood, about not being there for him and it is difficult for me to maintain contact with him now.  He is already a teenager and he doesn’t need the kind of care he did in childhood.  He needs something different, and it’s difficult for me to understand what. When we’re talking he clams up, and then I do the same.  I realise that we need help.”

During some of the creative activities, Sasha was able to use some of the skills that he picked up from his grandfather in the village.  It’s very unusual for a city boy to know how to use an axe or how to make a fire.  Zhenya was able to appreciate her son’s skills and it helped her to begin to accept the importance of Sasha’s other life with his grandparents and to make space for these relationships in their life.

The camp provided an opportunity for all the families to work on their relationships and to become closer.  Tonya said,  “Although I try to be close to my son, I understand how little I know him. Here, I could see that I don’t relate to him in the right way – I just make it look like I’m listening to him, but really I don’t take his opinions into account.  Now it’s clearer to me why he can be really happy with other people, but his mood changes when I’m around and he tries to avoid me.  I looked at my behaviour and I realised that I criticise him constantly, re-do things he has done and the result is that he doesn’t trust me.”

Our families set such a good example for the young orphanage-leavers.  They showed that family life is not always plain sailing, but that families can stay together and work to improve their relationships.  We are very proud of the progress they have made.  Thank you very much for helping us fund this valuable opportunity for all our families.

Zhenya, Sasha and Zhenya
Zhenya, Sasha and Zhenya's young daughter
Taras, Dima and Kostya collect firewood.
Taras, Dima and Kostya collect firewood.

Last time we reported to you, we told you how we have been preparing our families for the intense experience that is summer camp.  It is vital that we prepare our parents emotionally and practically, by advising them on saving up for the trip and what they will need to bring.  

Since then, we have been able to visit our log cabin with a group of volunteers and start to repair the damage from 12 metres of snow and winter temperatures below 30 degrees C.  As we suspected, the roof of our eating area was damaged by the snow.  The weight of it caused roof covering to crack, which then let in the water when the snow melted.  We put in place temporary repairs.

Quite apart from this we also, painted our playground equipment, put down a wooden floor in our group work area, cut the grass, cleared rubbish from the outside areas, cut down trees and bushes that could become a fire-risk in summer and chopped firewood for our stove.  You can see we weren't idle!

All this work is so that we can host five summer camps this year.  These include the summer camps you know about and are helping fund so generously for parents who grew up in orphanages and their children.  This year we'll be running one camp for those with young children, and one for those with teenagers.  In addition we'll also be running summer camps for families who have adopted children from orphanages and need support to bond and deal with the damage caused by their child's difficult start in life as well as for young people who are about to leave, or have just left, the orphanage system.

We are very grateful to our volunteers, many of whom are also members of our programmes.  In the photo Dima's mother grew up in an orphanage and they are members of our support group.  Taras and Kostya grew up in orphanages themselves and are members of our support group for young people who are about to leave or have just left the orphanage system.  We are very proud of them for sharing the responsibility for making this year's camp a success and for working so hard.

We have very limited access to the internet over the summer months, so we will report back on our summer camps when we get back to the big city.  I am sure we will have lots of news to share.

Our summer camp 2018
Our summer camp 2018

Our cabin at Dolbeniki is a special place, which features large in our families’ memories and stories, and which the children feel particularly strongly about.  This summer we’ll be running summer camps there for pre-school children and for teenagers too. 

The teenagers are already looking forward to testing themselves in the new, and for some, unfamiliar environment.  The parents are saving up for their contribution to the camp and are preparing.  The atmosphere at our Centre is full of expectation.

We are still preparing our families, especially those who would be attending camp for the first time.  We are working with them to see whether they are ready for the intense nature of the experience, and helping them with planning for the trip.  We will confirm who is able to come on camp at the end of April.

