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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

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
Natasha and her older daughter
Natasha and her older daughter

Summer is over, and what a summer it’s been!  We have been busy leading summer camps for our families.  Today we want to tell you about our camp for families with teenage children.  We’ll write to you again soon with news from our camp for families with younger children.

For the teenagers and their parents we planned a short camping trip in the forest.  In the end just three of our families came with us.  These were all families who had taken part in our three-year rehabilitation programme when their children were younger.  They came back to us when their children started to present parenting challenges in their teenage years. 

This group is highly motivated to help their children and improve their relationship.  Natasha is a great example of this motivation.  She came with her older daughter, who she thinks needs particular attention at the moment.  She had no-one she could leave her two much younger children with, so they came too.  She wasn't put off by the idea of staying in a tent with such young children, or the extra work looking after them would make for her.  For her the most important thing was "to talk to her older daughter, to spend time with her, so that later they would both have happy memories." 

We were sorry that four families who had come to us for help more recently didn’t feel they could take part.  We understand that for them the idea of spending a few days with their children was a scary prospect.  They knew that it would be intense and would make them confront issues head-on.  We felt it was really important that the camp went ahead so that these families could see what they might be able to take part in next year.  We included them in all the planning, and of course they will hear plenty about it from the families who took part.

Camping in the forest, both groups were able to work on their communication, learning to listen better to each other, solve problems together and resolve conflicts.  Each family were able to take part in group sessions and to have individual support. 

We also realised this year just how important it is for the children themselves to meet others whose parents share the same journey.  Maxim and Lera have known each other for 7 years.   Maxim explains, “We’ve known each other for such a long time that we’re like brother and sister.  We hardly talk to each other outside the support group, but we know a lot about each other.  We’re always happy to meet up because we just understand each other – our mamas are the same.”

Thank you for giving Maxim and Lera the chance to develop this important friendship, and for supporting all our families.

Maxim and Lera
Maxim and Lera
Maxim and Lera on summer camp with us in 2012
Maxim and Lera on summer camp with us in 2012

I hope you are having a wonderful summer.  We don't yet have news from this years' summer camps for parents who grew up in Russian orphanages and their children.  While we wait we wanted to share with you a volunteer's reflections on their experiences at last year's summer camp.  We always enjoy seeing our work through new eyes and we hope you do too.

"As it happened my first meeting with the families happened quite naturally - I travelled with them on the train.  We met at the station, bought our tickets, and loaded our noisy group with its bags and baggage, little children and one pregnant mother onto the train.  It was a long journey with two changes.  There was no way of knowing that these attentive, caring mothers, who were all helping each other, had had such a hard life.  En route the children played, read books, sang and ran about the carriage.  They ate together, offering bits to each other, laughed, cried, and chatted with other passengers.

The parents were very interested in me, and it was important for them to know why I was going on camp.  Now I understand that each of them took a conscious decision to take part in the camp, they discussed their aims with the leaders, and so they naturally assumed that I must have my reasons.  Of course I did, and as far as I could I shared them with the group.

We travelled home together too, but by this time we were carrying the experience of living together, of sharing creative activities, events, discussions, difficult questions, and we had helped and supported each other.  The children and their parents had become closer, and you could see that for some of the mothers this was a difficult process.  They wanted to go home, to their familiar surroundings, where, on the one hand, they could hide from awkward questions, and on the other hand they could try out some of the things they had learnt and could try to change their life-style based on what they had learnt about themselves and their children at the camp. 

The conditions at the camp are quite spartan both for the parents and the leaders.  We lived according to a timetable in which everything had a time and a place: activities for parents and children together and separately, creative workshops and relaxation, sessions for resolving questions about the daily routines, morning and evening discussion sessions, and a chance for the parents to go for a walk or swim while the children had their daily nap.

I particularly remember one of these walks with two of the mothers.  As we walked we talked about the camp and about their life with the children at home.  I understood that they are genuinely worried about their children, often they don't understand what is going on, there is a great deal they can't do, but they want to change something in their relationship with their children, and they want to become better parents.  I remember their spellbound faces when I did simple things with their children - told them a story, resolved an argument between them, drew them into an activity, or helped them cope with a stressful situation.  I realised that, although they might look like adults, inside they are really unsure children, and very traumatised ones too.  I was surprised when I discovered that they called us, the leaders, "grown-ups".  

I realised that this intensive experience at summer camp isn't planned to resolve problems, but to create a precedent for a thinking family life, which allows the parents to think about themselves and their children in different situations, to observe, to ask questions, and to try to answer them.  It is hugely important for all the parents that they are seen as individuals, that they are listened too, and accepted as they are.  They don't have to hide or play a role while they are with the group.  This atmosphere of trust helps the parents to put the effort into changing without being scared.

