Home Gives Kids Life Off the Streets

For six Russian youths, this June will bring the most important graduation day of their lives.

The six 16-year-olds will be graduating from the British-run Waverley House, a residential facility in Moscow that provides at-risk children with much-needed schooling, attention and love.

These children -- some of them homeless, some of them from alcoholic or abusive homes -- are sent to Waverley House by city authorities so they will not end up on the streets like many of their counterparts at state orphanages.

In fact, after spending most of their time at the residential school learning how to read and write, work on computers and speak some English, many of the children will go on for more schooling to learn a trade like building construction or hairdressing, with the assurance that they can always return back to the house for a warm bed and hot meal.

"Because they leave, most can still end up on the streets again. But we don't want that to happen, so here they're always invited to come back," said Brian Brettell, the director of the Waverley House, which serves 80 children ranging from 4 to 16 years of age. The house, located in the Medkova region in northern Moscow, draws its pupils from the surrounding area.

The six graduates, who are scheduled to leave this summer and go on for further training, will be the first test of what the Waverley House hopes to accomplish here.

With many orphans and street children who graduate from state orphanages ending up on the streets again and turning to a life of crime, Waverley is determined to see that each child it takes care of has a future.

"They feed us well here, and everyone is really nice," said Misha, an 8-year-old formerly homeless boy who was brought to Waverley House.

His classmate Kostya agreed, with a hint of mischievousness. "I'm here with my friends, but we still like to fight," he said.

Some of the children who could not communicate before entering the school now smile and say hello whenever a visitor enters the building. Bright wood paneling inside and a colorful double-decker bus outside give the two-story building a warm, comfortable feeling.

"Many of these children come from families where their parents are drinking," said Tatyana Iunetsi, a translator and school secretary.

"They've had very rough backgrounds where they didn't get enough food; the father hits the mother in front of the children; the parents have sold their flats and kicked the children out on the street. The philosophy of our school is to give every child the opportunity to grow."

Three caseworkers are assigned to a group of eight to 10 children and are responsible for the primary care tasks that a parent would usually do.

Each caseworker is also assigned to develop a closer relationship with two or three children and, if they can be found, with their families.

"The caseworkers keep contact with the child's parents if they're still living in order to make it possible for a future return home for the children," Brettell said.

Brettell, who worked for 25 years as a special education teacher and a social worker, became interested in the plight of Russian street children after seeing a television documentary on homeless children in St. Petersburg.

He came to Russia in 1992 when the Russian Orthodox Church invited the Waverley Trust to come to Moscow and start the residential home.

The Waverley Trust, a charity set up by British textile magnate Sonia Fuchs, funds the operations of the Waverley House.

The trust began repairing and restoring the building, which originally housed a school, before admitting its first class of children in 1993.

"We're only in our fourth year, but with what [Brettell's] done, it's as if we've got 10 years of accomplishments," said Iunetsi. "He generates ideas and then fulfills them. He's the person who makes things happen."

Inside the home, the children's rooms are beautifully decorated with colorful paintings and lively-patterned curtains.

The school is accredited and fully recognized by the state with 22 teachers who teach every subject from Russian literature and mathematics to computer skills and the basics of the Russian alphabet.

In addition to attending classes, some days the children run laps around the school building for exercise, go on trips to the countryside, attend museums or the theater or go for walks in the forest.

Each night a group of them attends the Impulse Center, a neighborhood recreational center where they can play sports or do handicrafts.

Each summer, the children also spend some time at a camp, and two years ago the whole group took a three-day trip to England.

The children are also responsible for daily chores around the home, like helping to prepare and serve meals and clean up.

"The main thing is the atmosphere you create, and then you can work wonders with that," Brettell said.

"The child is happy, and you alleviate the problems. They're not problem children. They're children with problems."