Parachuters Raise $25,000 for Kids Cancer Fund

For MTMoiseyeva and O'Leary, right, preparing to parachute above Kolomna on Saturday.
As 15 white parachutes opened successfully and floated to earth on Saturday, members of the Nastenka Fund breathed a sigh of relief. Everyone could then move on to the reward of the "Leap of Faith" charity event: relaxing over beers at Doug and Marty's Boar House and counting the money they raised for children with cancer. The total came to almost $25,000.

The Nastenka Fund, established by Jamila Aliyeva last year to help children with cancer at Moscow's Institute for Pediatric Oncology, has grown from a personal crusade to an international charity with supporters from Texas to Pakistan.

"Leap of Faith" was the first of a two-part fund drive with a goal of $50,000. The next event, an "un-ball ball," will take place July 12 at the Boar House.

Many of the Russians and expatriates who gathered Saturday at the Kolomna Aerodrome were first-time jumpers. During training in the aerodrome's basement, fund members exchanged nervous glances as they practiced opening their emergency parachutes.

"Let me just say this: I am scared," said Flora Moiseyeva, a Moscow housewife. "I wanted to be in the support group, but this is such a good group of people. They talked me into jumping."

After a 10-minute flight to 1,000 meters, the jumpers left the safety of their An-2 planes and tumbled into the air. When the last batch of chutes opened without a hitch, elation broke out on the ground.

"It was simply super," Moiseyeva said after the jump. "I wasn't scared, except for the moment when I jumped out of the plane."

Saturday's event started with a bet between friends earlier this year.

Michael O'Leary, an Irishman, and Martin Roberts, a Brit, placed a wager on the outcome of the Six Nations Rugby final between Ireland and England on March 30. If England won, O'Leary would shave his head. If Ireland won, Roberts would get a shamrock tattoo.

England won the match, O'Leary dutifully had his head shaved and 92 people paid roughly 500 rubles each to see it. The event at the Boar House raised 48,000 rubles ($16,000), which O'Leary and Roberts donated to Nastenka.

The event was so successful that the two decided to continue raising money. Roberts is a former British paratrooper with more than 1,000 jumps, so the decision to put together a parachuting trip wasn't that far afield.

After the rugby match, Aliyeva and Georgy Mentkevich, head physician of the Institute for Pediatric Oncology's chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant departments, invited him to the hospital. O'Leary was profoundly affected by what he saw there: bald children, mothers cramped in small rooms and the signs of care hampered by underfunding.

The institute is Russia's premier center for pediatric oncology. Children requiring difficult treatments are sent there from CIS countries and Russian regions. Aliyeva said children are usually accompanied by their mothers, who often can't afford Moscow rents and sleep in the institute's mothers' rooms or on the hospital floor.

Bone marrow transplants, which can cost $40,000, are often a lifesaving last resort. But Mentkevich said the institute's transplant division is operating at only half-capacity -- performing 22 transplants a year, when it could accommodate 50 -- due to a shortage of medicine and nurses.

For Russian nationals, treatment is nominally free. "But usually some part of the therapy has to be directly paid for by the parents," Mentkevich said. "We don't have enough funds for state-of-the-art treatments."

The Health Ministry estimates that 3,000 children develop cancer every year in Russia, while epidemiological estimates put the figure between 4,500 and 5,000. Disability pension for children with cancer is between $15 and $20 per month.

"After we saw the children and parents in the hospital and met the amazing people working there, we wanted to do something that in some way reflected their courage," O'Leary said.

Aliyeva started the Nastenka Fund in February 2002 after working informally at the institute when her 5-year-old son was a patient there. He later died.

A Russian teacher to many Moscow expats, Aliyeva has been able to make Nastenka something of a cause celeb. So far, Nastenka has provided medicine, air conditioners, window shades, funds for parents and specialized equipment to the institute. Aliyeva is a dynamic fundraiser.

"I have always said it is my job to put Jamila in front of people who are in the position to help Nastenka, and she will do the rest," said Ron Nathan, the president of American Friends of Nastenka, a branch organization that Nathan helped Aliyeva register as a U.S. tax-deductible charity in February. "Nastenka is attractive to expats because it's 100 percent transparent, which is something expats want when they are looking for a charity to support here."

Nathan has arranged a five-city U.S. tour for Aliyeva in the fall.

Meanwhile, support for Nastenka flows in from disparate corners of Moscow's expat community, from a Christmas party for the institute's children to weekly fruit deliveries by Pakistani brothers to the institute's patients.

Much work remains, Aliyeva said. She estimates this year's take at $150,000, a sum that pales in comparison to what many Western charities are able to raise. "We're aiming for a million, too," she said.

Aliyeva said that attaining those figures requires reaching beyond expats, and she has been advertising Nastenka on television for the past month. But Nathan said broadening support for Nastenka beyond the expat community is difficult since Russia lacks a tradition of charitable giving.

"There's a serious disbelief among Russians that someone would do something like this and not pocket the money," Nathan said. "It's a long road to making Nastenka a truly Russian charity."