The simple act of arriving at the orphanage seemed like such a strange and uncomfortable event just a day ago but was so welcome and familiar today. We arrive as if we are home in a way, greeting new friends as we walk in the building speaking our choppy and unintelligible Russian. We know where to put our bags and coats, where to find the kids in their rooms and where to get breakfast! The routine has set in and we are psyched to hang out with the kids as soon as we can.
Another birthday celebration at breakfast as it was Claire’s 13th birthday! Two sisters, two milestone birthdays, one week! Wow!! The kvivds from the orphanage all gathered around Claire and sang to her, prvesented her with gifts and danced around her. She was the belle of the ball. It was another special way to celebrate a birthday and we were honored to be able to ring in the teenage years with Claire and her family.
After about an hour of free kid time in the morning, we were treated to a gift from the orphanage – a tour of Slobodskoy and a couple of local points of interest. We were invited to a local church that is celebrating its 400th birthday this year – a small, log cabin in the central square of the town. It is still the original building of the church, one of the oldest and most famous in Russia. The church is not open in winter months due to the wear and tear of the weather, but they opened it up for us and provided a guided tour. What an honor! We then visited a local museum, which was the original home in the 18th century of the nation’s first cardiologist. The house is in a residential neighborhood and it offers a look into Russia’s past through wonderful exhibits. For many of us, it felt like an exhibit from Colonial Williamsburg. The children from our orphanage and the other schools in the area often take field trips here, so it was neat to experience it ourselves.
But once again, the highlight of the event was not the location but the generosity of the people we encountered. When we were finished on the tour, we were greeted by members of the orphanage staff who had prepared a meal for us…just as it would have been prepared in the early days. Everything was made with items from a farm or from the ground. We enjoyed marinated cabbage (like cole slaw), fresh vegetables, potatoes, pickles and some of the most amazing blueberry and raspberry jam known to man! Not only was the food incredible, but it was all hand prepared and presented by members of the staff – another gift to us. It was like a Russian pot luck dinner! It could not have been a more enjoyable lunch or time with the staff.
Our afternoon today was just like yesterday with lots of time for activities/stations with the kids. We had the same stations as yesterday, other than adding a station for balloon animal making and “Where’s Waldo” books. Everything continued to be a big hit and every kid visited each station.
The big event for this day was a huge Sock Hop for the kids. The music was brought into the gym…along with 150+ pairs of wacky socks that we brought with us. The kids all got to pick out a pair of new and crazy socks and we danced the night away (okay, only two hours but you get the idea). Put a bunch of kids in a room with music and they will dance – no matter what nationality they are.
We had a limbo stick, Twister and lots of music. The kids had a blast! Our group of teenage girls led a bunch of line dances to a playlist that we brought along and the kids picked up on each dance easily. The biggest hit was likely the chicken dance!! Again, unbridled joy and happiness from these precious kids. Wait until you see the pictures.
Speaking of pictures…these kids LOVE to take and look at pictures. We all brought photo albums to share and those have been the source of great conversation and intimacy with the children. But the easiest way to get them to engage is to take their picture on your digital camera and then show it to them. They are not new to electronic devices but they love to see themselves and their friends on camera. They often ask (quite politely) to take pictures with our cameras. It was not uncommon to see 5-7 kids with cameras in their hands during the dance. We even have to ration the photo taking so that everyone has a chance – we have learned to communicate “Take only five pictures” without saying anything in Russian…and every kid will bring back the camera after taking their five photos.
As we leave each evening, we experience what may be the most enduring image of our trip together. Once we board our bus and begin to pull out of the snow-covered driveway, we look back at the orphanage. What we see is both heart-wrenching and uplifting: the aged building, looking cold and worn from years of hard winters, being warmed up by kids lined up at their windows in their rooms, waving enthusiastically as we drive away. The building is dark but the windows are bright with a yellow glow, providing light where there would otherwise be darkness. We can only see their silhouettes but you can feel the smiles on their faces as their waves say “paka” (bye bye) and “spaseeba” (thank you). Each night, more kids are gathering at the windows to wave to us. It’s actually a dramatic image, almost like a scene out of a movie – a really good but sometimes sad movie.
But this is not a movie – it is real life at the Slobodskoy orphanage. Amidst the sadness of their situations and the challenges they face, these kids are bringing light into the world through their unconditional love and generosity. The darkness is being pierced one window at a time, one child at a time, one wave at a time.