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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Holiday Gift of a Family

MTHost mother Yelena Kondrashova sitting arm in arm with 16-year-old Vera Stepanova at the internat earlier this month.
GAGARIN, Smolensk Region -- As a school bell clangs at the Gagarin Internat school, sending students scampering down the chilly corridors for lunch, the director's office is abuzz with the news that more local families have been found to take the school's children into their homes for the winter holidays.

Alexander Shishpor and his assistant Anna Krotova can hardly believe their good fortune. This summer, 41 of their 160 charges were placed with families through a program called Summer Miracles run by Kidsave International, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization. All of them will return to their host families for two weeks, from Dec. 30 to Jan. 12, for Winter Miracles.

Shishpor has long regretted that so many others get left behind to spend New Year's in the dormitory. Now, with more families volunteering, 20 more students may be given a glimpse into family life.

"Can we find the money for this?" Krotova asks Kidsave Moscow director Eric Batsie, visiting for the day, who promises he would manage somehow.

"If they want to help, how could we refuse them? It's impossible," Krotova says.

Families are given 40 rubles a day to defray the cost of food for their young guests, meaning that for about $20, Batsie calculates, a child can spend two weeks in a real home.

Adding to the bustle and excitement, a television crew from the local Rossia affiliate is waiting in Shishpor's office to cover the homestay program. After the spot runs, Shishpor expects even more families in the community to volunteer and says he hopes he can place a total of 80 students this holiday season.

Yelena Kondrashova, one of the host mothers, has come to the school to be interviewed by the television crew. When Vera Stepanova, 16, sees the woman she calls mama, her face lights up and she rushes over, resting her head on Kondrashova's shoulder.

"Did you turn in your history homework?" Kondrashova asks. Vera nods. "What about math?" Vera nods again.

Kondrashova, employed by the local power company, and her husband, a policeman, took Vera home this summer after being inspired by a friend who had taken a child the year before. By the end of August, when she had to return to the dormitory, "We'd become attached to her and she'd become attached to us," Kondrashova says. Now she comes for Vera every weekend, picking her up Friday night and bringing her back before class Monday morning.

As soon as Vera arrives, Kondrashova says, she slides smoothly into her role as big sister to Kondrashova's 11-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son. "She's so good with them. It's like constant playtime on the weekends."

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Alexander Shishpor, director of the Gagarin Internat, greeting a boy who lives at the children's home.

When she's not with her adopted siblings or hanging out with the "tons" of new friends she says she has made in the neighborhood, Vera can be found in the family's kitchen. Barred during the week from the cafeteria's food preparation areas, she cooks as much as she can on the weekends.

"Blini are my favorite," says the aspiring pastry chef.

"Hers are even better than mine," Kondrashova leans forward to whisper.

Vera blushes, beaming. "They're better in the summer, though, when there are wild berries."

Kondrashova says she likes having Vera's help around the house, especially on Sunday mornings, when Vera makes breakfast. "It's kind of a tradition. She doesn't let my kids wake me up. 'Let her rest,' she tells them. When I do wake up, hot tea and eggs are there waiting for me."

Still beaming, Vera is quick to deflect attention. It's not such a big deal, she insists with self-conscious pride: "I'm used to waking up early, that's all."

Kidsave has been involved in Gagarin, a sleepy town 180 kilometers west of Moscow in the Smolensk region, for 2 1/2 years now, through its programs aimed at moving children out of institutions and into families.

Teachers and staff at the school were the first to take children home more than two years ago. The school's bookkeeper, Lidia Yermolayeva, regularly opens her home to four brothers whom she couldn't bear to separate.

Olga Pyatakova, a young teacher without children of her own, has taken one of the most difficult girls in school under her wing and, with time at home with her one-on-one, has succeeded in breaking away her tough outer shell, according to Krotova, the internat director's assistant.

As neighbors and friends in the community saw the benefits of these relationships, the programs have grown.

