January 19th, 1999     The First Trip

In the early stages of planning the trip we learned that it was not feasible to send money or "things" to Russia and expect that they would reach our group of children. Usually anything sent by mail from the U.S. is intercepted somewhere along the line, never reaching it's intended destination. One friend told us he only sends postcards. "They always get there, everyone can see that there is only a message." So we decided to take the small amount of savings we had as well as some money given to us by friends, and go there in person to make sure the children received the food they needed before winter. Tom was nervous about traveling to this part of the world with cash so I got some of those money belts they sell at REI, cut the strap off then found a seamstress who reluctantly agreed to sew one on the waist and each leg of his long johns. She did a fantastic job.

We began to gather some things that we’ thought might be important, toothbrushes, toothpaste, vitamins (enough for 6 months), Ridd shampoo, sweaters, Hot Wheels cars, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups! Although the trip was coming together nicely there was still a fair amount of anxiety on everyone's part about traveling in this part of the world in the middle of winter. Our friends at NBC Nightly News in Moscow were very supportive and kept encouraging us as our plans came together. It was like the story about the little train, We think you can - We think you can - , then, We know you can - We know you can - They had been there! They knew someone had to do something! They gave me the number of the woman at the Red Cross who had led them to that particular orphanage. She was our last link to success. But after several weeks we had not been able to connect with her by phone to get permission to visit the orphanage. Finally with the help of AT&T's Language Line Services (only $7 a minute) we were able to make the connection. The Russian Red Cross Director listened quietly as our lovely interpreter explained how we got her name and phone number, who we were and what we wanted to do. Then I had the interpreter ask permission for us to come and she started yelling, YES! - YES! - YES! - OF COURSE - OF COURSE - OF COURSE. I asked - "What do the children need?" She screamed back, EVERYTHING - EVERYTHING - EVERYTHING !!! We gave her our anticipated date of arrival, hung up the phone and did cartwheels across our living room floor!

Tom and I decided it would be best if he made the trip and I stayed behind with our 5 year old boy, Zeke. My sister, Cyndy Sullivan, went along for moral support and also to get lots of pictures. She is a professional photographer.

When the day came for Tom and Cyndy to leave there was a lot of excited-apprehension in the air. As I watched them get on the plane I wondered to myself if I was sending them off to their deaths. I said a little prayer and the waiting began.

The first call confirmed their arrival in Moscow. They were tired but very happy to be there after their 15 hour flight. They had made contact with the amazing man, Volodea, who would become their driver, translator, and friend over the next 7 days. The next morning they would travel in his van to the orphanage. There was a lot of snow on the ground.

I spent the longest 36 hours of my life waiting for their next call. When Tom called he was beyond excited - they had been to the orphanage, they had seen the children! I could tell by the tone of his voice that it was as bad, worse, than what we had expected. The kids were totally out of anything to eat except some potatoes and stale bread. The staff at the orphanage had been bringing in food from their homes to help feed the 53 children. They had not been paid for many months but continued to come and take care of these kids day after day. The following day he planned to buy food in the village and one other thing, he found out the kids only had ONE toy. A ruptured old soccer ball that was kept in the orphanage office and only brought out on special occasions. He had returned to the hotel without my sister. She had insisted on staying at the orphanage. She wanted to spend every minute she had with the kids and when she didn't back down easily after multiple requests he waved goodbye to her as she stood holding a roll of toilet paper in one hand and a granola bar in the other. She slept in the orphanage office that night, listening to the sounds of the night. Then spent the entire next day getting to know the kids and taking pictures as they went about their daily routine. Tom, Volodea and the orphanage directors spent the day shopping for food in the local village. They filled a huge truck full of food for about $500. Money goes along way there! Tom returned to the orphanage that evening and asked the directors to make a list of the things they wanted, by order of importance. Then they said good night.

When he returned the following day they presented him the list. To his amazement it read:

Then they proceeded to give him and Cyndy a tour of the place. The first stop - the children's bedrooms. Five in all, with about 60 beds total. Upon raising the linen they were shown the basketball-sized holes in the mattresses. Then they were taken to the furnace building. One furnace doing the work of two because one was broken. They were worried. "What if the other breaks, winter is here". Then to the kitchen, a big refrigerator - broken. "The parts are available but we have no money to buy them."

So the next shopping trip filled that big truck with mattresses, pillows, blankets, more food, toys and shoes. When Tom and Volodea returned to the orphanage each evening the children would eagerly help them unload the truck. When the work was done one evening Tom and Cyndy got busy handing out the Hot Wheels cars and a package of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, one for each child. Then something very amazing happened. Each child spontaneously broke his peanut butter cup in half and offered it to an adult before eating the other half! It was at that moment that Tom realized how integral this group of adults was in the care and well being of this obviously great group of children. That night when he called me from his hotel room we decided to pay a little something to each staff member. Taking care of them is as important as taking care of the kids.

One evening over dinner, (always prepared for them by the orphanage cook), the directors confided in Tom that they had gotten a letter from the state - Notification of Building Closure - unless the facility could be updated. So - this is the reason they prioritized bedding and furnaces over food! It was at that moment that Tom understood how complex this situation was. This was the reason we were sent to this little group of kids and adults in the middle of the Russian countryside. There was a lot more at stake than hunger and a lot more planned for us than we realized!

The kids loved their Hot Wheels cars and all the extra attention. They nicknamed Cyndy, "Click-Click", after the sound her camera made when she took their picture. They seemed happy, healthy, and active despite the dreadful conditions. But, they didn't know anything else.

The night before they were to leave Tom paid the staff amidst tears, laughter and hugs, $50 each. For some this was almost a years salary. When they do get paid the cleaning lady makes about $6 dollars a month, the teachers, $17, the director, $35. The children showered them with delightful little gifts they had made, baskets of birch, drawings, velveteen pillows and little pink pigs with button eyes. He left behind some money to repair the refrigerator and the furnace (which had to wait until summer). Even though he had developed a relationship with the directors he knew that the money might not be spent as intended, but he calculated the risk as low. He thanked them for opening their door, and opening their hearts and assured them that he would be back! SOON!


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Jan 19, 1999   Oct 18, 1999   Oct 23, 1999   Oct 31, 1999   Feb 14, 2000   Sep 14, 2000  

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