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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Village Answers SOS to Give Kids a Fresh Start

For MTYelena Dolgopolskaya, who works as a full-time care worker for SOS Children's Villages, receiving a bouquet of flowers from children at the Tomilino village.
TOMILINO, Moscow Region -- Eleven-year-old Kristina has been playing violin for three years. Her eyes follow the notes on the score as she performs the Hunter's Chorus from Weber's opera "Der Freischutz." But her bowing hand is scarred with burns.

"That's from her previous life," said Yelena Dolgopolskaya, the woman whom Kristina calls mother. Kristina, who now has a new mom and six brothers and sisters, lives in Tomilino, an SOS Children's Village 10 kilometers northeast of Moscow.

The village is a small settlement of 14 carmine-colored cottages, flanked by birch and pine trees, and stands next to an almost-completed luxury housing development. The village was a pilot project in Russia for SOS-Kinderdorf International, an Austrian-based nonprofit organization that has been building homes for mistreated kids worldwide since 1949.

The organization started talking to Soviet officials about bringing the charity to Russia in 1988. In 1994, Russia's SOS Children's Villages Committee was formed and the first families moved in Tomilino in May 1996.

Dolgopolskaya, now in her 50s, has been with Tomilino from the very beginning. Fifteen years ago she, then a geologist, read a magazine article about the Austrian villages and tracked down its author, Yelena Bruskova, the founder of the villages in Russia.

She liked the idea so much that she started working as a volunteer, and later "persuaded Yelena Sergeyevna [Bruskova] to let me become a mom," she said.

Today Dolgopolskaya is a full-time, senior live-in mother who takes care of seven children: four girls and three boys.

With different ages and temperaments, they look like a family, and can even form a small band. Besides Kristina, four other kids play instruments. Maxim, a sixth-grader, plays clarinet. His brother Lyosha, 10, studies flute, and their sisters Lena, 9, and Katya, 13, play piano. Yelena chose a private school for her kids where along with math and literature they study artisan crafts like pottery and basket weaving, as well as religion.

Faith takes a central place in the life of Yelena's family. "Kids pray for their parents who drank and abandoned them," she said. There are icons and calendars with Christian Orthodox holidays in every room of their two-story cottage.

All 70 children at Tomilino have a past they have to come to terms with. Some, like Maxim, never knew their biological parents and spent their first years in a state orphanage. Others, like Kristina, were physically abused. Kristina came to Tomilino "from a hospital where she had spent a year recovering" from burns and illnesses she contracted while in the care of her biological mother, an alcoholic, and her mother's drinking companions, Dolgopolskaya said.

Sucking on candies and roaming around in the yard, the children look happy today. The candies, along with other goodies, are a gift from a German television crew who came to make a movie about the village for the charity's Western donors. The bulk of the funding comes from SOS-Kinderdorf International, said the village's director, Leonid Mityayev.

"Our annual budget is $300,000. Seventy percent of that comes from the Austrian organization, 25 percent from the Moscow government, and we ourselves raise 5 percent," he said.

In Russia, the organization runs four children's villages: at Tomilino, at Lavrovo in the Oryol region, at Kandalaksha in the Far North, and near St. Petersburg.

The cornerstone of the charity's fifth village in Russia was laid in Moscow this fall. "The cost of the project is estimated at about $3 million," said Yury Chudovsky, the program's director, of the new village's construction.

The charity has been working hard to secure financial help. Two banks have already pledged their support to cover some of the construction costs.

But the concept of fundraising is taking time to percolate, Bruskova said.

"It was forbidden to raise money in the Soviet Union," she said. In dictionaries, "the word charity used to be marked as 'obsolete.'"

The villages also rely on individual donors, described as "friends," who give small but regular contributions to the cause. There are 1,500 Friends of Children's Villages around the country, who are mostly people of very modest means or pensioners. In October, the committee also launched its Christmas Cards drive, the proceeds from which will go to help SOS children and teenagers.

There are plans to build two more villages and launch programs aimed at preventing disadvantaged families from abandoning their kids in the first place. "We ... contribute with a care model, share our experience and try to motivate others to take action," said Tom Malvet, SOS-Kinderdorf International's regional director.

But "after all, no nation really wants foreign organizations to take care for their own children," he said.

For more information about SOS Children's Villages Christmas cards or about becoming a Friend of SOS Children's Villages in Russia, call 718-9918 or write: pr-sos@redline.ru.