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No children are someone else’s in this family – all are theirs and most loved. Photographs and videos by Andrey Glushchenko
When she got married, Valya knew for sure that she wanted two children – a boy and a girl. But destiny had something entirely different in mind. During 21 years of their life together Valya (Valentina) and Sasha (short for Alexander) brought up THIRTY children – 15 boys and 15 girls(!). Nowadays the parents are also grandparents of 14 grandchildren (!), and when the whole family comes together – there are no fewer than 58 relatives.
Having visited the town of Melitopol in the Zaporozhye Region, ReporterUA correspondents learned how the family has grown quite as much, what the secret of a happy family is and what she’s like, their own MUM.
Veni, vidi, in love…
All of Valentina’s life has a certain fairytale feel about it. She comes from a big family of six children, and she first heard from her future husband via a letter which arrived from… an Army unit based in Buryatia. It appeared that her brother who was in the Army at the time, had shown her picture to a friend of his. Sasha saw her picture and… that was it! He wrote Valya a letter, looking to establish written exchange but a shy girl was adamant that she wasn’t interested: “I wouldn’t want to preoccupy myself with someone I haven’t even met”. A year has passed, her brother came back from the Army, and so did Sasha. It wasn’t long before the friend visited Valya’s brother, and…
Valentina and Alexander
-After knowing each other for three days we submitted a notice of marriage at a local Registry Office. At first Sasha wanted to go back home and come back in a year’s time. 'He left but never actually departed', smiles Valentina.
When Valya and Sasha got married, the bride knew for sure she wanted just two children – a boy and a girl.
Their first son was born in 1981, in 1982 another one came along. Yet another son was born in 1985, a daughter in 1988 and a son in 1990.
Their foster family story started when Valya and Sasha already had five children of their own – that was 21 years ago exactly, and their eldest son was just 8 years old. After having her fourth baby Valentina went on maternity leave that is still ongoing!
I wish it were me...
When they had their fifth child, Valya and Sasha were given a 4-bedroom flat and…
'There was a family in our block on flats (right underneath us), they were bringing up six adopted sons. Once I mentioned it to my husband: “I wish I could adopt children as well”. And he replied without hesitation: ”Would you like to? Let’s do this”. We wanted to adopt two girls but ended up with a boy and four girls – this is how our family-type children’s home started,' says Valentina.
They started adopting and just couldn’t stop
'At first, out adopted kids’ siblings were surfacing. Then the social services started offering children to us. I couldn’t say no to the children,' she says.
When they had as many as thirteen children, Valentina had a sixth baby of her own. The little girl was named after her mum – Valentina. It was children’s decision.
Valya with her niece
Now their daughter is 18 years old – these days she’s the eldest child still living with the parents. Kolya is the youngest – he’s just 7, and a first-grader. Sixteen children are grown up now and have their own families. They already made their Mum and Dad grandparents 14 times. Another more children just live separately.
7-year-old Kolya and Nikolas
‘We adopted our last child last year, his name is Nikolas. He was born in Greece, and he’s a foreign national, so we’re busy arranging a Ukrainian citizenship for him which must be done within six months,’ father Sasha told us.
Valya tells us that all her children were adopted under the age of three. All of them adopted their family name, Kolenyuk.
‘We took on kids from Melitopol, Energodar, Berdyansk and even Zaporozhye. You have a children’s home there called Solnyshko. Sometimes we would even take toddlers from babies home, at the age of two or three they still didn’t know how to eat without assistance – they only knew how to drink from a bottle. Lately we tried to take kids from Melitopol,’ says Mum Valya.
One of the eight children’s bedrooms
When I grow up, I want to meet my Mum and Dad and teach them how to live their lives
Valya’s children know that they are adopted but they never feel like outsiders. Sometimes journalists would come and ask them whether they’re adopted or our own. And children didn’t know what they meant.
‘A kid would stand in front of the journalists deep in his thoughts, and older children would give him a nudge: “Are you kidding? You’re ours! Our own!”,’ reminiscing Mum Valya.
Many children meet their biological parents who were deprived of parental rights for the children they didn’t want. Sometime these meetings scare children, and on occasion they get upset.
