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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Volunteers Happy to Help and Make a Difference

MTJennifer Hughes, a student at Moscow State University, teaching English in a class at the Taganka Children's Fund.
Volunteers are welcome to help on projects as diverse as teaching drama to orphaned children to providing home care for elderly survivors of the gulag -- and it is easier to get involved than you might think.

One encouraging example of how a group of volunteers made a difference was at an orphanage in a remote village in the Pskov region. There, more than 100 children had been considered incapable of learning and slept in the rooms they were supposed to have classes in. Confined in this crumbling and poorly funded institution for mentally disabled children, they eked out a threadbare existence. Most of them were unable to read and write and swore like troopers; they took a bath once a week and received cigarettes and alcohol from locals in exchange for working on the land.

The situation started slowly changing for the better with the arrival of staff and volunteers from the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, or ROOF, a nonprofit organization that brought the first group of Russians and foreigners to help at Belskoye Ustye in 2000. Besides teaching children and teenagers to read and write, ROOF staff and volunteers were able to involve children in a variety of activities, showing them how to express themselves through drama and let go of negative emotions through music.

After the ROOF became involved, the authorities reclassified the orphanage as one at which the children were entitled to an education.

Many children ended up in Belskoye Ustye not because they were mentally disabled but because they had an attitude problem or a physical disability, said Laure Trebosc, a social secretary with the European Commission's delegation to Russia who volunteers for ROOF. After visiting the orphanage in 2001, she committed herself to the project and recruited students from Sciences Po, the Paris university from which she graduated, to come and help.

Lucien Lefcourt, 24, from Los Angeles, went to Belskoye Ustye last summer. After learning about the orphanage from Trebosc, he decided to help out.

He said that the time spent there "made me very hopeful. ... [We] were making a difference that might allow a small percentage of the kids to live normal lives out in the real world."

Another volunteer, Aude Curot from Switzerland, spent three weeks in Belskoye Ustye last summer, teaching drama to the children. "I wanted to help the children express and free their emotions through drama, and to make them laugh."

The work by Trebosc and her friends is just one example of how volunteer efforts can make a difference. There is a multitude of Russian charities that are always on the lookout for some extra help.

Action for Russian Children is a charity involved in fundraising and supporting a number of Russian charities. It focuses on helping underprivileged and disabled children and their families. Susie Latta, a member of the charity's management committee, said it was an all-volunteer organization, as "this helps us to ensure that the maximum amount of the money goes to help children in need." To volunteer with ARC, no special knowledge of the Russian language is required, Latta said.

The Caring Heart Foundation is one of Russia's largest importers of humanitarian aid. Its eight-person office collects equipment, shoes and clothes ranging from fur coats to wedding gowns, which it distributes among disadvantaged families. Every three months, when the foundation receives a shipment of aid, it needs volunteers to help sort out donations, said Pyotr Perov, the director of the charity.

Another organization that can use some volunteer help is Sostradaniye, or Compassion. One of the first charities formed after the Soviet collapse, Compassion branched out from the Memorial human rights group to provide home care for aging victims of Stalinist and Nazi concentration camps. Since the early 1990s, Compassion has helped more than 10,000 people, said Yelizaveta Dzhirikova, the charity's head.

Compassion helps the dwindling number of camp survivors still living in Moscow -- many of whom are in their 80s and 90s -- Dzhirikova said, adding that they often needed "the most basic help" such as companionship and conversation.

Every summer Compassion organizes summer camps where volunteers travel to the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, just 100 kilometers from the North Pole. A place of austere beauty, the islands were home to the first concentration camps in the Soviet gulag system. A team of Russian and foreign volunteers comes to mark the mass graves, erect memorial plaques, stock up on firewood and perform other chores for camp survivors and their relatives still living in the area.

For MT

Summer camp volunteers unloading logs near the Solovetsky Monastery.

Another charity, the Taganka Children's Fund, supports over 600 single-parent families and disabled children. The charity's volunteers teach children and teenagers languages, music and crafts and organize days out at theaters and concerts.

Jennifer Hughes, a Moscow State University student from Britain, started teaching a class of eight children last week. The 20-year-old Liverpudlian, who has been in Moscow since last year, said she wanted to do something different from the usual range of expatriate activities. "I've been to the theater and cinemas; I've traveled," she said. She had been trying to find opportunities to volunteer when she heard of Taganka's projects.

Now she teaches a class once or twice per week, in addition to meeting with mentally disabled kids on Saturdays.

Hughes, who has volunteered for charities in England and Germany since the age of 15, said the concept of charity work had not yet quite taken root in Russia. "I don't really see it here," she said, adding that few of her Russian friends ever volunteered.

But "after you try it, you get the idea that it's fun," she said.

For further information about:
The Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund, go to;
Action for Russian Children, go to or e-mail Susie Latta at;
The Caring Heart Foundation, go to;
Sostradaniye (Compassion), tel. 454-5691;
Taganka Children's Fund, go to