Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Russia (4)
The 24th Hostel for Orphan Children

The 24th Hostel for Orphan Children was my favorite stop of the day. This was a place that could have been awful, but wasn’t, largely thanks to the progressive attitudes of the staff. The principal, in particular, was strongly child-focused and was able to make his positive attitude pervasive throughout the facility. (As a former school principal, I knew the questions that I wanted answered, and I was very impressed by his answers and those of the teaching staff and the students.)

The Hostel took in children from age six through nineteen. Institutions such as The House of the Child (discussed earlier) would send their six-year-olds on to organizations of this type. The Hostel was also populated by other orphans, children pulled in from off of the streets, and those who had been removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect. Children picked up on the street by police were first sent to an interim agency that screened them and tried to get as much background information as possible. They were then sent to facilities such as the 24th Hostel for Orphan Children for training, education, and possible adoption. Street children entered with issues that the children who came straight from their homes or orphanages usually did not possess. Their problems often included drug and alcohol use, and a higher degree of difficulty in adjusting to the structured environment.

The principal described adoption as being a complicated and slow process. When temporary or permanent homes were being sought for a child, birth families were normally contacted first and evaluated as a resource. Foster and adoptive parents received no special training, but all were investigated and thoroughly vetted. The government paid these families 1,400 rubles per adoptive or foster child. Most of these legal guardians had children of their own, and had experience with children. The principal stated that a young couple without children would not even be considered as legal guardians. Any child placed in foster care retained all of his or her rights as an orphan.

Due to the fact that these children were older, not many wound up being adopted. We were told that it was more common for foreign nationals to adopt from this facility than for Russian families to adopt. In the ten years preceding our visit, eight of their children had been adopted in Spain, four in Belgium, and one in America. The principal told us proudly that the one sent to America had been a great success.

The main goal of the Hostel was to prepare children to live independently. There was an agreement with a textile factory that trained kids to do factory work, and they also learned cooking and home living skills. Children who completed eleven basic classes had a right at the age of fourteen to go into a profession and have an independent life. Even though the young people had a legal right to leave the Hostel at age fourteen, social workers and others at the school encouraged them to stay. The school considered itself a failure if kids left before being prepared to live on their own.

Youth who finished the program at the Hostel were given housing priority when they exited the program. Everyone who finished was guaranteed a home of some sort, an important perk considering the huge homelessness problem in Russia at that time.

Education was an important function of the Hostel. The principal noted that older students who entered from the streets usually had difficulty hitting a high academic performance level. Social workers and counselors were on staff to help children adapt to the environment. Approximately ten to fifteen percent of the students, however, had gone on to advanced education. The principal said that three former students at the Hostel had become instructors there: a physical education teacher, a softball coach, and a dance instructor.

Youth at the Hostel had to leave at age nineteen, but the government continued to monitor them and offer assistance until they reached the age of twenty-three.

Children at this facility appeared to be treated very well. They told our group that the food was good and that they were fed six times a day – including snacks. They talked about their annual talent contest that featured singing, dancing, and poetry reading. They also talked about sports that were available to them including cross country and Alpine skiing. Sponsors would help send them to the Crimea for Alpine skiing. We were told that the school had won the Area Sports Championship eight times. The staff credited the talent and sports activities as helping problematic kids to fit in at the school.

The principal stressed that this was not an elitist school, but he noted with pride that it had been rated number twelve out of over one hundred similar institutions.

The children and youth were very open to our visit. It was obvious that they enjoyed our interest in what they were doing. It was a comfortable setting with very enthusiastic kids. The principal said that he felt the school was successful because the faculty had created a stress free environment and the young people felt that they had found a home. Many of those kids entered from off of the street, often against their will, and they had to be won over by the staff. The main strategy that the staff used to tame these youths was kindness. The 24th Hostel for Orphan Children stood as a testament to the power of kindness and caring.

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