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Not forgotten White Rock woman returns to aid Kiev youth

February 22, 2005, 0:00 1767 www.cyc-net.org

The orphanage reeked of urine and rotten fish. The children subsisted on a diet of barley, chicken paste, potatoes and cabbage. The workers were often gruff and unfriendly. Still, Erin Irving returned to volunteer.

This summer, the 23-year-old made her second trip to a hardscrabble orphanage in Kiev to earn credits toward a community social service diploma from Douglas College and, perhaps more importantly, to help care for forgotten children.

Irving volunteered at the orphanage for six months in 2000 with Ezra, an organization she was introduced to by Bruce and Anne Elliott and their daughter Sarah while attending North Shore Alliance Church in North Vancouver.

Ezra was started by a former Ukrainian street youth, and when asked to consider a second tour of duty at the orphanage, Irving couldn't refuse. “I knew what I was getting into this time,” the White Rock woman said. “The first time I went, I was only 20, and I'd never seen anything like that before. This time it wasn't about me and my experience. It was about going there and doing what I could do for the kids.”

Most students enrolled in Douglas College's social service worker program do volunteer work placements at transition houses, hospices or addiction and mental health centres in the Lower Mainland.

When Irving requested credit for her work at Myakovska orphanage, instructor Bob Shebib was “pleasantly surprised. We were totally in favour,” he said. “We try to be flexible and accommodating for our students, and we thought it would be a good learning experience.”

At the orphanage, Irving lived in a drab apartment, an old housing project, managing weekly email contact with Shebib. “It was great to be able to have access to Bob's knowledge and use it about things like post-traumatic stress syndrome,” she said. “He helped me take everything I had learned at Douglas College and apply it in a place where there is no system.”

“It's learning by doing, it's a partnership with the coursework,” Shebib said.

Irving's duties included running a program for children housed in the “isolator” — a bleak room where street youth picked up by militia were quarantined for three weeks. The small room with adjoining sleeping areas often housed 40 or more children, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from harsh street life.

“It's hard realizing that these kids are alone,” Irving said. “There's no one to tuck them in. Everything they do, they do alone. You can see these hard, hard hearts but when they break down, they can't stop crying.”

The existence has left an indelible impression on Irving. “Not a day goes by that I don't think about those kids — a few in particular,” Irving, who returned in August, said.

Irving spent four nights in a prison for girls, doing arts and crafts with offenders incarcerated for crimes ranging from theft to murder.

Other times, Irving provided outreach, searching for children taking refuge in sewers to keep warm.

“There was a group of about 10 kids who lived in a crawlspace under a building near the bazaar,” she recalled, noting glue-sniffing, self-mutilation and other problems associated with alcoholism and impoverishment were common. “Many of these children don't know how to relate. There's no way for them to debrief,” Irving said.

During her stay, she developed Russian language skills to the point she was able to communicated with the children.

Irving understands social problems exist in Canada, but in Kiev, where there are no social services, the situation seems more severe. “We don't have five-year-olds living on the street (here),” she said.

Irving, who plans to pursue an bachelor's degree in social work at University of Victoria, said many children she worked with during her first visit to Kiev haven't made dramatic improvements. Some are in prison. Others are living in a dilapidated amusement park that provides shelter at night. Most continue to drink alcohol or sniff glue.

There are successes: some children who used to be on the street or in the orphanage are now living with relatives.

“In the end,” Irving said, “the good outweighs the bad.”

Irving called the experience invaluable.

“It gave me an idea of the pain and rejection these kids experience. Some of them are going to carry this rejection into adulthood. As a social worker, it helps to understand where they are coming from.”

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