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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ROOF Raises Educational Prospects for Orphans

For MTChildren holding pet dogs at one of the two orphanages that are supported by ROOF in the Yaroslavl region town of Pereslavl.
This month, more than 120 children from the Belskoye Ustye orphanage in the Pskov region headed off to their annual summer camp near the town of Porkhov, where they were met by a team of volunteers from Moscow and abroad.

The camp, which was set up three years ago by the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, or ROOF, gives orphans the chance to receive extra teaching, have fun and forge relationships with adults outside Russia's sometimes brutal orphanage system.

Before ROOF started working there, the children were hardly receiving any education, having been diagnosed as suffering from oligophrenia, or weak-mindedness, or even labeled as imbesili.

"When we first began our programs there, I don't think the children had ever studied anything but the letters of the Russian alphabet," said Georgina Williams, co-founder of ROOF and chairman of the ROOF board. "They were usually just doing work for the villagers. The villagers often use the orphans, some only 8 years old, as cheap labor. They pay them in food or even cigarettes to harvest what's in their gardens, do farm work. I think that's very common across all of Russia."

Belskoye Ustye is a psycho-neurological orphanage, one of three categories of orphanage in Russia, along with children's homes and special needs orphanages.

Children, in some cases as young as 3 years old, are sent to these orphanages following a diagnosis of oligophrenia from a panel of psychologists and medical workers. In the past two years, ROOF has succeeded in having seven such diagnoses overturned, and aims to have as many more as possible removed.

Education varies in the different types of orphanage, and ROOF says that children in psycho-neurological orphanages are systematically deprived of the most basic level of education.

"It is very easy to slide down the system," Williams said. "Our experience, having worked with about 700 kids in Moscow, is that at least 80 percent of the kids in children's homes are falling two years or more behind [in their education] by the age of 12.

"What follows is a diagnosis that that child is unable to study because of psychological, mental, emotional or intellectual problems and therefore is transferred to a special needs orphanage. Now our work attacks the unique educational problems of each child we work with from the orphanage system," she said.

ROOF was founded in 1997 by the unlikely partnership of Williams, then working as a businesswoman in Moscow, and fellow American Arthur Stracinski, a retired high-school teacher from New York. They met at St. Andrew's Anglican Church in Moscow, where Stracinski told Williams he wanted to help orphans in Russia; his own mother was a Ukrainian orphan who had emigrated to the United States. With her business background, Williams agreed to draw up a plan for a fund to help Russian orphans.

"I went out, did interviews with all sorts of orphanage directors and very quickly homed in on the fact that the directors needed help with transitioning the kids into society and that central to this was going to be education, job training and identification of openings so that the kids could get normal jobs and make money," Williams said.

Today, ROOF's 50 teachers provide supplementary education programs in six orphanages in Moscow and the Moscow region. In addition, the organization runs a post-orphanage education center from its base in St. Andrew's church. Last year, ROOF started a library program providing modern multimedia libraries in two orphanages in Pereslavl in the Yaroslavl region with the help of funding from the Moscow International Women's Club.

ROOF also runs a social integration program in the Belskoye Ustye orphanage funded by USAID and administered by ARO, or Assistance to Russian Orphans. The program is staffed by a team of teachers and a psychologist and gives children from the orphanage an opportunity to live with families on weekends.

Teaching in the orphanages is based on a tutorial system, with one teacher for every one or two children. Traditional school subjects such as math and language are taught, as well as lessons in art and drama. The emphasis is on choice: It is each child's decision whether to attend classes.

The post-orphanage education center is ROOF's methodological heart and is equipped with a computer lab and eight classrooms catering to 80 full-time students between the ages of 17 and 30, with a further 170 people waiting to enroll. This is often the first serious academic environment for many of the students, who are each given a specially designed study program to complete.

The center is designed to help orphans make the transition from institutional dependence to self-sufficiency through education. Students can gain the qualifications necessary to attend higher education or gain skilled employment.

"We had a 22-year-old who came to us and couldn't read at all. Bright. Just never presented with any opportunities," Williams said. "A couple of months later he was reading fine. He was just never given any education whatsoever."

The dangers of not making the transition from a closed and institutional environment are all too apparent. According to the Agency for Social Information in Russia, there are 700,000 orphaned children in Russia, about 40 percent of whom live in orphanages. Each year, between 15,000 and 20,000 young adults graduate from these orphanages often unprepared to live independently. Forty percent become alcoholics or drug addicts, and 10 percent commit suicide or simply disappear.

ROOF runs a successful internship program in conjunction with mostly Western companies in Moscow such as Pony Express, Roy International computer hardware, White & Case and the Oil and Gas Eurasia journal.

"There is a specific training element involved in our internship program so that the students have to be learning all the time as well as working. They are always developing new skills, for example computer skills," said Lesley Orr, ROOF's PR and fundraising manager.

Slava Muretov is a 21-year-old ROOF student who left a Moscow orphanage with a limited education. After two years at the post-orphanage education center, he has graduated from the ninth grade and is working toward his 10th grade exams. Muretov participates in the internship program with the White & Case law firm, where he takes computer classes and works in an English-language environment.

When asked about ROOF, Muretov was effusive in his praise. "I love it here, the teachers are a gift from God," he said. "There is a very strong [educational] program here. There is a huge difference. In my old school it wasn't important if you did your homework.

"If ROOF did not exist, it would be a catastrophe for me. I can't begin to imagine what it would be like. ROOF has given me light, a chance and an education that the state did not."

From relying on individual donations in 1998, ROOF is now building a corporate fundraising base in Moscow. Up to this point, there has not been any funding from the Russian government, and the majority of grants and donations come from Western companies or individuals, although the proportion of Russian sponsorship is now rising.

Despite funding problems and previous difficulties finding motivated teachers who were prepared to treat their students as equals, Williams predicts a bright future for ROOF.

"It's been along, hard road getting ROOF on the right track and we've all been growing together, but I'm very positive about how it's going," she said. "I think that we have an approach to helping individuals and a good team that can put that into action. The next step is to spread the value of this program elsewhere."

For more information on ROOF, visit www.roofnet.org or contact Lesley Orr on 229-5100.