The Horror of Being a Child in Putin’s Russia

The Detroit Free Press reports:

The conditions were unlike anything Jody Payne had ever seen.

Russian children as young as 6 were living in orphanages — dark, institutional buildings — with inadequate food, hand-me-down clothing and little love or emotional support.

And most would fall into crime, prostitution or drugs when they left the orphanages at age 15 or 16, Payne would learn after stumbling onto a Web site in 2003 detailing the orphans’ plight.

“It was one of those things that when you read it, you need to do something,” said Payne, 38, of Brighton, a sixth-grade teacher at Novi Meadows Elementary School. Payne began visiting orphanages in the country in 2004 and created a summer camp for children.

He is planning his fourth trip this summer to continue the camp for about 40 children at two orphanages in Kostroma, located outside Moscow.

Payne is taking a fellow teacher, Tom Michalski, along. They are trying to raise $14,000 to help pay travel costs and purchase bicycles, clothing and other items for the children. They’ve raised about half through private donations.

“Their lives have been a lot of false promises,” Payne said of the children. “And they are so desperate for love and attention.”

Novi Meadows students are donating cans and bottles — Michalski calls himself “dime-at-a-time Tom” — and there’s a bowl-a-thon scheduled June 1.

According to statistics from the Russian Ministry of Education, there are about 700,000 orphans in Russia. About 90% were taken away from abusive, alcoholic or drug-addicted parents, according to Payne’s Web site. Payne said most receive the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

“I really believe we can make a difference,” said Payne, who added that he helped one former orphan pursue a nursing career and helped another get a heater for an apartment.

Michalski, 29, of Walled Lake said he decided to make the trip after hearing Payne talk about his experiences.

“I really started to care about these kids,” Michalski, said. “I wanted to help.”

In 2004, Payne visited an orphanage in Svirstroy, a village about 150 miles from St. Petersburg. He spent six weeks helping set up a job skills program through a now-defunct charity, but the program never quite got off the ground.

He turned the program into a summer camp because he said the orphans needed attention and adult role models. He returned in 2006 and 2007 to an orphanage in Kostroma.

This summer, Payne and Michalski say they will take the children who rarely leave the orphanage swimming and to a local market. Payne said he plans to bring his laptop with DVDs dubbed in Russian so the children can watch movies. Payne said he often just sits and listens to the children, who talk incessantly in Russian — even though he barely understands a word.

“I give them the attention they never get,” Payne said.

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