This year we are still planning our summer camps for orphanage-leavers, but they will be rather different from usual. Last year, our director was already very ill during the summer camps, but she was with us. Sadly she died last autumn and life is not the same without her. One of the practical issues we are facing is that our log cabin needs significant maintenance work. In the past, Lena's family have very generously given their time to help us with this work. So, this year we haven't been able to do the work that is needed so our usual site isn't usable.
This doesn't mean that the camp can't go ahead, it will just be rather different for our families than usual. We have arranged the use of a clubhouse in the wider Leningrad region. This won't be quite as beautiful as our usual remote setting, but there will still be plenty of space for our usual activities. The important thing is that it is time away from the pressures of day-to-day routines, and a chance to concentrate on strengthening family relationships. With our teenagers and young adults, we will go on a hike for three days, camping overnight. This is a format we have used very successfully before. For them too, the change of scene gives an opportunity to reflect, to gain new skills and grow in confidence.
Meanwhile, some things don't change. We have chosen the families and young people who will benefit most from the intense experience of summer camp. During May we have already met a couple of times with each group to plan and prepare for going away. As ever, we expect our participants to share responsibility for the success of the trip, but we support them in their preparations. They will need to make sure they book time off work, make it to the station in time to catch the train, and bring the right kit with them. They may need to save up for their financial contribution. We are pleased that both groups are taking their preparations seriously. We're looking forward to two great trips.
We are very grateful to everyone who has donated for this year's camp. It's not too late to contribute to this important highlight of our year.
In these colder months, it is a pleasure to look back to the summer camps that you helped to fund. We are sorry that this year it has taken us a while to report back to you and we hope you enjoy our account.
Our theme this year was "Who am I?" and "What do I need to do to become the person I want to be?". Part of the answer to that second question involves learning practical skills. As ever, our group had several planning meetings to work out what they needed to bring with them, how much they needed to save to make their contribution etc etc. Sadly, although nine took part in this group, three of them were unable to arrange the time off work that they needed.
So it was already an achievement for the six in our group that they managed to come with us. Borya said at the end of the first day, "I was really worried about my packing, and checking my money. I was so worried I couldn't sleep. Today I've had so many impressions, and nothing is left of my worries. Thank you for today."
Our summer camps have quite an intense schedule with activities and times to reflect as a group and as individuals. Everyone gets stuck in with cooking and washing up, and also with preparing our log cabin and camp area for the arrival of families with children later in the summer. The group were really motivated to help make everything nice for the children. Of course we do have free time when the group usually socialise together, listen to music or chat. Everyone also had a diary and we encouraged them to write down their reflections and make a note of things they would like to remember.
This year, one of the activities we used was "States". Each person was representing a nation state with its own interests. They had to get to know the other "states" and set up channels of communication.
Borya was very quick in setting up these channels, but then didn't take any initiative about actually building partnerships with the others. When we discussed this with him, he could see that this mirrored some of his behaviour in real life. He is very good at bringing his friends to our support group, getting them interested and telling them why it is so positive. Meanwhile, he himself only attends sporadically. Borya agreed, saying, "I understand why it is important to share with others, so I respond easily to someone who's asking for help or support. But I am only just learning how to ask for help myself. I want to learn how to deal with things independently."
Maxim emerged as a real diplomat, although usually he is very quiet and reserved. He didn't just manage to make contact with the other "states", he set up an international union and was unanimously voted president by the others. It was really important for Maxim to recognise the value of his communication skills and to start to discover his leadership ability.
We rounded off the camp with a camp fire. We were really pleased to see how open everyone was able to be with the group about what they had found challenging, and what they felt they had gained from the trip. Those who were new to the summer camps, and those who had been before all valued the friendships they had made, the chance to take time out to reflect on their lives and the new confidence they found. Taras summed up his feelings, "I am glad that I managed to come. I'm really grateful to the organisers for the trip, for their patience, their attention and the activities they organised. As usual, I am glad that I could come. It is important because I can compare how I was on the last trip and I can really see the changes in me."
Back in St Petersburg, we are working together to consolidate that progress, and help them become who they want to be amongst their more ordinary, everyday surroundings.
We do apologise for not reporting sooner on our summer camps. As you'll know, if you read our last report, this autumn has been a very trying time for us. So, in these cold months, it is good to remember our summer camps. Today, we have news from the camp we led for parents who grew up in orphanaged and their children aged 2-9.
This year a small group of five families took part most with more than one child. One of the themes that ran through the camp was the ancient Slavic mid-summer festival of Ivan Kupala. This was a focus for discussions and activities exploring family values and growing up. Many of our parents struggle with giving age-appropriate responsibility to their children. They often expect their older children to take on a parental role, but equally may not support them to take on more appropriate responsiblity. Preparing for the festival, the Sunflower team, helped families work through these questions. The families were also able to spend time together collecting flowers and making their wreaths. The celebration itself was very striking and memorable for the city-dwelling families.
