by Ellie Hanson, sophomore
Strong roots of small trees growing along a chain link fence cling tightly to the dirt as I attempt to dig them up. Each skinny tree, still a vibrant green although the weather recently faded to fall, stands about four or five feet above the soft coffee-colored soil, perfect for growth. The Lord provides everything the tree needs…the dirt, water and sunshine. These young healthy trees remind me that this orphanage provides a place of provision for God’s precious young children — “the least of these” (Matthew 25:45). I pray the orphanage workers and volunteers share the love of Jesus with the vibrant young children, so that each may grow like a vibrant young tree taking root in the rich soil of Jesus Christ.
Vladimir’s biggest baby orphanage rescues many children, newborn to three years old, from deceased parents, neglect and unwanted pregnancies. Russia’s key orphaning factor is alcohol. It takes over 200 people working at the orphanage to replace the job of two parents, yet it is impossible for the workers to fully complete that father and mother role for each of the 94 babies living at the home. Many infants, dropped off just after birth, have diseases such as spina bifida, down syndrome, and hydrocephalus. According to Paul Lossau, co-founder of Mercy Ministries, many of these young lives do not make it past the age of three, and those who do begin the life of moving around and around from one orphanage or foster home to the next.
Thorns on a rose bush, once full of beautiful buds, penetrate my gloves as I restrain the untamed branches from engulfing my gardening mission below. I proceed to struggle digging up the trees when dirt gets in my shoes and eventually makes its way between my sockless toes. I try to wriggle my toes to remove whatever uncomfortable particles I can as another shovel full of dirt sends more dust my way, but instead give up and continue with the task before me. The broken-in shovel from Mercy Ministries helps, but it still takes a lot of work to pull each root-ball out of the ground. As time passes, nannies begin to walk by with a few children between the ages of two and three. Each child, bundled in warm cloths, waddles along the cement driveway holding the hand of the child next to him. Mismatched brightly colored hats, scarves and puffy coats keep each child warm, but it almost gives them the look of Ralphie from A Christmas Story, who could barely put down his arms due to the extensive layers of clothing.
Groups of nannies and children pass by again and again. I stop shoveling to join them and I realize they just walk around and around the orphanage. Sometimes they stop to enjoy the primary-colored merry-go-round, swings, or to play house. Although the bright paint shines vividly, the grass slowly turns into mud at the center of the well-worn paths and a mixture of dry sand and dirt overflows out of the cracks in the wood floor of the playhouse and cakes itself on the plastic toys. It reminds me of the preschool where I work at home, but then scares me when I realize how far from morning preschool this really is.
Nannies continue to walk around and around to let the toddlers exercise, following them almost anywhere other than outside the iron gate we, the group from Concordia, walked through earlier as we entered the orphanage. Maksim, a young boy probably around twenty-eight months with a mild case down syndrome, now becomes my tour guide. He notices the iron gate too and sees that it serves as a barrier between him and the outside world. I hold the bundled child closely in my arms as he points to the metal bars keeping him inside the orphanage property. He says to me, “Я хочу выйти” which translated means, “I want out.” That is a pretty profound statement for a two-year-old.
Paul helped with translation that time, but I find that the language barrier at the orphanage is not like the locked iron gate. I heard the screeching metal of the gate as the barrier opened for us to go inside, but there is no screeching of metal in seeing people from Concordia love and interact with their new toddler friends. A baby is a baby. It seems as though almost every action toward a baby proves universal. Holding, swinging, bouncing, smiling and our higher pitched voices seem to transcend cultures and make it easy to communicate. Besides the fact that parenthood remains unknown for the vast majority of us, the universality of the babies at the orphanage gives it a natural feeling. I find a calm feeling of normality in loving Maksim and the other children even as I ponder the fact I am in Vladimir, Russia.
The nanny I am walking with gestures for Maksim, three other two-year-olds, Mai Vu and me to follow her inside. A sweet stench of baby powder, diapers, mashed-up cooked food, lots of bodies and stale air instantly fills my first breath once inside. Wooden lockers and a mural cover the plain walls. Inside the mud room I help unbundle Sasha, taking off his turquoise hat and unbuttoning his jacket. We put “indoor” shoes on each child and then the nanny tells Mai and me it is time to go away.
Paul tells me I am invited to tea and cookies. Mai and I walk down the long hallways looking for the open door, but instead we find thirteen children in the playroom. Russian dolls and other various Russian toys sit in a gigantic doll house, a Persian rug covers the floor, a miniature playhouse with a slide sits in the corner, and a kitchenette awaits a child’s presence over by the window. Each of the thirteen toddlers find someone from Concordia to befriend as new people enter the room. Smiles from both the two-year-olds and the twenty-year-olds add joyful character to the room. The moment lasts ever so briefly as teatime calls.
With the iron gate ahead of me, I notice the landscape at the orphanage looks a little nicer from the yard work. A satisfied feeling, both from the tea and the time with the babies, makes me want to come back to observe and learn again. I look back at the building to see the balcony and eight bibs hanging on a clothes line to dry. The thirteen children, all lined up against the glass look out the upstairs window. These children will continue to go around and around, along the pathway encircling their orphanage and eventually from one orphanage or foster home to the next. I will continue to pray that the children looking out the window will find and take root in Jesus and His glorious love, trusting that His love always stays in their hearts and will never wander around and around.