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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
Kiril in his playpen when we first met him
Kiril in his playpen when we first met him

The summer camps that you help fund are just a part of the support that our organisation offers to parents who grew up in Russian orphanages.  Through the year we offer a weekly support group with a similar mix of activities to our summer camps, albeit indoors in St Petersburg and without the intensity of our time together in the summer.  We use play therapy, art work and group and individual counselling and coaching to motivate and equip our families to strengthen their relationships.  Here parents find the encouragment they need to carry through with what they learnt at summer camp so they don't slip back into old habits.

That's the follow up, but most of our parents have been on quite a journey before we even invite them on summer camp.  Two thirds of the new families that come to us are in crisis with a high level of risk to their children.  These are the children whose health and development are at risk, and there may be a chance that they will be taken away from their parents.  These families often don't understand how different their lives could be.  Our immediate task is to reduce the risk to the children, and to motivate the parents to work with us for change.

When met Nastya, aged 17, for the first time she was living in a hostel for young mums.  She was brought to meet her by a member of staff from the hostel, who carried her baby in for her.  When we asked her to bring the baby into our room herself, she looked baffled, and clearly expected us to take the baby for her.  It was one of our more experienced mums who helped us make a breakthrough with Nastya.  She described her own early parenting in vivid terms that Nastya could identify with.  "I thought my child was like a suitcase that I had to carry around with me.  I thought I would get used to it one day."  Her ears really pricked up when our experienced mum said, "I didn't understand then that a child needs attention and special care.  It's only now with my second child, that I realise how much I harmed my first child".  We are so grateful to the parents who've been in our programme for a while for sharing so honestly and so bravely.  In this case, they gave Nastya this totally new idea and she wanted to know more.

Our pictures today are of Kiril.  He joined our programme with his mum, Natalia, when he was 21 months old.  At that time he spent most of his time in a play-pen and slept in an electronic rocker.  We made regular home visits to the family and persuaded Natalia that Kiril needed exercise and that it would harm his joints to sleep in a seat rather than a bed.  Now Kiril sleeps in his own bed and Natalia is very proud of this parenting success.  Natalia wants to return to work, so we have been supporting her as she gets Kiril ready for kindergarten.  She has bought a little table for him so she doesn't have to feed him sitting on her knee like a baby.  We have been helping her potty train him.  We've also been working together on making the environment safe for Kiril, and Natalia has gradually been throwing out things she doesn't need that clutter up their room or are unsafe.  Each step gives Natalia something to be proud of and increases her trust in us.  Soon she will be ready to move from home visits to taking part in our support group.  If she continues to be motivated to improve her parenting and strengthen her relationship with Kiril, she may even be ready to come on summer camp this year or next.

When we see how far our parents have come, we are all the more proud of them and grateful to you for being part of their journey.  Without our support, the cycle could so easily repeat itself, and the new generation be taken from their birth families just as their parents were.  Thank you for helping us make children like Kiril feel safe and loved.

Kiril in his rocker
Kiril in his rocker
Kiril now sleeps in his own bed
Kiril now sleeps in his own bed
Mum now spends more time playing with Kiril
Mum now spends more time playing with Kiril
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Sveta playing with the children
Sveta playing with the children

It's a grey day, and despite the holiday season, it's still lovely to look back at the summer and remember what it was like to spend the whole day outdoors.

Our summer camps are bright highlights for the parents in our support group, and they and their children remember them through the year.  Of course it takes time and effort to change habits and improve relationships, but we are with them to help them build on the lessons learnt at camp.

Sveta was learning how to play with her son in the summer.

"I was sure that my job was to watch my son, to make sure he stayed save and that he observed the rules when he played with other children.  To be honest, it did my head in.  I used to stand like a watchman, all the time watching.  It used to give me a headache."

We suggested the parents try to interact more with their children.  Sveta remembered a few games and suggested she play them with the children.  She was really pleased to see how keen they were to join in, but it often ended in shouting and fighting.  Sveta brought her troubles to the group discussion.  The parents came to the conclusion that adults need to gently guide the games.  The group helped Sveta think of some games that were more age-appropriate for her 5-year-old son, like hide and seek.  Games with simple rules which the children find easy to follow.  Her son really enjoyed his mama's initiative and started to play more harmoniously with other children and even to ask others to play.

At a time of year when we are encouraged to think that we can buy memories, it is good to remember that a simple game of hide-and-seek can also become a treasured memory.  In the new year we will be starting to plan for our summer camps 2020.  We will be selecting families, usually a mix of old-hands and first-timers, all committed to deepening and strengthening their relationships next summer.  We will keep you posted about how we get on.

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Tania and daughter painting together happily
Tania and daughter painting together happily

In our last report we shared news from our summer camp for families with teenagers. Today, we’d like to tell you about how our families with younger children got on on their summer camp.

This summer camp only lasted seven days, but it is simply extraordinary the changes we saw in our six families over such a short time. Here in this idyllic setting, we spent our time playing, painting and storytelling, but also observing, discussing, and experimenting. As camp leaders we were asking parents to make changes to ingrained behaviour patterns, to exchange a language of threats for one of encouragement, and to involve themselves actively in their children’s lives. It’s not easy to change habits, and we are so impressed by everyone’s efforts.

One young mum, Tania, has made huge progress in her relationship with her daughter. Tania is newer to our programme than most of the camp members and there are real concerns about her parenting skills. Like so many parents who grew up in orphanages, she finds it very difficult to maintain eye contact with her child or to play with her. Initially this was really distressing to Tania. In the first two of our play sessions, mother and daughter weren’t able to play together at all. Tania was upset, and said, “if she doesn’t want to play with me, why doesn’t she go and play with someone else who knows how to play with her.” In the third session they had a break-through. Tania started to follow our guidance and instead of calling her daughter to her, went to find her daughter and started playing peekaboo. This time, her daughter responded with smiles and they were able to play together.

Through different activities we were able to gently prompt her to pay attention to her daughter and to do things together. At the playground, Tania put her phone away and pushed her daughter on the swings. When they were painting, instead of concentrating on the picture she, Tania, wanted to create, she managed to paint with her daughter.

By the end of the week, not only was Tania playing more with her daughter and showing her more affection. Her daughter was more relaxed, more co-operative, and her vocabulary had grown in just seven days.

Our seven-day camp is not a cure for the problems families have. At first it is actually tiring for young children to deal with unaccustomed eye-contact and attention from their mothers. However, if our parents keep practising, soon this contact won’t seem like “work”, it will become a necessity for them and their children.  We will be able to help them build on all they have learnt at summer camp through the year at our regular support group.

Struggling to play
Struggling to play
Making contact
Making contact
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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's young daughter
Zhenya, Sasha and Zhenya's young daughter
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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.

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Organization Information

St Gregory's Foundation

Location: Hampton Wick, Surrey - United Kingdom
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Project Leader:
Julia Ashmore
Hampton Wick, Surrey United Kingdom
$6,280 raised of $12,500 goal
 
184 donations
$6,220 to go
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