‘I always tell them it’s not their fault that their parents are like that, but it will be their fault if they become the same,’ says Valentina.
Once her adopted son announced: “When I grow up, I want to meet my Mum and Dad and teach them how to live their lives…”
Melitopol Doesn’t Believe in Tears
Three years ago Mum Valentina didn’t have a lot to put on her resume, apart from secondary school and 18 years of being a mum. But in 2009 she graduated from Berdyansk Teachers University with a degree in Applied Psychology of Preschool Children. When Valentina told me her life story, for some reason I remembered a movie ‘Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears’. In particular, one of the plotlines in the movie.
Dad’s medals. Alexander Kalenyuk took part in cleaning up after Chernobyl catastrophe, he is an ex-officer of Emergencies Ministry department of the Zaporozhye Region
‘I did a distance learning course at university. My children were very understanding. But they’re just kids! When younger ones were noisy, older ones would reign them in: ‘Quiet. Mum is doing her coursework’. I usually studied at night. Sometimes one of the children got up to go to the bathroom and… ‘Mum, do you know what time it is? It’s 5am now’. I would just smile back, ‘I know, but I have exams tomorrow’,’ says Valentina.
This was an example children have in front of them. And they learned from this.
Father Sasha shows us his children’s diplomas and awards with pride
These days Mum Valya and Dad Sasha have a lot to be proud of. Their children went on to become Chief Officer of Criminal Investigation Dept. in Melitopol, doctors, engineers and programmers, hairdressers, drivers, builders, nurses, future Geography teachers and industrialists… And this is just the beginning. Valya is laughing: ‘I used to have to make time for hairdresser visits. Now I don’t have to, do I? I have my own hairdresser and doctors.
Of course, taking care of a large family is difficult at times.
Valentina remembers the time when one could only buy one or two loaves of bread. That was when she first heard the word “profiteer” aimed at her and just about escaped an attack of enraged pensioners…
‘They only sold up to two loaves of bread to each customer. Whereas I used the rationing coupons to buy 10 loaves. Sometimes old people scratched my face and shouted “Profiteer”. I was very upsetting,’ says Valentina.
At this table, made by Sasha himself, ten children get together at meal times
Today their family is well-known in Melitopol, and no one is shouting abuse at Valya’s back. Although some people still think Valya and Sasha take kids into care to get state help.
Indeed, Mum Valya get a salary as a child-minder of a family-type children’s home, and every child gets benefits from the state. But this is peanuts compared to the actual cost of shoes needed by spring for all the children of different ages. Also they need clothes. What about thirty children’s birthdays per year? Or simply the cost of providing three meals a day?
Mum Valya is preparing an afternoon snack for the children
Did you know that this family goes through a ton of potatoes every winter and 40kg of honey? Or that Mum Valya must cook 13l of borscht for dinner [she used to make 20l before – editor’s note]? Or that the favourite dish of the whole family, ravioli with mincemeat, takes 1.5 hours to make and they occupy the whole dinner table in the dining room?
This is a pan Mum uses to cook borscht for her large family
It’s an early start for Valya in the morning. At 7am children are already having their breakfast. She tries to cook it the night before.
‘You know, when children go to a summer camp and I only have myself and my husband to cook for, it doesn’t come out as tasty. I’m used to cooking industrial amounts of food. Also kids say Dad’s borscht is better than mine. Children’s favourite dishes are ravioli with mince, crepes and homemade cake. Even for birthday’s they don’t want mass-produced cakes, they want their Mum’s. All children can cook. Even boys do bake, too. One of our married sons brought us a pie once. I asked him if his wife made it, but he proudly said ‘No, Mum. I did it myself’. The birthday presents are usually made by children, and we provide food and drinks. Everyone can order what they like as well!’, tells us Valentina.
Food processor, a present from Alexey Kravchun, will be very useful to this big and closely-knit family
So the present Mum Valya got from Alexey Kravchun will come in handy, indeed. When he learned we’re going visit such a remarkable family, Alexey, CEO of ‘Toyota Centre Zaporozhye ‘Vostok Avto’, said that he would love to pass on a Women’s Day present to a woman who brought up so many children. As there aren’t many people these days prepared to accept someone else’s children into their family and bestow as much care and love on them as they do on their own children. And it’s a rare opportunity to be able to call a lady a real MOTHER…
Valentina also wishes she had a big dining room which is not available at present in the 10-room flat on the ground floor of a tower block (three flats combined into one).