We are also recruiting volunteers from our community at the moment.  This year’s winter has been particularly harsh and snowy.  We are rather worried that the weight of snow may have damaged the roof of our dining area.  We haven’t been to the cabin since October and unfortunately, we still can’t get there because of the snow.  We are planning to go and start getting the place ready at the end of April.

While all this work is going on, we wanted to remind you of just how valuable these camps are. 

Katya attended our summer camp last year, and she posted on social media:

“I want to thank everyone who’s involved with Sunflower’s work, especially those who were on summer camp 2018.  I think my relationship with my child and with children in general changed for the better.  I began to understand Liza, began to notice little things in my behaviour and hers, began to try and control my emotions.  A big thank you to the other mamas, for the advice, for the stories from your lives, and for the fact that thanks to our time together my relationship with other people has changed!!!

It’s become much easier for me to talk to other children, their mamas and grandmothers.  I stopped being shy.  Today Liza turned 5 and I even took the role of leader at her party.  I am sure that earlier I couldn’t have done that.  Thanks to Sunflower I believe in myself.”

We would be delighted and very grateful if you could help us fund this year's camps, so that more mothers like Katya can feel this way.

Katya takes the lead at her daughter
Katya takes the lead at her daughter's party
Natasha with her sons
Natasha with her sons

As one of our wonderful group of supporters you have heard about the summer camps we run for parents who grew up in Russian orphanages and their children.  You might not realise that we support these families through the year also with weekly group support sessions for families.  Today I'd like to tell you the story of one of our mothers who has been involved with our organisation since 2007.  Natasha is typical of our mothers in that her needs are complex on both a practical and emotional level, but her powers of compassion and courage are also extraordinary.  Over the last eleven years she has shown great determination to improve life for herself and her children and we will be there for her and her family for as long as she feels she needs us.

Natasha was one of the first orphanage-leavers to come to our support group.  She helped other mothers to come to our parenting classes by waking them up on time, or encouraging them not to drink on the night before.  Many of her friends' children grew up "in her arms" because her friends either had to work long hours or were dependent on alcohol.

Natasha had her own share of problems.  She worked as a seamstress, but her employment was never formalised so she wasn't paid when she got sick.  She also was frequently short of money because she had bought food for her friends' children or had bailed one of her friends out of police custody.

Worst of all, she was given a room in a communal flat, but a fellow tenant forced her out.  We managed to get her back in her accommodation, but the neighbour made her life unbearable, so she was soon back living with friends.

For a while, we lost contact with Natasha, but then she called from the maternity ward.  Natasha was a mother!  Natasha's husband also grew up in a children’s’ home and it as difficult for them to build a family.  Natasha was optimistic and came regularly to our support group and to our summer camps.  She even moved back into her room in the communal flat, but the conflict with the neighbour only got worse.  When the police wouldn't help, Natasha turned to a local parent-child support centre.  They offered to put her on the waiting list for a new home if she divorced her husband.  The arguments were so convincing that, without consulting with her husband, she filed for divorce.

Her husband was confused and angry and moved out.  It took some years to rebuild their relationship, but they are now back together and have two children.  Their second child was born without all his fingers.  When her scan showed problems, Natasha was offered a termination, but she refused.  The other mothers in our group don't understand why she would want to raise a damaged child, but Natasha is very attentive and gentle with both her children.  She says, I'm changing a lot, I'm becoming kinder and more patient." 

We are very proud of Natasha and all that she has achieved in the face of incredible adversity.  The summer camps are an important part of her family’s story alongside the year-round support we give her.  They provide an opportunity to learn in a relaxed but intense environment, and a store of bright memories for Natasha and her children to look back on. 

Thank you very much for helping make the summer camps possible.  Soon we will be starting to prepare our families for summer 2019.  What a thought! 

We reported on the summer camp we led for families with teenage children.  Now, we'd like to tell you how our families with pre-school children got on.