The leaders are the real jewel in the summer camps.  It is a team of professionals, unafraid of difficulties, prepared to risk negative attitudes from their "clients".  They are able to control their own sense of hurt, naming problems, but always doing so tactfully, and giving practical suggestions for how to resolve situations.  The team is totally united, able to understand each other almost without words, intelligent, honest and open to different points of view.  For me the experience was priceless, both as a professional and as a human being.  I am so happy to be part of the team."

 

 

Sasha with her older daughter
Sasha with her older daughter

At the moment we are really gearing up for our annual summer camp, which GlobalGiving donors help us to run.  We are planning the programme and preparing our families for it in our weekly support sessions.  What better way to show you how important it is than to let one of our mums, Sasha, tell you about it.

Sasha first camp to summer camp when her daughter, Liza, wasn't yet one.  Sasha remembers it well: "Liza used to crawl along on one side, leaning on one arm and pulling herself along.  I used to dress her in a big babygro so that she would be comfortable.  She used to get tangled up in it, and I didn't even notice.  I was just annoyed that she couldn't walk yet and that I had to carry her around.  Until I got to know Sunflower's support group, it didn't occur to me that children have to develop and that they need certain conditions to do that.  Where I used to live, the adults didn't bother about that.  At that time I was totally switched off my child, I was trying to save myself from my husband, who was a drug addict.  Sunflower helped me to keep my child and not to go out of my mind. 

I could tell you so many things about it, but I'd like to share something else with you.  Last year I got married and had a baby.  Now I have a big family, which I am trying to bring up well.  I really rely on Sunflower.  My new husband is a good man, he grew up in a family unlike me, but I have trouble trusting his experience.    The new arrival threatened to make us take a break from Sunflower, but Liza categorically insisted that we go, and I agreed that she could go with her new daddy.  They have a difficult relationship and I think it's because of me.  I think he doesn't understand her and I always want to defend her, although I know there is no threat to her at all.  So this year they have gone to the support group together and since the New Year I have joined them with our baby daughter.  My husband is the only dad who regularly comes to the sessions.  It's very important to me because this group is where I can learn everything I no doubt would have learnt from my parents if I had grown up in a family.  The new life that is opening up in front of me asks a lot of me as we build a family and I really need help and support.

This summer we will go to summer camp together.  I expect a lot from the trip, but I know how difficult it will be.  Miracles happen there, but  you have to be brave so as not to be scared of miracles."

If you would like to help miracles happen, please make a donation towards this year's camp.  If you are one of our US donors, you might like to give a donation in honor of your mother for Mothers' Day.  GlobalGiving make this easy for you by giving an option on our donation page.

Sasha and her baby, Ksenia
Sasha and her baby, Ksenia
Before
Before

It's -6 degrees C (21 degrees Farenheit) in St Petersburg and our summer camps seem a long way off.  To be honest, we don't have a great deal to tell you yet about our plans.  Only that we know that we will have plenty of families who will need our support and who will be able to benefit from the camp.

So in the meantime, I want to tell you a story about a mother and daughter who come to our weekly group sessions that happen through the year.  

Unusually, the mother didn't grow up in an orphanage, but her daughter's father did.  Our group was recommended to her because she was worried about her daughter, Vasilisa.  "Vasilisa is very obedient, never smiles, does everything herself, and never cries" and she is eighteen months old.  This worried her mama, but her papa is pround of how "even-tempered" his daughter is.  He came to our sessions just once to check that his daughter "wasn't learning anything bad" with us.  

Vasilisa's mother told us how one day she found her husband teaching their daughter how to be strong, never to cry and never to be afraid.  She was jumping from the highest point in the flat onto the floor and her papa didn't allow her to cry or complain about the pain.  Her mama froze.  She felt that there was something wrong, but she couldn't work out what was going on.  

During our play sessions the little girl didn't smile and didn't look at her mama.  After a while mama got depressed seeing the contrast with the other children that were actively playing with their parents.  She was upset, cried and was very quiet.  She found it difficult to take part in games with her daughter.  After a few individual counselling sessions, it became easier for her and she became more emotionally stable when she was with her child.

The sessions helped mama and daughter to make contact with each other and to establish basic rules.  

Mama said, "It is a joy to see that your child is happy, which means they are healthy.  Now I understand that earlier I wasn't able to help my daughter or to protect her, because I was sure that a parent couldn't do anything bad to their child.  Now I understand what it means for us that my husband was brought up in a children's home." 

Even for someone married to an someone who grew up in an orphanage it can be difficult to imagine just how deeply their traumatic childhood has affected them.  Only when we begin to understand this can we offer the right kind of help and prevent the trauma being passed on to the next generation.  The summer camps are an opportunity for us to continue the work we do week by week in a more intensive way.  The two photos of Vasilisa with her mother, before and after coming to our sessions show the kind of transformation we are offering to families.  With your help we can make more children smile.

Before we go we'd like to tell you that we are now on Twitter.  If you want to here more about this and other projects helping vulnerable families and children in Russia do follow us @SaintGregsFound.

After - what a difference!
After - what a difference!
 

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St Gregory's Foundation

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

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