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Children from an orphanage make soap bubbles on July 7 during a trip to the Water Museum in Kyiv.
Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic and other minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities and those living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U. S.?Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.
Twelve-year-old Anastasia ended up in an orphanage after her father died and her mother became an alcoholic. The Kyiv Post is not publishing Anastasia’s full name as she is a minor.
Two years ago she met a new friend, who, step-by-step, has been since helping the girl adjust to the changes in her life.
When 30-year-old business consultant Maria Kvitkovska came for the first time to Anastasia’s orphanage in Velykopolovetske, a village about 100 kilometers southwest from Kyiv, she realized “it shouldn’t be a one-off visit.” She decided to become Anastasia’s friend, to support her, and to visit her regularly.
“Children need to have their own, personal adult,” Kvitkovska said.
Kvitkovska is a volunteer at My Friend, an initiative launched by the non-governmental organization Detdom.info eight years ago to help children who have been removed from dysfunctional families and who now live in orphanages.
Aimed at providing individual support to kids, and to help them to find adult friends to rely on, the project includes over 100 volunteers of various age and occupations. They visit kids in seven orphanages in Kyiv, Poltava and Zhytomyr Oblasts, organize events for them and help them overcome fears and difficulties.
Anastasia is a quiet girl, who loves school for learning new things and dreams of traveling to the United States. Like the other children in the orphanage, Anastasia rarely smiles and is not very communicative. Kvitkovska says that these kids are rather closed because they know that “nobody cares about them and their emotions.”
She says that Anastasia is very anxious and scared of everything because there’s no adult around who can protect her.
“Sometimes she calls me on the phone up to 30 times in a row,” Kvitkovska told the Kyiv Post.
When children are taken to orphanages in Ukraine, their parents sometimes keep custody and therefore visit their kids occasionally or take them home for weekends and holidays. Although many kids face difficulties at home, including poverty, parents’ drinking problems, and lack of attention, they love coming home and always look forward to it.
Kvitkovska says it is because the children’s love for their parents is unconditional.
“No matter what happens, children will always love their parents and try to win their love back,” she says.
As Anastasia’s friend, Kvitkovska is helping the girl rebuild her relationship with her mother. Kvitkovska says that she doesn’t want to compete with the girl’s parent and that’s why she spends time with Anastasia either at the orphanage or at home with her mother.
Anastasia says that Kvitkovska is a good friend.
“She pays attention to me and helps in times of trouble,” the girl says.
According to Anastasia, her relationship with her mother has got much better since she met Kvitkovska. Her mother quit drinking and takes Anastasia home every weekend.
“She (Kvitkovska) talked to us a lot and we realized some things,” the girl says.
Now Anastasia’s mother wants to take her back from the orphanage and bring her home on a permanent basis.
Alona Hrebennikova, the coordinator of the My Friend initiative, says that after many years of volunteering and visiting orphanages, she realized what children really needed.
“They don’t lack cookies and sweets. They lack love, attention, and care,” she says.
That is why, apart from organizing cultural and entertainment events and bringing things and food to kids, in 2009 Detdom.info launched the initiative to provide kids with adult friends who support them.
Although it might seem difficult to find a common ground with children who are closed, Hrebennikova says that “it’s not that hard to be someone’s friend.”
However, participating in such a program is a big responsibility for a volunteer. They are carefully selected.
To join My Friend, volunteers have to fill in a questionnaire, undergo an interview and attend a two-day training course held by Hrebennikova and other coordinators on the psychology of children from the orphanages, and how to communicate with them.
Hrebennikova says that it’s important to listen to the children, get to know them, determine how to help and then figure out a plan of actions. The help usually includes friendly support, assistance in education, and social skills development.
Organizers also advise not to “buy” friendship: to avoid giving the children presents before becoming friends.
Friendship that lasts
A friendship built through My Friend is expected to last. In the same way parents help their kids even when they become adults, volunteers should support their younger friends through their lives.
In its eight-year history, My Friend has helped over 150 children.
Andrii Kuzmych, now a 22-year-old college student, is one of them. When he was 17, Kuzmych lived in an orphanage in Poltava Oblast. Through the program he met a friend, who mentored him and later became his godmother. They still keep in touch, and Kuzmych feels grateful to her and says that he wouldn’t have been who he is now without her help.
“She supported me in any situation,” he says.
Kuzmych says that the program’s volunteers always told him to study, be purposeful and plan his future. Today he goes to the agricultural college in Poltava and says that he wouldn’t have entered it if he didn’t have these friends.
His personality has changed a lot due to the communication with them, he says.
“They were all different and I learned how to find a common ground with anybody,” he said. “I became open and bold.”
Kvitkovska says that children growing up in orphanages lack close relationships and can’t learn how to build them. That’s why she believes that “every child needs a family.”
And though volunteers can’t replace parents, they help out their younger friends as much as they can, she says.
To become a volunteer or support the project contact the coordinator Alona Hrebennikova via phone 050 416 12 48 or send an email to email@example.com. Follow the link for detailed information www.detdom.info.
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