"Final Bell" for Russian orphans: where will I go, what will I do?

After fun on the playground, children posed for this photo

(Note: each year at time for "final bell" in Russian schools, I remember Katia. "Help for Children" is now helping graduates from Luga orphanage who go to St. Petersburg for technical school.)

The Final Bell

The “final bell”: a bittersweet day for Russian orphans

The “final bell”. “Final bell” is how Russians label their last day of school and graduation day. The final bell often rings in somber, worrisome tones for the orphans of Russia. Most of us think of graduation as a joyous occasion: the beginning of a journey into the future to live out childhood dreams.

For orphans, the final bell begins the world’s most cruel surprise party. Orphans have lived all or most of their lives in an institution: following strict schedules, making no decisions, being told what to do and how to do it, learning no life skills. Then…final bell. They graduate and are thrown into the world, like birds who are set free but have never learned to fly. Easy prey for the villains of the world. Nine out of 10 face a future of drugs, alcohol, prison, prostitution, or suicide.

I will never forget that day on a muddy playground in northeast Russia, three weeks before final bell. We were visiting one of the internat orphanage schools where our Russian church team has been ministering to children for several years. We enjoyed a lunch of soup and bread with the children, and migrated outside to the still-recovering-from-winter playground. It was a bright and warm spring day, a rarity for early May in this part of Russia. Skies cloudless. Gentle breeze. Coat-quickly-coming-off weather. Within minutes, the playground was alive with running, laughing, tagging, yelling, and games. Children showing off on the one piece of antiquated playground equipment. A soccer ball being kicked back and forth on the gray-brown field.

We sat with a group of the older children on a broken-down bench at one side of the playground. As we watched the amazing show of energy and life, I wanted to freeze-frame the afternoon. It was like a patch of timeless joy in lives headed to an almost certain dead-end. I wanted to keep these children from ever having to hear the final bell.

“Final bell…it’s only three weeks away,” I thought to myself. “I wonder if any of the children sitting with us are graduating.”

I turned and asked: “Are any of you graduating this year?”

Katia smiled and then raised her hand: “Yes….”

“Congratulations Katia! Where will you be living when you leave the school?” (I knew that many of the children who graduate from this internat have to move at least three hours away.)

Katia’s smile melted. She looked down, staring at the stubble of spring grass pushing up through the patch of mud between her feet. Silence. She continued to stare at the ground. The children who sat with us waited politely. Quietness. We waited. And waited.

Finally Katia had to answer: “I don’t know….”

At that point, I should have been wise enough to change the subject, but I really wanted to know what she would be studying in vo-tech school, which is supposed to be the next grade for internat graduates.

So I asked, “What will you be doing when you graduate?”

Katia continued to stare into the ground… arms folded… bent over in a stomach-ache-kind-of position. Her entire posture and countenance said that she wanted to cry, but she held back the tears with the toughness she had acquired from her lifetime within the gray walls of the orphanage.

Again, a long wait until she decided on her answer that came slowly in an apologetic voice: “I don’t know.”

I held back the tears that I wanted to shed with Katia. Quickly, we changed the subject back to the playground, the impromptu soccer match, the beauty of the day, and the excitement and joy of being together and sharing our love with the children that we had grown to know and love.

Unfortunately, Katia’s dilemma is normal. The majority of orphans who graduate from the internat schools of Russia have no hopes and dreams for their future. If there is anything worse than living in an orphanage, it’s living in an internat orphanage. Children whose parents have any kind of social problem are likely to end up in the internat school, where they are routinely diagnosed as slow learners and children with problems. Based on our ministry to children in the internat orphanages, these schools are full of beautiful, talented, kind, and smart children who will never have a chance to develop what God has placed within them. Those who go on to vocation school often have to relocate to a far away community. They usually give up after a month of two in strange and lonely surroundings. They drop out, somehow get back to their town and familiar faces, and try to find their way in an unfamiliar world. Many will live on the streets; some find shelter with other children their age. Most will somehow find enough money for cheap vodka or grain alcohol. They seek temporary solace in the arms of another. Babies are conceived. Babies are born and are given up to the orphanage baby houses. The vicious cycle continues.

When we first started working with Russian orphans, we thought what orphans need is clothing, showers, computers, games, fruit, and ice cream. Time and experience has taught us the only solid answer for orphans is to get them into families. We still minister to children where they are in the orphanages, but we focus on encouraging foster homes, transitional homes, and adoption.

Much prayer is needed. Only God can make the changes necessary to set the orphanage children of Russia into families.

When we think about Katia, we rejoice in knowing that, through our faithful volunteers at the church nearby, she has heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Not just once but on many occasions. Someday the real final bell will sound for Katia and all of us. We pray that on that day Katia will finally know where she is going and what she will be doing: living forever in God’s big family.

Ken Dockery, co-founder, Big Family Mission