Seven of our families with ten children, mostly aged 3-5, joined us this summer at our log cabin for an intensive week aimed at strengthening their relationships.  This is a key time for the children as they develop their sense of self and their relationships with their parents and other children.  It's a time that can bring more parent-child conflicts for all families, as children begin to have stronger ideas of their own.  It also brings particular difficulties for parents who grew up in orphanages, who have no idea how to help their children relate well to others, how to manage difficult emotions, or how to resolve conflicts.  These are all issues which we worked on through the week through a mix of play sessions, parent discussion groups, creative work, and individual counselling.

Part of our routine involved time for free play.  At the start the children fought among themselves for the most interesting toys, didn't take turns or observe any rules.  They couldn't resolve their conflicts, but didn't ask for help either from their parents or from our team.  Watching this we could see why the parents don't take their children to playgrounds.  

Ekaterina said, "Before it would never have occured to me that it was my decision not to go to playgrounds.  I just thought that my child wasn't interested in playing with other children.  Here I could see how difficult it was for her, and how difficult it is for other children to get on with her.  She takes their toys, spoils them, knocks over whatever they've built etc.  She often talks about the other "bad" children at kindergarten who are horrible to her.  Here I can see what is really going on, and that my daughter needs help.  It was difficult for me to accept because I find it difficult to get on with people, but I have always thought that I didn't need people, not that maybe they didn't like me.  It's difficult to start thinking differently, but I don't have an option.  I have to help my daughter, so I have to learn."  

Gradually, through the week the parents became more active.  They stepped in to help their child resolve conflicts, to remind them of the rules, and to support other children too.

Every day we would also have some kind of creative activity.  This was a chance for the parents to work together with their chidren.  Natasha found it a surprising learning experience:

"I was helping my daughter Angelika to paint a pine-cone.  I was just holding the pine-cone while she painted.  All was going well, but it seemed very slow to me, and I got fed up of holding it.  So, I decided to help her, took the brush from her and painted it with a different colour that was closer to me.  Then Angelika had complete hysterics, she ran away, waving her arms around, and most unpleasant, she screamed as if you'd poured boiling water over her.  To begin with I couldn't understand what had happened, but the leaders suggested that maybe she wasn't happy with what I had done.  I couldn't understand what they meant to begin with.  After all, nothing terrible had happened, I was just helping her!  Then I realised that I changed the colour, took over without asking her and ruined her creative process.  In short I did everything we had said we shouldn't do in our discussion group.  It's very strange.  She's only two, but it seems she has a creative process and that I need to respect it and her.  However confused I am though, I have to learn to understand her, or at least not to hurt her.  Of course it's difficult for me because in my childhood nobody gave a monkeys about my wishes, or about me."

During the week we saw real progress as the children started to appreciate the predictable routines and rules, and their parents began to deal better with their tantrums and conflicts.  We saw a real committment from these parents to take what they have learned and to try and apply it to their home lives.

Antonina said, "It is so hard to be always switched on to your child.  I think it's much easier for parents who grew up in a family, it's easy for them to be with their children, but for us, who grew up in children's homes, it is simply an inhuman job, to give your childen what you never had.  You have to constantly work at it so that you can raise your children not as if they were in a children's home too, but as if they were in their own family. . . . It is so important for me to take this experience home with me.  It will be much simpler for my children if they see the whole family has a clear set of boundaries."

It is a difficult task, but no-one can deny the insight these remarkable mothers have gained into their family dynamics and their motivation to keep trying and to give their children something better.  And alongside the hard work, there were moments of joy and wonder.  We are very grateful to you for giving them this week.  We will be with them through the year, supporting them as they apply what they have learned to their life at home.


Angelika painting herself
Angelika painting herself
. . . and after Mum decides to help
. . . and after Mum decides to help
A nature walk with the children
A nature walk with the children

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Organization Information

St Gregory's Foundation

Location: Hampton Wick, Surrey - United Kingdom
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Julia Ashmore
Hampton Wick, Surrey United Kingdom

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