"Finding families doesn't require a massive advertising or recruitment campaign. It's mainly just seeing other families do it and thinking, I could do that too," Batsie says.

Summer Miracles matches children aged 8 to 16 with host families in Russia or the United States for the few months of summer vacation. Host families in Russia rarely adopt, due to financial constraints and legal disincentives, but they can bring the children home with them on weekends during the school year, as Vera's family does, as part of the mentoring program Kidsave runs with a Russian nonprofit partner organization it created called Secure Futures.

Lyudmila Savchenkova, a teacher in a nearby community, has taken Ruslan Maltsev and Igor Nesterov, two 14-year-olds from the internat, home to be with her own 14-year-old boys ever since they visited during Summer Miracles this year.

"We don't lose anything taking them for the weekends. The four boys play outdoors and joke with each other. I end up spending a lot of time cooking for them in the kitchen, but I don't mind," Savchenkova says.

With the privileges of family life come responsibilities, and children on the program are expected to pull their weight with family chores, often doing yard work or washing dishes for the first time in their lives. Eager to win approval, the children apply themselves to the work, parents say.

"Even though they haven't grown up with family responsibilities, Ruslan and Igor do everything I ask of them," Savchenkova says, "which I can't say of my own boys."

Red-headed Igor is looking forward to spending two full weeks with them at their home in the countryside over New Year's. "We'll get to go fishing. Anatoly Alexeyevich [Savchenkova's husband] has been teaching us how to ride bikes too," he says. "I'm happier when I'm with them. And more optimistic."

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Children walking down a chilly corridor of the Gagarin Internat on their way to lunch. Some of the 160 children will be spending the holidays with families through a program run by Kidsave International.

Orphans' lives are tough, and life for those sent not to orphanages but to internats is surely tougher.

Internats are boarding institutions and, like orphanages, they are often referred to as detskiye doma, or children's homes. Orphanages are homes for parentless children, while internats accommodate a wide range of children: those whose parents are unfit or unable to care for them -- due to anything from alcoholism to poverty to an oil-rig job in the Far North -- those with behavioral or emotional problems needing supervision, as well as orphans with special needs. Many of those sent to internats were judged as preschoolers to have some sort of physical or mental handicap due to abuse or neglect, and unofficial estimates are that as much as 70 percent of those case evaluations are incorrect, Batsie says.

Orphanage children go to public schools through the 11th grade, while internat children have class within their building and get only nine years of education, after which they are often directed toward vocational schools.

Igor says he wants to be a construction worker when he gets older. Ruslan wants to be a truck driver. "In the internat, they start asking us this really early because we can't expect there to be any support for us when we leave," he said.

During the week and on the weekends that she and her husband can't make the hour trip to Gagarin to collect the boys, Ruslan and Igor often write them letters, Savchenkova says.

"They promise they are not getting into fights and that they aren't smoking, like a lot of their classmates do. They want so much to live up to our respect for them," she says, batting away tears at the corners of her eyes. "Even without the 40 rubles a day, I'd still come for my boys. They only have one childhood and you give them what you can."

Under Russian law, the state gives certain benefits to children when they leave the orphanage, usually at age 16, including a monthly stipend, relaxed entrance requirements for secondary education and, in some regions, an apartment of their own. If adopted, a child would no longer be eligible for such benefits, which are more than most host families could provide.

"When they finish school, it's better that they get the money, but they know we'll always be there for them and they can come to our home anytime," Savchenkova says.

Many of the children from the Rostov, Tver and Smolensk regions whom Kidsave sends on Summer Miracles to the United States form strong bonds with their families and are later adopted -- separately from Kidsave, Batsie is quick to point out.

"We're not an adoption agency and we don't advocate for international adoption. We advocate for children to go into families here, but at the end of the day, kids just need a family," Batsie says.

Last January, Ana and Paul Ramos adopted Julia and Katya Galkina from the Gagarin Internat after the sisters, now 12 and 10 years old, spent summer 2001 with them in their suburban Washington home.

