One thing that was helpful when visiting the orphanage was how the counselors would take me aside and tell me about the kids.
In the beginning, the counselor of the group I visited most often would always offer me a cup of tea. I was new to Russia, and didn't really understand the tea ritual. But I appreciated the hospitality. The only thing was that we were both rather shy. I remember telling her about wanting to give Bible lessons, and her saying that the orphanage was Orthodox and the religious education was taken care of. We would each take a sip of tea and swallow and look around the room, thinking of what to say next.
Then, even when I started visiting other groups, she would always chase me down and invite me to her group for a cup of tea. We’re both still shy, but now we’re friends on a social networking site and “like” each other’s photos, ha! :)
Another counselor to befriend me didn’t realize I was American and thought it was annoying or something that I was always wandering around forlornly trying to find kids who needed English practice. Once I was identified as a native speaker, I got VIP treatment! Hey, it opens doors, even if it isn’t always a compliment. This counselor was a very energetic type and ended up taking me under her wing. From then on she would always march the kids right to me for English, and get them properly motivated. In addition to cups of tea I soon got a full lunch, and even dinner! I’m not sure how they arranged it, as the food is rationed, but someone was looking out for me. Even though I tried to eat at home before leaving, it might be 7-8 hours before I ate again.
Anyway, while sipping tea, the counselors would tell me about various kids in their groups. I learned about why some of them had ended up in the orphanage and how they were doing in school, which ones were hoping to get adopted, etc. It really helped confirm other information I'd encountered about life in the orphanage. Except these were real-life examples.
In the present
My counselor friend Galina visited me the other day. I haven’t been to the orphanage all year, but I have been keeping in touch, especially with regards to the traffic accident.
Catching up with Galina and hearing the orphanage news reiterated what I've known about the orphans' needs for the past several years. In some ways, the situation is even worse.
- it's mainly younger kids who are adopted. Older kids have often been adopted by foreigners in the past, especially Americans...
- ....but there is currently a ban on adoption by Americans.
- domestic adoption/foster care isn't very common, nor is there much support for it in Russian society.
- kids put in foster care/adopted domestically often end up back at the orphanage.
- orphans tend to be on more of a tech school/drop-out track, and it's hard to reverse that and help them become interested in continuing their education.
- orphans who leave the orphanage get into various kinds of trouble, and girls who get pregnant sign away their parental rights upon giving birth, or give up after a few years and bring their children to the orphanage.
- "social" orphans whose parents are still alive don't get the same benefits from the state as those without parents, including a regular allowance for clothes, etc.
Please understand that these are generalizations, BUT they are general trends of which I have seen living proof.
Here is some more insight that Galina provided: kids who end up in the orphanage in their teens may be behind in school, but many have developed some delinquency in the meantime. It's hard for them to adjust to the orphanage schedule and go to school with other kids when they're used to partying or whatever. They're street-smart but a few years behind in terms of school. And it's hard for the counselors to motivate them.