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
Timur in a play therapy session with his mama
Timur in a play therapy session with his mama

We can take it for granted that children play.  But when our summer camp started back in August, the children didn't know how.  They found it difficult to play on their own, and they certainly couldn't play together.  It was hard to stick to the rules, hard to resolve their conflicts, hard to lose themselves in their imaginations.  It was easier to hit each other, push one another aside, or simply hang back and stay on the fringes.  Timur found it particularly difficult and was often agressive to the other children.

Over nine days, back in the summer, thanks to your donations, five families with children 8 and under were able to learn how to play together, how to talk to each other and how to listen.  We had invited eight of our most motivated families.  Sadly, three had to drop out at the last minute, either because the parents fell ill, or, in one case, because the child unexpectedly had to go into hospital.  Those that did come, were fully committed to learning and changing.

During the children's playtimes, the professionals were there to gently guide the children.  They showed the children how to ask each other to play, how to say if they didn't like a particular game.  We took the children with and without their families on lots of walks.  The sandpits were a particularly popular area.  The children were able to roll around, run and scramble up big hills of sand.  They released a lot of tension through physical activity, which they often lack in their home city environment.

However, the real breakthrough came as their mamas learned how to be more attentive to their needs.  In our play therapy sessions, we asked the mums to show care for their children by brushing their hair, rubbing in hand-cream, or using face paints.  This intimate activity was difficult for parents and children to start with.  The mamas learned not to interpret their child's refusal to take part as naughtiness.  Gently, they invited their children to be cared for, several times if necessary.

Another bonding activity involved decorating a piece of cloth with pictures that were meaningful to the whole family.  Timur created a whole story on his blanket involving a battle a journey through a labyrinth.  When they had finished their blankets, they were able to sit on them and tell each other stories.  The children particularly liked hearing tales of when they were babies, and when their mamas were little.

Gradually, as the children became more confident that they would get positive attention from their parents, their behaviour improved.  They were more relaxed, they learned new ways of resolving their conflicts, and began to make friends.  They took the inititative more often and developed more complex games that were appropriate to their age.  Instead of playing babies (which was popular at the start of camp), the older ones suggested building a den and came up with ideas of how to go about it.

Back in St Petersburg now, we build on what we have learned at camp and also the mamas pass on their new understanding to their peers.  Our weekly support group helps maintain the progress, continues to strengthen our families and gives the children valuable play skills they can take with them to school and the playground.  

Thank you very much for making this camp and our camp for teenagers and young orphanage-leavers possible.

Timur works on his blanket with mama
Timur works on his blanket with mama
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Over the last eighteen months we have all had to be flexible.  Our summer camp for teenagers didn't quite work out as usual, but we still had a great time.  We had hoped to take twelve young people to our log cabin for the camp.  Unfortunately, in the end only five were able to take part.  The others weren't able to come for reasons out of their control, some had difficulty getting time off work, others were sent on the camp run by their children's home, and others were hit by illness at the last minute.  Because the preparation is such a vital part of the project, we didn't want to take others in their place.

The other change was venue.  We expect our young people to travel independently to the camp on public transport after carefully planning their route together.  This year several of the participants were new to independent travelling, so we changed the venue to one closer to St Petersburg to make the journey less daunting.  In addition to planning their travel, the group were also involved in setting the menu and budgeting for the trip.  Ira said, "We went on camp with our children's home, but no-one let us anywhere near the food or the organisation.  No-one discussed with us what we were going to eat or where we were going to go.  We just played and swam.  I felt grown up this time, and understood how much you have to be able to do."  We hope this experience of planning will help them organise their own independent trips in future. 

The theme for the camp was the different roles we take in life.  We talked about the roles they take at camp and in their everyday life: employee, neighbour, friend, partner etc.  We were able to identify which roles presented particular difficulties, and to discuss how we can overcome these.  Vlad said, "I love helping, but I would like to understand what it means to be a leader, to try it out here and then everyday life".   During the camp everyone had a chance to be the leader, tackling challenges which were totally new to them. 

Of course everyone also learnt practical skills.  Kostya, who has been on camp before, taught the newbies how to put up a tent.  The forest environment also played a vital part.  It presented us with challenges, like a stream to be crossed during our hike (the group came up with a great solution - see photo).  The natural surroundings are also in themselves fantastic for the group's mental health.  It put everyone in a calmer mood, giving us space to think more deeply than usual and to grow in understanding and confidence.

Thank you to everyone who has donated over the last year to make this camp a success.  We will report soon on the fantastic camp we held for our families with younger children.

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As I write we are in the final stages of preparation for our second year of summer camps during this pandemic.  The restrictions have eased in our region, so we can be confident at least that our first camp will go ahead in a few days time.

During May volunteers, staff and young orphanage-leavers from our support group have been helping to prepare our camp base.  We cleaned and undertook minor repairs inside and refreshed some of the furnishings thanks to a local firm, who donated a sofa and other basic furniture.  We also cut the grass and cleared overgrown areas outside.

