Saturday, April 30, 2011

Operation Special Baby House No. 40 and the Upsala Circus Juggling Balls

Initially I didn’t include my experiences with either the Special Baby House No. 40 or the Upsala Circus in St. Petersburg, Russia on my blog, thinking it wouldn’t be very Mother-Teresa-like to toot my horn over good works performed in a land far away.  But now I realize:  a) I’m a far cry from Mother Teresa; and b) the other people involved in bringing joy to kids in Russia deserve a shout-out before this blog comes to an end soon.  So here goes.

It all started back in the States.  I knew I was going to be in Russia for Christmas, so I thought, in the spirit of the holidays, perhaps there would be an opportunity for me to spread some holiday cheer there.  I started poking around on the internet and discovered that Russia has approximately 700,000 children living in orphanages.  That’s like the entire population of San Francisco.  And, I learned, many of the children are “social orphans,” meaning their parents are alive but have given them up for one reason or another. 

At the same time, on a website called idealist.org, I ran across an organization in St. Petersburg, Russia called Upsala Circus.  Upsala is a German-based organization that works with disadvantaged kids in Russia.  Essentially, it takes kids off the streets and keeps them off by teaching them how to become circus performers.

On the orphan front, I agonized for weeks over what to do.  I knew I couldn’t go to Russia empty-handed with all those kids in need, but figuring out what to bring and how to bring it presented challenges.  I went on to a website called orphanage.org and found a list of orphanages, or so-called “baby houses,” in St. Petersburg.  There were dozens listed, but one in particular caught my eye.  It was Special Baby House No. 40 and, according to the website, it had over 60 children living there.  I was leaving for Russia on my 40th birthday, so I knew this Special Baby House No. 40 was the one.

I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida—and have many friends and family there—so I thought, since I’d be flying out of Tampa International, it would be neat to collect toys from St. Petersburg, Florida to bring to children in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Thus began Operation Special Baby House No. 40:  Love and Kisses from St. Petersburg, Florida; the “kisses” part being holiday-wrapped Hershey Kisses to bring along with the toys.  At the same time, the Upsala Circus responded to my inquiry and told me that the kids could always use new juggling balls.

A Florida family that helped.
I sent out a call for help to friends and family, and by the time I boarded the plane, I had a huge duffel bag filled with little dolls, Hot Wheels, Lego pens, Slinkies, harmonicas, wooden trains and planes, and the like, along with five sets of red-green-and-yellow juggling balls, courtesy of my sister in Cleveland.  The airline allowed me one free bag to check, and soon the collection was on its way to Russia.

Now here’s the problem I faced on the other side.  I never contacted the orphanage to tell them I was coming.  I only had an address and phone number, and I don’t speak Russian.  I just figured I would figure it out, and it would all work out once I was in St. Petersburg.

First night in the Russian St. Petersburg
By the time I reached Russia, though, I was feeling less confident.  I knew traveling in Russia was going to be tough, but I hadn’t expected it to be quite so.  For three days, the country just kicked my butt:  practically no one spoke English; I didn’t know the Cyrillic alphabet; I wandered through the streets constantly lost and falling down on the ice and snow; and it was freezing.  I couldn’t even find the supermarket that was supposedly just around the corner from my hostel.  How was I supposed to find this freaking Baby House?  By then I had learned from Google Russia that the Baby House was clear across the city.  But even if on the off chance there were actually street signs to guide the way, I couldn’t read them.

Plus I had another concern.  Something about the cold, harsh nature of Russia got me to worrying that maybe the people there wouldn’t take too kindly to a do-gooder American coming in with a bunch of toys for their orphans.  Or, worse, what if I couldn’t get the toys directly to the kids, and they fell in the wrong hands?

For three nights the balls and toys remained tucked under my bunk bed while I tried to think of what to do.  Finally, I went to my hostel administrator, Oksana, and confessed to what was under my bed.  At first I thought she looked angry-surprised, but then I saw she was actually choked up and speechless.  The next morning, she had the principal of Special Baby House No. 40 on the phone, and plans were made for someone at the hostel to escort me there in two days.

Meanwhile, I prepared for the Operation’s execution.  I bought transparent freezer bags and, with ribbon brought from home, worked an assembly line on the floor of my hostel, placing the toys and Hershey Kisses together in a bag, and then tying the bag with a ribbon.  I did this 69 times.  It took hours.  


Soon thereafter, Ksenia, another sweet girl working in the hostel, met me to take me to the Baby House.  Together we boarded the metro bound for Primorskaya, the last stop on the blue line on Vasilevsky Island, a suburb to the north of St. Petersburg proper.

We found the Special Baby House with the help of locals and walked up to find some kids playing outside on a playground covered with snow.  The first child to greet us was a little boy of about four.  His deformed legs and feet required him to use a tiny, green metal walker.  He walked up to us using it, wearing a huge smile.  The next little girl I saw appeared to have Downs Syndrome.  Soon I discovered that all of the children living in this particular Baby House were physically or developmentally disabled in some way. 

Ksenia and I were invited in to meet the principal, and then a member of the medical staff escorted us around to play Santa.  It’s hard for me to describe what happened next without becoming emotional.  The kids screamed with excitement and tore into their toys and kisses.  One kid went absolutely nuts over his new Slinky.  Several of them hugged and kissed us, and shouted “spasiba,” Russian for “thank you.” 





Ksenia with a very excited boy.



Outside in the play-yard a sweet little girl kept saying something to me in Russian that I didn’t understand.  Ksenia translated:  “She wants you to pick her up.”  So I did.  I felt such a rush of compassion for this little girl in a Russian orphanage whose wish was to be held by a stranger from America.  I didn’t want to let her go.



I left feeling completely stunned.  I was barely able to speak, which is not at all in my nature, as many of you know.  I went back to the hostel thinking of the visit constantly, and feeling grateful for the opportunity.

Ana and Oksana
Later in the week, Oksana drove me to the Upsala Circus to deliver the juggling balls.  I met Larissa, Upsala’s director, who told me more about the organization.  I learned that Upsala teaches the children in the program to give back; the kids themselves often perform for other disadvantaged kids and the elderly.

Oksana and I were invited to sit through the kids’ practice.  These kids—ranging from around 8 to 18—were absolutely fantastic with their tumbling, dancing, and gymnastic-like moves.  I was told that the group had recently received a donation of juggling balls in October from the First Lady of Germany, Bettina Wulff, and now my sister’s juggling balls were added to the mix.  The kids wanted to perform with their new juggling balls for us.  It was—in a word—cool.


Upsala kids with juggling balls from America.
Did all this bring me any closer to the gates of heaven?  Who knows.  I did spend several years as a corporate lawyer, so I’m not exactly sure where that’s going to land me.

But for the rest of my time on Earth, at least, I’ll never forget the looks on those kids’ faces in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Of course I’m thankful to all the people in the two St. Petersburgs (and to my sister in Cleveland) who made it all happen.