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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Giving Orphans A Mom's Embrace

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TOMILINO, Moscow Region — In a town dotted with sagging wood cottages that lean onto dirt roads, the new red-brick homes gleam in the clearing of a dense pine forest.

It is just a few kilometers southeast of Moscow, and anyone might think this is just another New Russian development. But on the grounds there are no luxury cars, marble swimming pools or tennis courts. Just a dozen cats, a friendly mutt, one guard and two children hurling snowballs while a small boy grimmaces and shovels snow. (Click here for Photo Essay.)

This is the SOS Children's Village, which houses 77 children and teens, ages 3 to 19. Most were abandoned or taken from their mothers and fathers by the state.

But unlike tens of thousands of children living in cash-strapped state orphanages across Russia, Tomilino residents have things every family has, like family photographs, New Year's presents and bedtime stories.

Most importantly, they have mothers.

Tomilino children are being loved and reared by women hired for the job. Each of the 11 women care for five to nine children in individual brick homes. The mothers receive a salary of 8,000 rubles ($275) and get four days off a month. To get the job the women had to be single and either childless or the mothers of grown children.

Four years ago, Yulia Zakharova, 50, left behind her old life in Moscow for a new one at the Children's Village.

An economist by training who lost her job in the early 1990s, she responded to a newspaper ad seeking women to care for orphans and was selected from several dozen candidates. Her own daughter, who is 28, convinced her to take the job. She is now mother to seven children, ages 5 to 15.

"I just felt that I simply found an occupation to my liking," Zakharova said. "I knew that my life would change, but I could not imagine to what extent then, and it was frightening."

She moved into one of the brick homes to care for four siblings. The boys, Slava and Tolya, and the two sisters, Kristina and Veronika, had been separated and sent to different orphanages after their parents were imprisoned and denied parental rights. Within a year, Zakharova's new family grew as she took in three more children, Vanya, Dima and Zhenya.

All the children pitch in. Afternoons and weekends they help with the laundry, vacuuming, washing of dishes and grocery shopping. But even so, Zakharova's day starts at 6:30 a.m. as she gets the children ready for school and she hardly gets a spare minute until 11 p.m. "In my family everything must be done quickly, otherwise I will not have time to do everything I have to," she said. "Even though often I feel exhausted, I find this life interesting."

At lunchtime one day, she cut vegetables for a salad while soup warmed on the stove. Vanya, 15, played computer games. Lunch would have to be quick: Zakharova had to walk Kristina to piano lessons.

Photos fill the house. In the dining room the children grin in the pictures from their annual vacation on the Black Sea, where they rent rooms in a local family's house.

Like other mothers at Tomilino, Zakharova does not like to talk about her old life and the reasons that brought her to the village. She said simply that it was not an easy decision, and shifts the focus onto the children. "I do not know how I would cope with everything if they did not help me," she said.

Dr. Hermann Gminer, an Austrian child welfare worker, decided after World War II to do something about the thousands of children orphaned during the war. He founded the first SOS Children's Village in Imst, Austria, in 1949. The street in Tomilino where the village is located bears Gminer's name.

Since that time, the SOS Children's Village idea and educational principles have been copied the world over. Children's Villages exist in 132 countries.

In Russia, more than 600,000 of the 39.5 million children are orphans, according to official state figures. And state orphanages, chronically underfunded, just cannot cope.

SOS Kindersdorf International, the Austrian organization that decides where to open new villages, responded by opening Tomilino five years ago. In some countries, the villages operate with private donations. Tomilino's operating budget, however, comes directly from the organization, with only 5 percent of the money from private donations.

After Tomilino, two more SOS Children's Villages opened in Russia, one in Pushkin near St. Petersburg and the other outside Oryol in Lavrovo. Two more are being planned: one in the Moscow region and one in Murmansk.

The village concept raises healthier, happier children because they are not treated as if they are living in an institution. "We have very few orphanage-style mass happenings,'' said Viktor Pleshivtsev, Tomilino's deputy director. "It is better when birthdays and holidays are celebrated inside the family."

To emphasize that the children are part of a family within a neighborhood, all of them attend nearby public schools and receive medical care at the local clinics, Pleshivtsev said.

When selecting children for Tomilino they first tried whenever possible to reunite brothers and sisters living separately in state-run orphanages, Pleshivtsev said.

Of course, the competition to hire mothers was tough, Pleshivtsev said. "A lot of women responded to the ad, but few of them realized what was expected of them," he said. Some candidates were hoping to get the job of a nanny, but SOS wanted caring women who would stay with the children around-the-clock.

Pleshivtsev said the concept of women-only has proved successful. If couples were employed as parents, it would be impossible to intrude on the family and impose any educational principles, he said.

The mothers are allowed to do anything they wish on their days off.

Then, one of six visiting "aunts" — part-time workers employed by the village — watch the children.

But Zakharova said even on those days off, she has little time to spend on herself. "I have so much to buy and arrange for the family during those days."

She does not miss having a man in the family — except when something needs fixing or the boys misbehave.

"It is hard to raise a boy without a father. Boys do need a father, there is no question about that,'' she said. "As for fixing things, my boys are old enough to help and make up for the absence of a man in the family."

Zakharova said she would like to raise even more children, but that means saying good-bye to others. She is sad that her eldest son, Vanya, 15, will graduate from school next year and then leave to join the adult world.

Next door, Natalya Kovalyova is mother to eight children. Her father collects the childrens' artwork as if they were drawn by his own grandchildren.

For all of these women the most rewarding part of the work will be the hardest — saying good-bye to their children when they are ready to live on their own. "I will be able to say my life turned out well,'' Zakharova said, "if I raise eight children."

Tomilino SOS Children's Village can be reached by telephone at (095) 557-3101.