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Next Chapter: St. Petersburg program readies orphans for adulthood

Each year in the Russian Federation, 25,000 teenagers in the state orphanage system collect their meager belongings and head for the exits, too old to remain in the care of the state. Some are as young as 15, others nearly 18.

Most have no one to help them prepare for the challenges of adulthood, much less watch over them as they make the critical transition to adulthood.

In St. Petersburg alone, around 300 teenagers graduate from the city’s numerous orphanages every year. Eighty-two percent go on to technical school to learn a skilled trade such as haircutting or metalworking; fifteen percent enroll in university studies (due to lack of financial and emotional support, the majority drop out after the first semester); and three percent take a low-paying job.

Ultimately, if orphan graduates do not adjust successfully in society, they may end up on the streets—the plight of one-third. At that point, they are vulnerable to resorting to prostitution and crime just to survive.

Statistics show that among Russia’s orphans, only one in 10 becomes a well-adjusted member of society.

To alter that trend, a ministry of Orphan Outreach in St. Petersburg is helping teen orphans prepare, both practically and emotionally, for the next chapter in their lives. “The kids are usually afraid to leave for the unknown with no support, no money, and no place to live,” said Lena Vasilieva, director of the Orphan Graduate Program, who has worked with orphans full-time since 2002.

The preparation process, Lena explained, takes personal attention and support—both before graduates leave the orphanage, and after.

For each of the 30 teens in the Orphan Graduate Program, preparation begins by creating an action plan with social worker Marina Perlina six months before departure day. She works with them on everything from application paperwork—whether for employment, school, or housing—to motivation. “Making that connection with Marina makes the kids feel more comfortable about the future,” Lena said.

The program then takes graduates through life skills training, including social and professional communication, cooking, and budgeting. While learning basic principles of money management, teens prioritize needs and begin saving for costlier items.

Lena and Marina are joined by volunteers who act as mentors and spiritual shepherds. Evangelistic coordinator Tatyana Zibenok leads weekly Bible studies for graduates, planting seeds of faith in Jesus Christ. Recently, a longstanding prayer was answered when a vibrant Lutheran church in St. Petersburg opened its doors so graduates could meet for English classes and other activities. As church members step up to befriend the teens, quite a few graduates are losing their skepticism to all things church-related.

“It is a huge blessing to have the church as a meeting place and see the graduates becoming involved there,” said Amy Norton, Texas-based director of programs for Orphan Outreach. Pray that other area churches will follow suit to serve orphans as spiritual mothers and fathers.

“After the kids leave the orphanage,” Lena noted, “we oversee their progress, how they are managing with their studies, how they are adjusting.” She visits orphans where they live, often at dinnertime so they can cook and eat together. Financial assistance for groceries, tuition, and warm clothing is provided as needed.

Learning to overcome

After four years as program director, Lena believes no situation is hopeless. “We had a girl who was lost for a good five years after leaving the orphanage, and no attempts to help her were successful,” she explained. “But after five years of surviving with no education, working jobs like bartender and living for pleasure, she came to the conclusion that she wants to achieve more; motivation is a vital point for their change. She decided to go to vocational school to study tourism.”

The young woman struggled at first but determined not to quit. “First week of school,” Lena said, “she called Marina every single day after classes. She needed that support and encouragement to keep going.

It was an extremely hard year for her, but she made it through!”

“I felt His heart for orphans”

Asked to name the greatest challenge in her work, Lena alluded to the emotional wound of rejection many orphans carry: “These kids are great adapters, they can adjust to any circumstances, and it is hard to see their true character and build trustworthy relationships,” she said. “It’s especially hard to share Gospel with them. They have heard it so many times and still have the main question left without the answer they can grasp, ‘Why me? Why was I the one left behind?’

“This deprivation brings many problems now when they are young adults,” Lena continued. “They don’t trust people, can’t keep doing something or working at the same job for a long time.”

With a sociology degree from St. Petersburg University, Lena’s call to orphan ministry coincided with her own personal surrender to Jesus Christ. “Immediately after receiving the Lord in 1995, I felt His heart for orphans. With others from my church, I started visiting the orphanages in St. Petersburg.”

Lena’s volunteer work there—playing games with children and teaching them the Bible—led to opportunities to interpret for U.S. teams coming through to serve orphans, and ultimately to her current position as program director.

“The Lord has blessed our Orphan Graduate Program in ways we never imagined,” Norton concluded. “We are so thankful for our two amazing staff members, Lena and Marina, who faithfully serve these 30 graduates daily.”

You can help provide food, medical care, and other basic necessities for Russian orphans. Visit https://www.orphanoutreach.org/donation/index.asp.

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