This year our first camp will be a little different from usual.  Three teenagers (aged 15 to 17) whose parents grew up in orpahanges will be joining us without their parents.  Their parents are fully involved in all the preparations, but this is a chance for their children to have an experience of being more independent.  Tney will be joined by seven young people from our support group for those who are about to leave, or have just left the orphanage system.  Our experience shows that those who grow up in families, and those who grow up in orphanages have a great deal to learn from each other.  As usual, we have a full programme of individual and group counselling and fun, creative and therapeutic activities lined up for them.  

Later in the summer, in August, we hope to run a second camp, this time for families with pre-school children.  We expect seven families with eleven children between them to join us.

It has been so important for us to continue supporting our young people and families through this pandemic.  At this particularly anxious time they have needed our support more than ever.  We have also been able to influence them to make responsible choices about their behaviour to protect themselves and those around them.  We are very grateful to you for helping make these camps possible.  Next time we write, we will be able to tell you how they have gone.

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Our family summer camps happened just at the moment when the first round of Corona virus restrictions were beginning to ease.  For our families it was a long-awaited chance to be with each other and to leave their flats.  The children and parents had missed being with and doing things with other people so much.  So, the summer camps had a festive atmosphere for everyone who took part.  The families all remember this time as one of freedom in expressing their feelings, and joy in each other's company.  Returning to the city, the families brought with them a new way of relating, which we they are trying to preserve.  This is so precious.

We wanted to help preserve that mood and with our families we thought up a creative activity, which normally we would only do at camp.  Just like at camp, we didn't give a task, there was no example to copy.  We simply created the conditions so that the children and their parents could create something all of their own, unlike anyone elses.  This involved a huge amount of plastic sheeting, so that they could make as much mess as they liked.  We built the therapy around this activity, helping the parents who are not used to this kind of relationship.

As ever, our parents reflected on their experience with great insight.

"It was hard to relax next to my child and just to enjoy being next to him.  I kept thinking that I should tell him off, because nothing had happened to him.  But in fact, you simply have to be next to him, so you can learn to listen and understand him."

"Sometimes I caught myself thinking: why can he behave like this - play what he wants, get up to all kinds of nonsense - when I had nothing as a kid.  Such a rage swept over me that I wanted to spoil his mood.  But then you stop yourself, and you say, it isn't my child's fault, that nobody needed me when I was a child."

It is through seemingly simple activities, and reflecting on them, that we bring healing and break the cycle of  emotional deprivation.  Thank you for helping us make such a big step forward last summer.  We all look forward to summer 2022.

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In our last report, we told you how our families with older children got on on summer camp.  Today it's the turn of the families with young children.  Thanks to your generous donations, we were able to host five families, including nine children.  Numbers were down on last year to keep within the pandemic regulations, so we chose families who were highly motivated to strengthen their relationships.

The spring and early summer were so difficult for our families, and we saw this very clearly in the first few days of our camp.  Some of the families had found it very stressful to be thrown together without a break during the quarantine.  Others had been separated during the quarantine, with the children staying with their father or grandparents.  And they had all been separated from each other, from their friends.  In the first few days, the children found it difficult to settle to our activities and games.  They needed to reestablish their friendships, and spent most of their time playing chase, or a game which involved all piling on top of each other.  We also found that all of our families had lost fitness through the weeks when they weren't allowed to go out.  We had to adjust and shorten our usual walks.  All the same, the children took great pleasure in getting out into the forest, collecting berries and splashing in puddles.

Recovering from the stresses and strains of the pandemic restrictions was our first goal.  After that, we helped parents balance the needs of their two children.  We helped them reassure their children, so that they could take turns playing with their parent, confident while they waited that they would get a turn soon.  The children all learned to allow their sibling more attention without becoming disruptive, and to enjoy the attention when it was their turn to play.

We also organised some listening exercises to encourage good communication.  The parents were asked to find out what made their children happy and then to report back to the group.  This simple task made the parents very anxious because they weren't used to having such conversations with their children.  However, for most of the families, including Natasha and Nikita, it was a real breakthrough moment.

"To begin with I was shaking I was so scared.  Nikita was busy drawing and didn't want to talk to me.  But I did what we had been shown, and gradually he started to answer my questions.  Then he began to tell a story about how we ran through puddles together.  He was laughing the whole time he told the story.  I was in shock that it was so simple to talk to him, and that all I needed to do was listen.  He just talked and I only listened.  I don't think I have ever seen his eyes like that - they were so big and bright.  I really want to hold onto that moment."

We are very grateful to everyone who helped fund this summers camps.  They were more valued and valuable than every before.  Although we were only able to take a few families with us this year, we know that they will work on what they have learned when they get home, and they will share it with their friends.  Our most committed families often become mentors to new families joining the project.  They are absolutely invaluable in guiding and encouraging their peers.  The camp you supported is the most solid step towards this level of commitment.  Thank you!  

Natasha and Nikita
Natasha and Nikita
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Organization Information

St Gregory's Foundation

Location: Hampton Wick, Surrey - United Kingdom
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @SaintGregsFound
Project Leader:
Julia Ashmore
Hampton Wick, Surrey United Kingdom
$16,228 raised of $20,750 goal
262 donations
$4,522 to go
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