Before this most recent trip to Russia, I had some expectations – of myself. It was my fourth trip, and I know our sponsored kids well enough now that I wanted to have some more meaningful conversations (beyond “hello” and “how are you?”). One of our dear sweet friends, Lyuba, is graduating this year so I knew it was going to be an important visit – perhaps the last time we would get to speak face to face. Well, as you probably know, things don’t always happen exactly as we envision them.
On each trip, our families are assigned to a “family group” within the orphanage. This year our family group was made up of very shy kids most of whom are relatively new to the orphanage. In fact, only 4 of the 14 kids in our group had been there last spring. So, it was an interesting first day. Believe it or not, I’m not an extrovert – I’m not painfully shy, but let’s just say I don’t really have the gift of gab that some of my other family members have.
So how does someone like me talk to a really shy person, or a whole group of them? I guess it starts with a smile. I can’t help but smile when I am at the orphanage seeing all of the kids face to face. At our first meal together I noticed that the newest girl was standing away from the table, looking like she had been crying. She looked like someone who has had to be tough most of her life, she stayed away from the other kids, didn’t interact with anyone. With some kids, you could approach them and give them a hug and ask them what’s wrong, but I could tell just by looking at her that she was not one of those kids. So I just gave her a smile from across the room, saying without words “I see you, and I care.”
I knew that she had just arrived at the orphanage a few weeks ago. Imagine a new home, a new life, more than 90 other kids that you don’t know. She’s a shy teenager – how does she make friends, how does she fit in? I made a point of catching her eye throughout the rest of the day and sending a smile her way. I figured that if I had nothing else to offer, I could at least try to communicate how much she matters without words. As the week progressed, she drew nearer to us, started interacting with others in the group, and the tears turned to a smile here and there. By the end of the week, there were many smiles and even laughter.
With the other new kids in our group, the relationships started much the same – with a simple smile, and for some a hug or an outstretched hand to clasp, but very few words on this initial meeting. In many ways this felt like my first visit to Slobodskoy, and I am very grateful for these new friendships. But, remember when I said I had some expectations at the onset of this trip? I knew in my heart there were some important conversations (one in particular, with Lyuba) to be had.
I saw her every day, but always when there was a lot of activity, or I was being pulled (quite literally) in another direction. I kept telling her I wanted to sit down and talk with her. She said she would like to talk too, but as the week progressed all we managed were a lot of hugs, smiles, and a few brief conversations. I knew that my time was running out so one night I wrote her a letter, so that at the very least I could leave something with her. It was not a long letter – and I knew that I wanted to say more, but it was all I could muster in the middle of the night.
I left Slobodskoy on Good Friday feeling disappointed in myself. I did leave some letters for my friends that I didn’t get much face time with, but still I wished I could have had those conversations. I promised to keep writing to Lyuba after she goes to Tech school (and I will), and told her that I hoped she would return to the orphanage periodically to pick up my letters. She said she would, and I really hope that she does.
Back in Moscow the day before returning to the U.S., my family had the pleasure of having one of our Moscow interpreters join us during a devotional time. This lovely young woman lived in an orphanage from the age of 6, and is now a very successful, joyful person with the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. She could be the poster child for Children’s HopeChest.
She shared some important insights with us that night which have stuck with me. She said that the woman who sponsored her never gave up on her, even through Tech School and beyond. She always encouraged her, and she would ask her to really think about her hopes and dreams for the future. She said at first she didn’t even think about the future. She was in a very dark place, but the questions from her sponsor made her think, and begin to wonder about her future.
Another thing our dear sweet friend told us was how important the letters that the sponsors write to the orphans are to these kids. She recalls letters coming to the orphanage, and she would be so excited to receive them. She told us how over the years she went from a child who never smiled to one who smiled all the time. She said that you could look at photos of her each year and see the change. She attributes this to the letters and encouragement she received. To look at her today, you would not believe that there was ever a time when she did not smile. Her life gives me hope for all of the kids in Slobodskoy orphanage and for orphans worldwide. They just need to know that someone sees them, someone cares, and there is hope for their future.
So, I came home and unpacked, and then I sat down and wrote more letters to my friends in Slobodskoy. Smiles are important, hugs are too – but words, spoken if possible, but definitely written words, are crucial! Sometimes the conversations don’t happen like we planned, but there is always pen and paper (or email).
*To all of our sponsors, I want to encourage you to write often, and send email (because it gets to the kids a lot faster). Even if you think you aren’t making an impact, you are! When you write letters, ask the orphans about their hopes and dreams. This will get them thinking about their future and encourage them to look toward their future with hopefulness.