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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Uglich Orphans Work at 'Coolest Place in Town'

UGLICH, Volga River Valley — Sunday afternoon is hopping at the Internet-Cafe Matrix. About 40 people of all ages crowd the place, filling the tables so that some customers are lingering over the bar ordering pizza and ice cream. Boys and girls play video games or write school papers on the six computers and two Sony playstations in the back.

Other children occasionally pass through a door to the left of the bar. A small tunnel leads to their home, the Uglich orphanage.

Last week a local newspaper voted Matrix the best cafe in this town of about 40,000 on the Volga River, and by all appearances it is a regular pizzeria. In reality it is a noncommercial training center set up by American David Tagliani for the 60 children, ages 7 to 18, who live in the adjacent detsky dom.

Since it opened in June 2000, orphans 14 and older work a few hours a week —as long as they keep their school grades up — as computer consultants, cooks, waiters or assistants to the bookkeepers, earning more than 100 rubles a month.

"At first it was scary. You'd bring the coffee and the cup would be shaking," said Natasha Kurenkova, 14, whose sister Tanya, 15, also waits tables. Their new income goes toward boots, pants, toothpaste, soap or, if no "important things" are needed, a scarf or perfume.

In its first summer, Matrix was patronized by all sorts — businessmen, families, teenagers, and tourists coming up the Volga.

The local priest, Father Vladimir, initially called the cafe the work of the devil, but he was won over and consecrated the cafe as a holy place of the Orthodox Church, splashing water on the computers in the process. Father Vladimir now reads Alexy II's messages at Matrix the day they are issued on the patriarch's personal web site, instead of waiting two weeks to get them by mail.

The children from the orphanage have become the envy of their classmates, and parents sometimes call Tagliani asking him to give their own children a chance.

"They ask what we're doing, how we work, what our position is," Natasha said of her school friends. "They come to the cafe and play games. Some want to work here."

Tagliani has spent 1.5 million rubles on the cafe, and $5,000 to $6,000 touching up the dilapidated building or taking children for trips to St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Black Sea. The former Microsoft Corp. executive pledged to support the cafe even if it ran a deficit. The accountant's books show it was making a monthly profit of around $300 early this year.

The orphanage's teachers say the cafe gives the children something positive to do and lets them socialize with people they would rarely come in contact with.

"The cafe distracts them from bad things. They stop stealing, they don't go out in the street with nothing to do," said Anna Kapustina, 59, who herself grew up in the orphanage that in 1942 was set up to take in children orphaned by the siege of Leningrad. "More than anything it's preparation for life," Kapustina said.

Before its opening, Tagliani hired a pizza chef from Yaroslavl and a computer science teacher from Uglich to teach his future employees. Managers, bookkeepers and engineers are local hires, though 16-year-old Dima Lagutin has since assumed the position of head engineer. He earned his first outside wages recently when a client brought in a broken computer and Dima fixed it for 300 rubles.

"It's a perfect example of what I'd hoped to happen," Tagliani said.

Seattle native Tagliani, 43, first worked at the Uglich orphanage in the summer of 1998 capping off two years of globe-trotting begun after burning out at his around-the-clock job as head of worldwide operations at Microsoft Corp. In 1996 he cashed in his stock options, unplugged his telephones and computers and set out to travel.

He eventually moved back to Seattle but couldn't forget the orphans he'd met in Uglich, some of who call him "Papa." He returned to Yaroslavl in January 1999 on a U.S. university program to study Russian and headed to Uglich for another summer. That's when he says his lost his naivete and the reality of the children's situation hit him, giving him the idea for Matrix.

"I started to realize these statistics that I'd heard about. It was like a lightening bolt," Tagliani said.

After leaving orphanages, 10 percent of orphans commit suicide and 40 percent commit crimes, according to Education Ministry statistics cited by the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund. At least five of the children who have left the Uglich orphanage in the last three years have served time in prison, Tagliani said.

Tagliani, now based in Moscow where he serves as general director of the Timeonline Internet salon on Manezh Square, says his next Uglich project is to renovate a building owned by the school district into a dormitory to give orphans a safe place to live once they're on their own. Phase three of his patronage involves sending the older children on work internships at computer companies in Moscow and he is already studying orphanages in other regions for the possibility of more Internet cafes.

"They [the orphans] just seem to have a lot more pride. They like that they are working in the coolest place in town," he said. Internet-Cafe Matrix