The Ramoses were prompted to get involved with Kidsave after seeing a television report on orphanages in Eastern Europe. "We just couldn't believe the number of children that were living there without a family," Ana Ramos says.

The family went through all the paperwork and attended mandatory orientation meetings before the girls arrived.

Julia told Ramos she hadn't wanted to come to the United States because she was worried she would forget her Russian heritage. Also, the girls' natural mother had promised she would come back for them.

Mike Solovyanov / MT

Lidia Yermolayeva, the bookkeeper, opens her home to brothers Oleg, Tolya, Roman and Rostik, whom she cannot bear to separate.

"She never did, though," Julia says by phone, "and I thought it would be better to go to America and have a family." In the background, her older sister, Melissa, 15, can be heard announcing that the pepperoni pizza -- Julia's favorite -- has arrived. Katya is away at gymnastics lessons.

Though the girls speak English with each other now, with the Ramoses' support, they have stayed connected with their classmates from the internat. "Our parents let us call our friends every week," Julia says, adding that "it's hard with the time difference because sometimes we call and it's past their bedtime."

"I think if we let them keep in touch with their friends it will help them keep the Russian language alive," Ana Ramos says.

Besides running Summer and Winter Miracles, Kidsave works with Secure Futures, an organization it incubated and spun off in the Smolensk region, to prepare older orphans for graduation from state institutions by offering classes to teach them life skills ranging from budgeting and self-respect to anger control and communication.

Kidsave has tentative plans to start an Internet cafe in St. Petersburg run by orphans, as well as a carpet and furniture repair shop in Roslavl to aid poor single mothers who are in danger of being forced to give up their children for economic reasons.

The program helps to counter the widespread belief that orphans are orphans because there's something wrong with them. "Once you get to know these kids, all those stereotypes fall away. You see they're not genetically predisposed to be hooligans and prostitutes and what happens is, families fall in love with these kids," says Batsie, who has been working on behalf of children in Russia for the better part of the last decade. He helped set up support centers for at-risk adolescents in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Uglich and Smolensk for Seattle-based Miramed before joining Kidsave.

Parallel to Kidsave's work, child advocates here, such as Boris Altschuler who heads the organization Rights of the Child, campaign for patronat, a system that combines aspects of mentoring and foster care, where children of all ages are placed in proxy families without being legally adopted.

Altschuler cites statistics that show Russia has 1 million fewer minors every year because of falling birth rates. Despite this, he says, the number of orphans is growing.

Altschuler has been working with Kidsave's Batsie to bring Summer Miracles to Moscow, so far without success. Both express frustration at the complications they have encountered with the Moscow city government's education committee, which oversees children's affairs and has proven less supportive of Kidsave's work than its counterpart in Smolensk.

Nonetheless, Batsie hopes to get the Moscow committee's approval to launch a mentoring program here by March. His plans are to start by matching 50 to 100 children from one city orphanage with Moscow families and expand from there.

A gala is planned for March to kick off the program and attract support from the local community, to follow on the success of a comparable event held in November at the Russian ambassador's residence in Washington, Batsie says.

Bechtel engineering company's representation office has already lent its assistance, with Don Hughes, a local executive, agreeing to serve on the gala's steering committee.

"Flying back and forth to New York, you see so many orphans getting adopted out of the country, so I think it's really important that Kidsave tries to keep kids here. They offer a lot of hope," Hughes says, adding that he hoped to help raise the organization's profile among Muscovites. "Probably a lot of people here would like to do something to help, and these programs give them a way to do that."

Kidsave has set the ambitious goal of getting all children out of state institutions by 2025. "It's a dream, but dreams are the most important thing, because then you begin to act," Altschuler says.

Staff at children's' homes, whose livelihoods are predicated on institutional care for orphans, are often the most outspoken opponents of moving children into families. But not always. Krotova calls family life the best solution to the many hurdles that life throws orphans' way.

"No internat -- and I really love ours -- can give a child what a family gives," she says.