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Forgotten Children

June 19, 2006, 0:00 3364 CTV.ca News Staff Ordinarily Canadian woman Ruslana Wrzesnewski has organized summer camp for hundreds of Ukrainian orphans.

Updated Sat. Nov. 12 2005 6:51 PM ET

Olena Wresnewski-Cottrell had a tough start to life. Abandoned by her birth parents, she spent her first nine months alongside dozens of other babies and toddlers in an orphanage in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Most of the babies there were destined for a bleak existence moving from one overcrowded orphanage to the next. But luckily for Olena, that wasn't her fate; she was adopted and brought to Canada.

Now at age 13, she still remembers the babies that were left behind. "I think about how they don't have a really good life and I was fortunate to get one," says Olena.

It was November 1992 when Ruslana Wrzesnewski and her husband, Andy Cottrell, brought Olena home to Toronto. They were thrilled to have the baby as a new addition to their family, but their joy was tempered by the deplorable conditions they saw in the orphanages where children lacked clothes, toys and medicine.

"When we came back on the airplane, Ruslana turned to me and said 'This girl has just won the lottery'," remembers Andy. "We should do something for the other children. And without thinking of what this project would become, I said yes."

What the project became is Help Us Help the Children, a Canadian charity that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in food, toys and clothes in its first two years. The project was an unqualified success, but Ruslana and Andy wanted to do even more for the more than 100,000 children in Ukraine's orphanages. So they started an annual summer camp in the tiny town of Vorokhta.

Summer camp for orphans

That was 10 years ago. The Help Us Help the Children summer camp has grown every year since. This year's budget of more than $350,000 is made up mostly of charitable donations from Canada. That money goes toward feeding, clothing, housing, teaching and entertaining 450 orphans from all across Ukraine.

The camp has a dizzying array of lessons and events, everything from computer training to a sewing class where the kids learn to make their own bed sheets and pillowcases.

"They're very needy in the orphanages," says Marianne Gross, one of two Canadian volunteers in charge of the sewing workshop. "They're sleeping on bare mattresses, so they're very excited about bringing home their own goods."

Not only will the children take home their own sheets, the sewing machines and computers will go back to the orphanages as well. And that's just the beginning of the bounty these kids receive. They also get brand new wardrobes, including jeans, jackets, shirts and shoes.

The kids also get a rare opportunity to see a doctor. Everyone receives a physical and the children with serious medical problems are sent to specialists.

Ihor Shafran has been coming to camp for 10 years. No child has benefited more from the charity's medical attention than him.

"Ihor was born with terrible deformities of his legs," says Ruslana. "When I first met him, he got around by walking on his hands, almost like a little monkey, unfortunately. And I remember being horrified that nothing had been done."

She quickly changed that, arranging for Ihor to have a series of operations that saw him outfitted with prosthetic legs.

"Then we made sure we kept track of him, wherever, which orphanage he landed up at and he's here at camp."

While Ruslana has been able to keep track of Ihor, it's impossible to follow the hundreds of orphans who come to camp each year.

"It's very difficult, because sometimes you don't know whether you'll ever see that child again," says Ruslana. "You wonder whether they'll make it or not."

When the orphans grow up

Tragically, many of these kids don't make it. Ruslana estimates that six out of 10 kids end up in prison or on the streets. When they turn 18, they are turned away from the orphanages, often with little training or resources to properly take care of themselves on the streets of Ukraine's cities.

Major Vasiley Sophos is the chief warden at a medium security prison in Ukraine that houses 1,600 male prisoners. He has worked in the penal system for more than 20 years. During that time, he has seen countless graduates of orphanages end up behind bars.

"When they finish at the orphanages, they are not fully prepared for life. They are without parents and they are also without government support," says Sophos.

Girls from orphanages often end up in prison too, but others fall prey to an even worse fate. They are trafficked into prostitution, forced to work the streets and brothels in cities across Europe including Amsterdam, Budapest, and Florence and along the notorious E-55 highway on the German-Czech border.

Hope for the future

But there is some cause for optimism. Ukrainian president Viktor Yuschenko is a long-time supporter of Ruslana's camp and has pledged to improve the lot of Ukraine's orphans. In a rare one-on-one interview, President Yuschenko spoke with W-FIVE about his government's plans.

"For many years, the state paid little attention to this problem and thanks to a program such as Help Us Help the Children, which Ruslana has run here, it created a great example for others," says Yuschenko. "I think that within two to three years we'll see a solution to this problem. In other words, after 18, this child should have an education, housing and a job."

Yuschenko concedes that these ambitious plans will take a few years to put in place and there are thousands of kids at risk right now. All Ruslana can do is try to make the kids at her camp aware of the dangers and hope that they make the right decisions.

Instead of preachy lectures, Ruslana has brought in a Ukrainian theatre troupe to do a series of performances about the dangers of drugs, violence and being trafficked into prostitution. The performers, all young people in their teens and early 20s, captivate the audience of orphans, giving Ruslana cause for hope that the message is sinking in.

"They have to know the truth. They have to know what's waiting for them," she says.

At the end of the two weeks of camp, it's time for the children to say goodbye and head back to the orphanages. It's a huge undertaking to get more than 400 children and all their belongings on board the train. The whole process takes nearly an hour, leaving plenty of time for hugs, kisses and last minute goodbyes. It's an emotional time for everyone, including Ruslana.

"On every corner, kids are exchanging addresses, they're crying, they're hugging each other. And then once they get on the train then it's very sad. There are a lot of tears and there's counselors holding kids who don't want to let go."

While saying goodbye is difficult, the children who were lucky enough to take part in the camp are grateful for the opportunity and they know whom to thank.

"When I look at Ruslana, I see a really good person," says one orphan-camper, 15-year-old Lila. "I love her smile. She has a wonderful smile. I think she's a wonderful person."

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