Kalenyuk family including children and grandchildren
‘We would like to have a big dining room so much, so all the children and grandchildren could get together – there are 58 of us already! We were thinking of building an extension but the quote was around UAH 100,000 (around 124 US dollars), we could never afford that,’ says Valentina.
The Minister promised it by the end of the year, but didn’t specify which year…
It may sound like a cliche but their children even have to pay for public transport which could be free.
‘Kids could use their orphan IDs but most of the time they do pay. Some of them are embarrassed to show a piece of paper that says they are orphans, and others would rather pay than listen to an angry tirade from the driver or wait for a mini-bus which will take them on free of charge. I give every child money for transport to the school and back,’ says Valentina.
This big family have no car of their own. They used to have an old mini-van given to them by the fire brigade (Dad used to work as a driver for Emergencies Ministry), but eventually it became unroadworthy.
A family van is the most wished for item of the Kalenyuk family.
‘Once we had a visit from Family and Youth Minister Yury Pavlenko together with then-Governor. They had a look around and made promises… Minister promised us a car by the end of the year. We will joke about it with children: ‘He said by the end of the year but didn’t specify which year,’ tells us Dad Sasha.
Good parents have talented children
A day out costs this family dearly. So, according to Mum Valya, most of the time they get out to the countryside. A family visits a circus often – the free tickets are provided by the state.
Thanks to their dad, who was involved in Chernobyl liquidation, the children have been able to go on holiday to Italy for 15 years now.
‘For 15 years in a row 3 or 4 children go to Italy every year on ‘Sun for Children of Chernobyl’ programme,’ told us Sasha.
Alexander is Skyping with his son who lives abroad
One of adopted children of Valentina and Alexander was adopted by an Italian family.
‘Oxana was adopted by a childless Italian couple. Actually they had a child but he drowned. Oxana went there on holiday since she was seven, and they adopted her when she turned 17. At 18 she moved to Italy. Oxana comes to visit us,’ adoptive parents told us with a hint of sadness in their eyes.
Children can live with their adoptive family until the age of 23. Before almost all the children would take the surname of their adoptive parents (Kalenyuk). Recently it became much more difficult to get the paperwork sorted...
There isn’t another mum like her, you know what I mean?
Ahead of the International Women’s Day (8th March) we asked Valentina’s children to tell us about their Mum, to continue a phrase ‘My Mom is the most…’ Here is what we ended up with:
‘My Mum is the most loved, beautiful, tender, caring, smart, generous, kind, beautiful, charming…’
Of course, the list could go on for at least another twenty kind words. But mother’s happiness is not about words. What does the trick then? Mum Valentina told us.
‘It’s the best thing when a child comes to you and just calls you MUM. I wish all the women to become first of all a friend to their children. Then everything is going to be all right. Most important thing for any mother is children’s smiles and laughter in the flat. This is a real mother’s happiness,' a real mum shares her little secrets.
The eldest of the children who still live with parents, 18-year-old Valentina is very pleased she’s got so many siblings. She says having many children is fun!
‘Sometimes we fight, then make up. We help each other out. I can’t imagine being an only child. I’m going to have three of four children myself, so that my kids have someone to play with and make friends with. To have someone to love,’ promised us Valya.
The eldest daughter with her sister
Also, talking about her family, a girl couldn’t contain her emotions and true feelings. Perhaps, she was able to give us the best insight into what MUM VALYA is really like:
‘Mum is the first word. My mum is always a friend to me, and mother, too. She is everything to us. You can get a piece of advice from her or just have a chat. She’s always willing to help and explain things. She’s kind, caring, the best ever, sweet and dear to us. There isn’t another mum like her, you know what I mean?..
I Love You!
When congratulating mum Valya with an upcoming holiday, dad Sasha was concise. What more is there to say, when he’s already given her all the happiness?..
‘Valenka, we wish you health, happiness, all the best. I love you. We all love you very much,’ said Alexandr modestly.
The family made this playground in front of the house themselves