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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

We Are Family

Courtesy Of Kitezh
If state statistics are a reliable indicator, the future looks bleak for Russia's 1 million orphans. One in 10 will commit suicide, the Education and Science Ministry says. Four in 10 will turn to drugs. Sixty percent will end up jobless and homeless.

But it turns out that a small handful of pioneering and devoted volunteers, acting on a simple philosophy, can make a big difference.

"We just put these children in human conditions, specially designed for them," said Dmitry Morozov, founder of the Kitezh Children's Community Network. "Human, but challenging. If we continue to do this, we can put out a million educated and developed citizens."

The Kitezh Children's Community Network is based on a family-care model, in which orphans live in foster families, with a mother, a father and siblings. There is one major difference between the Kitezh philosophy and traditional foster care: The children at Kitezh have the support of an entire village, not a single household.

The village of Kitezh, 300 kilometers outside Moscow, in the Kaluga region, was founded in 1992, and is now home to 22 children in 10 families. Work on the village of Orion, 75 kilometers away from Moscow, began in 2004. At present only six children in three families live at Orion, but Morozov hopes the village will eventually be home to up to 50 children in 10 families.

The communities aim to be self-sufficient, so each foster parent has a role in the village. Some are teachers at a government-registered school on the Kitezh premises; others are licensed therapists. Those who lack professional qualifications chip in with domestic duties.

"For the adults who live here, it's all-encompassing," said Francesca Hewitt, head of fundraising. "It's your whole life."

The villages offer orphans more than a home. Each day is filled with activities, school and therapy.

"They have often had experiences that make them unable to trust adults and have a regular world view," Hewitt said. "Our programs are based on harmony and beauty. We want to restore the children's faith in the possibility of order within themselves." Therapeutic work with the children includes art therapy, play therapy and drama therapy.

"Brothers and sisters, take me into the circle of your community," a dozen children said in unison as they concluded the performance of a play called "Master" on a recent Saturday. They stood staggered in the center of an octagon-shaped amphitheater with dirt floors in Orion. The play, intended to capture the organization's philosophy, was written by a former Kitezh resident, Alexander Sarukhanyan, 23.

For those living at Kitezh, each day is filled with activities, school and therapy.
While the play's point may have been to sum up Kitezh's unique set of values, it presented philosophical themes that could resonate with anyone trying to find his or her path in life. Master, the main character, has decided to stop partying in order to search for "professionalism." Along the way he meets characters like "Holiday," "Faith," "Desperation," and "Everyday Life," played by a teenage boy in an apron who waves a frying pan and growls menacingly: "You look like a tasty morsel! I am going to consume you!"

Perhaps this universality is a mark of success for Kitezh. The children who came of age in Kitezh -- more than 90 to date -- leave the villages not as orphans but as young adults trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Former Kitezh residents have entered universities to study everything from ecology to literature, joined the army, or started families of their own.

While Morozov and the other adults at Kitezh and Orion are grateful for the opportunity to help children in a concrete and sustainable way, they acknowledge that an enormous amount of work remains both within their organization and in Russia at large. The orphan population is growing, with most ending up in institutions.

Maria Pichugina, 22, the head of Orion, moved to Kitezh at the age of 15. The majority of orphans in Russia today are "social orphans," she said, adding that this means they have one or more living parents, but these parents are unfit to care for them.

The organization is eager to see Orion expand quickly to accommodate as many children as possible. Construction is simply a matter of funding. The organization receives funds from a variety of sources. The teachers at Kitezh are paid state salaries for their work, like any other state teacher. All salaries are pooled, and an equal amount is allotted to each member of the community. The rest of the money is spent as the communities' heads see fit, be it on sports equipment, medicine or food.

Of course, these state salaries aren't sufficient to cover construction plus all the needs of residents at Kitezh and Orion, so the villages rely on donations. Most of the organization's funding comes from abroad.

"There's not a long tradition of charitable giving in Russia," Hewitt said. "But mindsets are changing."

Morozov hopes to do more than change mindsets.

"I really think we're building a new reality, through children," he said. "We're trying to persuade society. We don't need millions of dollars. All we need is a new approach, with love, understanding and culture."