by Julie Cramer Posted on Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Every day after classes at the local technical school, Yana, 18, treads the long dirt road home, careful to place her crutches just so. Born with a neurological disorder, she has never known a different way to walk through the world. Nor has she ever known what it is like to have a family walk alongside her.That changed, however, when Orphan Outreach staff observed how much orphans struggled to become independent upon aging out of “the system,” particularly in Eastern Europe.“Kids were leaving the orphanage and the cycle was starting all over again—drugs, suicide, teen pregnancy. We wanted to provide an opportunity for them to have hope, a future, their own families different from the ones they came from,” says Amy Norton, director of programs. “These kids don’t have anyone. That’s why the graduate program is so important.”With programs operating in both Latvia and Russia, Orphan Outreach is expanding services into Ukraine this month. For more children left to fend for themselves, help is on the way.In Yana’s case, the graduate program became critical during a recent crisis. The cinderblock home that sat at the end of the long dirt road had no running water, heat only from a wood stove, and was in disrepair. But there was more to the story—her aunt lived in the room that adjoined hers—and she was battling in court to take away Yana’s rights to the only space in the world she had to call home.“It’s shocking to see relatives do this,” Norton shares. “But it stems from people being desperate about their financial situation.” An attorney that volunteers with the Alpha Life program in Ukraine pro bono defended Yana, and the court recently ruled in her favor. She can keep her room.“Now she’ll have to see if she can sell it to someone—maybe to the aunt—and then she can at least make an income off of it and then buy something more suitable for her and closer to town so she can get back and forth,” Norton explains. Without Yana’s participation in Alpha Life Ukraine, she would have been forced to live with a hostile aunt who may have won her bid to oust Yana if not for the intervention of legal counsel.But for how long should followers of Christ support these young people? Should they not “learn to stand on their own two feet?”U.S. culture tends to promote a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, which may lead some people to question the length of time an agency or donor should expect to pour resources into one child.Psalm 146:9 says, “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.” It does not say, “The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he gets frustrated when they cannot get it together.” It puts no timeframe on care. Instead, the psalmist emphasizes the fact of the Lord’s protection, and his promise to thwart any effort to sabotage it.Thankfully, Norton says, the churches in Ukraine are “really starting to come alongside these kids. It’s still a work in progress. It takes special people anywhere to work with teens. Some people just have a heart for them. We can’t thank the mentors enough for the time they give day in and day out to these children.”The graduates must prepare complicated paperwork in order to access the benefits to which they are entitled by their governments, but then the benefits come up short—deplorable living conditions and meager monthly stipends that range between $150 and $200. Having lagged behind other students in school because of trauma, the graduates struggle not only to land jobs, but also to keep them. Many go hungry. Everything is new and overwhelming, and they cannot turn to relatives when their car breaks down, or when they cannot decipher a legal form. Some young women become mothers too soon, ill-equipped to care for their newborns. But the mothers are so desperate to have someone to love—and for someone to love them—that the pattern of domestic instability continues, albeit unintentionally.“They have so many barriers that they need constant support,” Norton says. “Some stay in the program until their mid-20s, and we allow that. Really, once they come in, they never leave. They can always be in touch with the program and the staff. We’ve known these children from the time they were small and in the orphanages. This is a long journey, and it’s amazing to hear the stories they tell about what they’ve endured along the way. One girl just went to university—that is a huge accomplishment.”Another girl, 21, from Russia, wept as she told her peers at their weekly gathering about having lived with a foster family for a decade until she hit the difficult teen years and they returned her to the orphanage. Her friend, Tanya, experienced similar betrayal. Her parents abandoned her as a child, then her aunt took her in under the grandmother’s coercion, but soon gave up and returned her to the orphanage. A foster family stepped in to care for her and her brother, but then kept her brother and took her back to the orphanage—once again.“It’s heartbreaking,” Norton reflects. “Now, Tanya is 18 and really sweet. She just accepted Christ, and she has a lot to work through emotionally to become a functioning adult. That’s just one child—and that’s only one part of one child’s story. The spiritual support, friendship, and mentoring the graduate program gives these children is so important.” Every single encounter with adults matters.“Some graduates remembered an Orphan Outreach mission team that had come over and shared Bible stories with them,” Norton shares. “It was the first time they heard about the Bible. And it was the first time they heard about forgiveness, and that opened the door for them to begin to trust the in-country staff. Their care started in the orphanage and continues to this day. They need people to show them how to be good spouses, how to resolve conflicts, how to hold a job and pay their bills. They need to be shown how to parent. They have to go to the doctor, the dentist, the attorney … they have so many needs,” Norton says. “That’s where sponsorship comes in. We rely on it. And that’s why we are seeking triple sponsorships for each child to cover these costs.“Through the graduate programs, the kids have the opportunity to have hope in Christ, to know that their heavenly father loves them even if their earthly parents abandoned or neglected them. For many of them, that’s hard to believe. That’s why it takes a lot of time to build their trust.”What you can do right now
Prayfor the Eastern European staff—Natasha Votyakova as she begins her new role overseeing Orphan Outreach’s Eastern European programs, and for all other staff (Dace in Latvia; Victor, Jenya and Andrei in Ukraine; and Lena and Sasha in Russia) who advocate on behalf of and care for these young people.
Pray for the weekly gatherings of graduates. These times include food and fellowship, where they can begin to trust one another and build relationships.