Jenya Polonskaya Haps
In 1994 Children's HopeChest was founded to provide practical help and God's hope to Russian orphans. We started in the Vladimir Region and expanded to the Kostroma Region in 1999. Currently in the two regions we are ministering to 2,500 children from ages four to eighteen. We have developed a holistic approach to address the physical, medical, emotional, educational, and spiritual needs of the children. First, we seek to ease the lives of children in the orphanages by providing humanitarian aid, by bringing containers of food, clothes, shoes, and medical supplies, and by doing construction, remodeling orphanage buildings, including showers and bathrooms.
Another main focus in our ministry is to touch the hearts of the children. We have several programs that address spiritual life: summer and winter camps, vacation Bible studies, and discipleship programs that help children understand Christian values and apply them in their lives. We provide libraries and computers to the orphanages that help children with educational and career options. We also sponsor art contests and sports events. In addition, through our ministry American churches "adopt" orphanages, providing wonderful opportunities for involvement in the lives of children. Assistance to older orphans through transitional family centers is another approach that we have developed. Finally, we establish coffee houses and programs for orphans who are enrolled in technical schools.
Orphanage Graduates at Risk
Since the very start of our ministry in Russia we have been concerned with orphanage graduates. From the beginning directors, administrators, educators, and children came to us with sad stories about graduates. Russian officials have documented that 70 percent turn to crime and ten percent commit suicide. Most become homeless, few find jobs, and 80 percent of orphan graduate marriages fail. This shows the scope and the depth of the problem. For many years it was believed that an orphanage could substitute for a family. But recent findings by psychologists have shown that what actually happens is that one risk is replaced by another. The risk of being abandoned or abused is replaced by the risk of institutional deprivation, dependency, attachment disorders, and physical and mental delays.
What Children Do Not Learn in Orphanages
Unfortunately, children do not have the opportunity to develop life skills in orphanages--how to do grocery shopping, how to budget, how to take care of their bodies, how to do laundry, and other practical skills. Nor do the orphanages help to develop social skills. Almost 90 percent of orphanage workers are women, so children do not see the positive role of men in life, the relationship between wife and husband, or between adults and children. They do not experience any type of family relationship. Children do not see examples of conflict resolution because orphanage workers do not resolve their differences in front of the children. Orphans divide the world between themselves and everyone else. In many ways the outside world is to them alien and hostile.
Orphan graduates do not know how to find a job; and even if they are helped to find a job, they lack the skills to keep the job. They feel dependent all the time and they need to be guided. Low self-esteem is a very common characteristic of orphans. The children also often develop antisocial behavior, including cheating, stealing, and hazing. Then when they have to leave the institution, they do not have the support of a family or a church. There are no social services that will help these children succeed and find their place in life.
Family Centers for Older Orphans
When we started in 1994 we felt these children needed help in the transition to independent living through a safe, protective, family-based environment that would give them time and professional help in order to become productive and successful. It took Children's HopeChest almost two years to develop legal guidelines, policies, and procedures to purchase housing for two transitional family centers, and to recruit and train house parents. The goal of the family center is to help children develop practical and social skills in order to help them integrate into society to become productive and successful, and to learn how to create healthy families, in this way stopping the cycle of orphanhood. The family center is a group of five to eight young people, 14- to 23-years-old living in a large family environment for a period of one to four years. It is very important that the family, both parents and children, be supported by a team of professionals.
In the fall of 1998 we started our first family center, specifically geared toward boys with developmental challenges. Some of the boys came from orphanages for children with learning disabilities. The specific needs of these children helped us develop the focus for the program which is geared toward simple country life and farm work. The eight boys in this family center learn such trades as carpentry, electrical or mechanical work, cooking, and farming. We purchased an apartment and a garden plot for this family. They learn how to grow vegetables, how to can food for the winter, and how to care for animals, which also helps with attachment disorders. We also believe it is an essential part of life to be connected to a church. There is a small Orthodox church in that settlement, and the boys volunteer their time and labor every day to help restore that church. The priest from this church lives in the same apartment block as the family center, and these boys are the only people from the community who actually volunteer their time to restore the church.
The second family center, adjacent to an orphanage, was created for higher potential girls. They will continue their education to become accountants, educators, secretaries, nurses, and veterinarians. Members of the Wesleyan Church in Vladimir come to this family center and orphanage on a weekly basis. The girls, as well as the boys from the other nearby family center, participate in all the events that the Wesleyan Church provides for them. We also have an American missionary as a staff member of Children's HopeChest who conducts discipleship programs with the children in the family centers.
The Value of the Family Setting
I would like to emphasize the role the family plays in the lives of the children in this critical transition. It is only in the family setting that we can learn how to be a mother and wife, a father and husband, and how to interact as husband and wife. It is only in the family that we can learn how to love and care for children. By living in the family setting, orphans develop family skills that help stop the cycle of orphanhood. Children who learn healthy family relationships will then be able to create their own healthy families. Children have opportunities to do what any normal family does: take care of themselves, take care of others, cook, and do laundry. They develop social skills as parents resolve their conflicts in front of the children. The children have an opportunity to develop relationships with their neighbors and with the community. In fact, the families are part of the community.