We continued some of these discussions using the fairy tale The Magic Swan Geese. In the story, a girl is left in charge of her little brother. She loses track of him and he is snatched away by the swan geese. The girl goes to search for her brother and finds him in the witch, Baba Yaga's house. The little girl manages to rescue her brother with the help of a mouse, a river, an oven and an apple tree.
The older children identified strongly with the story and the discussion was lively. One thought that the children should tell their parents what had happened, otherwise "Yaga would catch the children again and eat them." Others said, "no, because Masha will be told off for not looking after her brother properly." They had possible solutions too. One girl thought that Masha could say that she was taken with her brother, so it wouldn't look as if it was her fault. Another thought that "another woman should be sent to look after them so it won't happen again." As well as discussing the practicalities, the children were able to express their own feelings of guilt and fear they have when they are trying to carry responsibilities that are too big for them.
Since the camp, the parents have been more thoughtful about the responsibilities they give their children. Liza (aged 8) has been allowed to go to the shops on her own, but her mama helped work out the list with her beforehand and made sure she understood what to do.
Over the week, you could see the children playing with each other more co-operatively, and families becoming closer. Dliana, Timur's mama, said, "We understood each other really well. It worked out - we had fun and we managed to negociate." Having worked out family rules together, the children have become better behaved. The children have been taking pride in some of the jobs they are able to do, now that they have the right support and feel more confident in their roles.
Since the summer camp, we have resolved difficulties in transferring money to Russia given the international sanctions. We have been working with the Charity Commission (the regulator for UK-registered charities) and our lawyers, and have now found a legal and safe route to transfer your donations to our colleagues in Russia. We are relieved that we will be able to transfer funds for next year's summer camps. Your ongoing support for our work is very much appreciated in these difficult times. We are hoping and praying that the work that we have built up over fifteen years will be able to continue, despite the challenging climate, and that we will be able to continue to serve our families. They always repay our efforts with great committment of their own, and we remain as proud of them as ever.
It is with shock and great sadness, that we have to tell you that our founder and director, Elena Sukhorukova died earlier this month, after a long illness. She was a woman of great vision and compassion, and she will leave a huge gap in the lives of her family, friends, colleagues and all the many orphanage-leavers she has supported through the years. Elena was very good at team-building: she has nurtured and empowered her colleagues well and we will continue her work.
You must forgive us if this report is rather short. We would like to share with you a couple of short videos from our last summer camp with Elena. You can see something of the fun we all had together, and the quality of attention the parents and children are giving each other. We will report more fully on what we got up to and how this impacted our families before too long.
First of all, I want to thank everyone who has continued donating to make this year's summer camp possible. Our hope and prayer is that the devastating crisis in Ukraine will end swiftly. However awful the situation, it doesn't change our opinion of our families who are working so hard to strengthen their relationships and improve their lives. Nor does it make us think less of our colleagues, all committed and compassionate people. The families we help are amongst the poorest. They will be hit hard by the soaring inflation, the job losses and the financial insecurity in Russia today. Part of our work is to help them adapt to change and to cope with the stresses of life. Our summer camp will be as valuable as ever this year.
May is always a month of preparation for us. Our administrator and volunteers have visited our summer camp base near the village of Dolbeniki. They travelled down roads with verges still covered in snow. Spring seems in no hurry this year. As usual, they have cleared our outdoor play areas, refreshed the ever-popular sandpit, and got the supplies of drinking water ready. They have put up an arial so we can get internet access, and set up outdoor hand-washing stations.
Meanwhile, our families and young people are also getting ready for the trip.
Liza is planning which toys to take with her so she can show them her favourite place, where she loves to go for walks, and play with her mama and her sister. Timur is also looking forward to a return visit: "I want to go again. I can play with mama and the other children a lot when I'm there. I can't wait to go."
The parents are also looking ahead and reflecting on what they want to learn this year. Dliana says,
"During the last session, I learnt how to be more emotionally stable with my child. It is important to be stable and not to explode with my child when something goes wrong, or it's stressful at work. When I saw that if I understand what's going on with my child, then it become much easier for me to help and to cope with the situation. That's how the summer training has helped me. In every day life you let so much pass you by, you don't pay attention, and it turns out you miss important things in relation to your child. He is growing and already demands not to be treated like a baby. It's important for me to learn to see and accept my child as he is, rather than as I'd like him to be. For me, this would be difficult without help from the team."
The teenage and young adult orphanage-leavers are also preparing for their trip. We will have a mix of newbies and old hands. The new participants are getting involved in the planning. They are working out all the details, such as how they will get independently to the train station. Sasha, Tania and Kirill have not been able to come with us for some time. They are working hard to get the time off work so that they can make it this year. Sasha says, "I must go. I just can't miss such an important get-together".
We very much hope that our whole group will be able to make it, after a couple of years of health and work difficulties. There is so much we all want to learn from the experience, and so much growing to do.
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