Committed To Kids

When Vadim Menshov became the temporary director of an orphanage in 1991, he could not have imagined that he would hold the position for 17 years. But now, Menshov, 46, cannot imagine his life any other way.

"I came here by chance, but then I realized I just could not go," he said.

Men rarely worked with children in the Soviet Union, so Menshov's decision to leave his position as a deputy of the Keivsky Administrative District in Moscow to work with abandoned boys and girls was fairly extraordinary.

At Internat No. 8, which is both an orphanage and a school, there had been a serious conflict between the former principal and the children. After the principal was fired, it was up to Menshov, in his role as chairman of the local Education and Youth Committee, to find a replacement. After some extensive searching, he decided to take the job himself, at least for a while.

"I was fed up with paperwork by that time, and the situation in the school was challenging, so I decided to try it," he said. "When I came, I found a complete disaster here. During the night, the beds of the older boys remained empty -- they were away robbing the local kiosks."

Today, the situation is very different. The teenagers are involved in all kind of activities and win prizes competing against other schools in sports and educational contests.

"One of my boys recently won a local contest in physics, despite the fact that he was diagnosed with learning disabilities when he was younger," Menshov said proudly.

Compared with most children who have been abandoned by their parents, children living at this internat, in the western Moscow district of Fili, are lucky. Their dorm rooms are clean, their teachers are dedicated, and they appear genuinely happy. The doors of the building are always open for guests -- a rare thing for orphanages in Russia.

Menshov knows the name of each and every one of the 106 boys and girls in his care, along with details of their personality, their habits, their problems and all the funny and sad situations they have experienced -- just like any good parent. He keeps his office door open, and the children can enter any time, even if he is not there. The openness is an important part of his educational philosophy.

"I can leave my money on my desk, and no one will take it," he said.

Some argue against his democratic methods, but the result is obvious -- his children are not like other orphans. They are open and ready to smile, even though all of them have suffered tragedies in their young lives.

But the director is not satisfied just with this. The children living at Internat No. 8 range in age from seven to 18. Most likely, they will never be adopted, and Menshov understands that they need friends outside the building where they live and go to school. To introduce his children to the outside world, Menshov has created a web site for the school.

"I am very much aware that many of my teenagers will never get a family. But I hope they can at least find friends among adults, which they need so desperately," he said.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Vadim Menshov takes a special pride in the success of his children at sport and academic competitions with other schools.
"Menshov is absolutely special, and not only because he is kind to his kids," said Emilia Garsia, a senior vice president with the Rostik's Group in Moscow, who often volunteers at the school. "He is one of the few directors who has vision for his children's future and tries to prepare them for it, teaching them how to prepare for a career, how to live when they leave school. He is not just a director; he is a real father."

Menshov's latest initiative is to teach his children what a family is and how families work. He has a group of families who invite children from the internat into their homes for a day or a weekend. For families who want to get involved, Menshov has a team of specialists that works with them, preparing the family for the visit. Currently, there are six families that invite children on regular basis and 17 families participating in a foster program.

Menshov and his wife, Alyona, have three sons, ages 24, 16 and 14, and sometimes he finds it hard to divide his time between his biological family and his 106 other children.

"My son recently told me that he was jealous of these children," he says. But in general, his family is supportive of his work. "I could do nothing without my wife's love and patience," Menshov said.

Menshov's wife must be very tolerant, since he rarely makes it home for dinner. Even after the workday is over, the children have problems that need to be solved. The children go to bed at 10 p.m. and the teachers and administrators take turns staying until the lights are out. When it is Menshov's turn, he cannot leave until he says good night to each one of them.

"If I skip anyone, he or she will be offended," Menshov said. He also has to be very careful in his behavior so that it will never appear that one of the children is his favorite.

Menshov's family also has to accept that they are limited in their vacation destinations. Every summer the children from the internat are taken for a vacation by the sea. When he finds out the location, Menshov looks around for a house to rent near the children. He also hopes to build a camp for the school in the Moscow region village of Tomilino.

"It would be much better for the kids to go there, but we still fight for the land," he said.

The hardest thing about his work is comforting children who feel that adults have betrayed them.

"What can I say to a girl whose parents promised to take her home for her birthday, and when the birthday came, no one visited?"

It is at moments like this that Menshov sometimes feels that his job is impossible. But he never regrets making this his life's work. Asked what kind of help he would like, Menshov says the school and the children are not in need.

"Some of my boys and girls have mobile phones but have no one to call or to send them a text message," he said. "They need friends."

"If you want to help," he added, "invite one of my children to your home for the weekend. That's it."


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