One very important component of success is the professional team that assists each family center, consisting of the orphanage director, orphanage workers, social and medical workers, and the orphanage psychologist. The children, though they live in the family center, are still part of the orphanage, so they benefit from what the orphanage can provide. Of course, the surrogate parents are part of the team, as well as the child protective services inspector. So the transitional family center has become a new type of family-based care. It has strong support from governmental agencies. The state provides money for food and clothes and helps place the children in schools.
Guidelines, Policies, and Training from Scratch
Another advantage of the family center is that the house parents are trained for the job. This training is very important because caring for teenage orphans is very different from raising one's own children, and very different from caring for teenagers in general. Institutionalized teenagers have very specific needs. We train house parents to meet those needs to the best of their ability. The family center has the support of a partnership between a non-governmental organization and governmental agencies. Children's HopeChest is officially registered in Russia as the Nadezhda Fund. This charity, which means "hope" in Russian, initiated, developed, and monitors the program of the transitional family centers. Being a new program in the regions where we work, we had to develop legal guidelines, policies, and procedures in partnership with the regional department of education. There are special requirements for the caseworker, who is more than just a practicing psychologist. This person needs special understanding of both teenagers and institutionalized children because these young people have specific needs that are very different from just teenagers or just institutionalized children. Since it is difficult to find such a specialist in a small town or region, as a solution we train caseworkers for the position. In the family centers we decided to make conditions better than average to help these children aim higher. They will have a model of a better life and they will have something to hope for and something to strive for.
The Critical Choice of House Parents
Another challenge is to find the right families to work with the children in this program. We need two couples per center, one for weekdays and a relief couple for weekends, special occasions, and holidays. Parents cannot work seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 12 months a year. We have set very high criteria for the parents. Because they will be living with the children every day and the children will look up to them, these couples need to be very positive role models. House parents have to be Christians, have to be emotionally secure, have to be in good health, and, of course, should have no history of child abuse. They must have some professional experience in working with children and they must be able to work well with the whole team serving the family center. They have to be over 35 years old. Sometimes I am asked to consider younger couples with their own children. Wouldn't it be good for orphans living in the family center to see how a young family takes care of its children? Not really. The age difference is helpful so that the children will look up to their parents as parents, not as buddies. They need to learn respect for people who are old enough to be their parents. Also, we would like to avoid possible conflicts between the foster children in the family center and the biological children of the house parents. We only accept couples whose children are already grown or who have no children.
In selecting house parents we depend upon word-of-mouth networking and TV, radio, and newspaper advertisements. After receiving applications, we provide questionnaires to couples. At that level we screen families for health issues, criminal background, and their motivation. Next we conduct initial interviews with couples, individually and together. The couples then are required to complete 36 hours of training before we make a final decision. What parents learn during the training helps them understand the program. It helps them to ask questions that they might never have asked themselves before and it gives them a chance to back out in some cases. After training we conduct final interviews and select couples. Some may wonder why 36 hours of training is necessary. Why so long? So many issues have to be covered. They learn how to deal with anger and aggression and children who are grieving from separation and abandonment. They learn how to manage children in crisis without aggravating the situation and how best to communicate with children at risk. They learn how to develop trust and how to establish interpersonal boundaries. Understanding the need to clarify family rules is also part of the training.
Choosing the Right Children for the Program
Selecting children is also an important issue. The program is not geared toward just any child. We recommend avoiding children with severe mental and physical challenges. Children in orphanages may be grouped into three categories: first, children who have mild emotional disturbances but who are motivated and want to succeed; second, children with borderline mental challenges and serious learning disabilities; and third, children who require treatment for severe mental problems. The best children to choose for transitional family centers are in the first category. Sometimes it can work to choose children from the second category, provided they are very cooperative and really want to succeed. This is why cooperation is such a key point in this work. Transition centers require teamwork, and the child is part of that team.
The Individual Development Plan
A primary tool for success in this program is an individual development plan for each child that is developed and monitored by a caseworker. Every member of the team that works with a child evaluates and gives approval for each individual plan. The team explains the individual treatment plan to the child, who also signs the agreement. This individual plan or contract states goals and the means for reaching those goals. This plan has various components, including spiritual, health, emotional, behavioral, social, and educational. By means of the transition center and the individual plan we expect young people to develop the ability to make confident and positive decisions, to develop social and independent living skills, and to learn how to form healthy families with healthy family relationships.
A Success Story
I would like to share a success story from our transition centers. Ivan (not his real name) came into our program when he graduated from an orphanage in the Vladimir Region. He was diagnosed with mental disability and had been a frequent runaway. His orphanage director had little hope for his future. But in just two years in our program Ivan made remarkable progress. He studied cooking at a technical school, and after two years in the program was able to find a job as a cook close to the family center. He developed good relationships with the other employees and now works as a cook in a Moscow hospital. He also has accepted Christ as his Savior and has been baptized.
Jenya Polonskaya Haps is the HealthHope Manager for Children's HopeChest and lives in Warrenville, IL.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 2001 East-West Church and Ministry Report