Russia (OO) – Every 2.2 seconds, another orphan ages out of care. In the Saint Petersburg region of Russia, one ministry is working diligently to help those orphan graduates learn about family, adulthood, and the love of God.
While government-based institutional care is not optimal for those children, Natasha Votyakova of Orphan Outreach’s Russian NGO says they’ve been provided shelter, clothing, and food. What few of them have been provided is an understanding of connection and the resources needed to successfully navigate adulthood. That’s why Orphan Outreach focuses its attention to orphan graduates.
Aging out in Russia is not necessarily dependent on an age, but rather on the educational level the child has achieved. Once a child had completed nine years of school, they are eligible for basic vocational training. Should the child decide to stay to receive additional education, they will “graduate” from the orphanage after 11th grade.
Natasha says it’s very difficult for orphans to survive in a world outside the four walls of the institution. “The statistics are not good at all. They say that, within the first five years after the graduation, 10% at least try to commit suicide.” And more than half of all orphan graduates will end up succumbing to drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and organized crime.
Orphan Outreach’s ministry efforts begin before the orphan ages out. “We start at the orphanages so the kids can get to know us. In some places, we work with volunteer groups from local churches. And we also have mission trips that come and are able to minister to the kids while they’re still at the orphanage.
“Our goal, of course, is to change their lives, transform their lives, from the perspective of the love of God and giving them that hope. That the Heavenly Father is there for them, no matter how many abandonments they’ve experienced in their lives.”
The ministry team then talks to the orphan graduates about core values that will help them succeed in life. Local role models are also introduced to the children so they can talk to someone who has overcome the odds through faith and focus.
Russia provides free education at every level for orphans who have aged out, and provides accommodation for those who struggle educationally. But Natasha says even that can be too much for some of the children. And the benefits are only temporary.
“All the subsidies, or all the scholarships or pensions or whatever they were receiving from the government – at the age of 23, they don’t get anything anymore.” Many orphans will begin their journey at a vocational school, but most find they need additional education to survive. Benefits rarely provide for that education and for living expenses. Natasha remembers one young woman who had to face the choice between and education and survival. “We’ve been helping her with a part-time job and with expenses for her apartment.”
If the orphan has no home to return to, the government provides an apartment. Those children are more fortunate than the ones who have been left some sort of housing from family members. They receive no additional benefits from the state, and the living conditions are often less than livable. Updating those apartments is out of the question financially. “So we try to get them into other programs that will help improve their living conditions.”
Orphan Outreach’s Russian NGO also works to provide the orphan graduates with medical and dental assistance. Natasha continues, “Sometimes we literally are taking the orphans to the clinics to learn to make appointments with the doctors because they’ve never done it before.” Program directors teach the orphans how to pay bills and purchase food. “Just teach them whatever parents would teach regular kids in the family.”
The care for the orphan graduates goes beyond budgeting and basic life skills to relationships. Natasha says she and her team often help with counseling about love and family.
“We have very often that two orphans will marry and start a family, but they are so inexperienced with relationships that we’re trying to teach them how people interact in a family.”
Abuse might be the only thing the orphans have seen or experienced, so wives won’t think to share when they are being abused because they believe it to be common. And a high percentage of the girls, upon leaving the orphanage, will get pregnant. Natasha shares, “And when they choose to come to us, we help them through that pregnancy, whether they are married or not, we try to help them and persuade them not to leave the baby and to start caring for the baby.”
Breaking the cycle of orphanhood is a priority for the ministry. Natasha’s eyes fill with tears as she reflects on the struggle. “They’ve been raised in an institution, they have a baby, and after a while it’s too hard – so they think, ‘I’ll give up the baby because well, that’s what happened to me.’ But with the program in place, we see those moms learn to love their babies and care for their babies and want better for them. And that’s a gift to see that the Lord is working in their souls and in their hearts and in their minds.
“We provide whatever help is needed – whether it’s relationships, whether it’s financial, whatever is needed the most. Medical. Whatever it takes. They do need a lot of education in just very simple things that seem everyday life for most people – but for them it’s all strange, it’s all different, it’s all that they have never experienced before.”
Natasha says it’s beautiful to see the transformation in lives over time – the way the orphan graduates learn to study and take care of responsibilities and love their families well. “They’re caring, they’re loving, their children are growing well. It’s such a big reward.”
Prayer is the first step in caring for orphan graduates in Russia, according to Natasha.
“Please pray for them, that they will be given the knowledge that they are not alone in this world, that there are people who pray for them, that there’s always hope in the love of God – that He will be there. He will not abandon them.”
The Orphan Graduate Sponsorship program helps those orphans receive the care and resources they need. The way the sponsorship program helps is different for every graduate, based on their unique story.
Natasha loves the personalized focus. “Sometimes the money is used to remodel an apartment so the graduate can live there, or sometimes the money is used to repair teeth or pay for school books. Our goal is to provide wrap-around support for those kids.”
She also encourages people to visit Russia and spend time with the graduates. “They love it when mission teams come to visit. Just one visit from one person can change the life of a child. The orphan graduates will have photos of their new friends on their walls, and they pray for them.
“Everything matters in the lives of these kids. Every act of kindness and attention, of care and love.”