by Ronne Rock Posted on Tuesday, December 20, 2016
He’s traveled to Russia more times than can be counted, and the country continues to hold a special place in his heart. Orphan Outreach President Mike Douris remembers the first conversations with the Department of Education shortly after the Soviet Union fell. Government-run orphanages were filled to capacity with children who not only had been rescued from abuse and neglect, but also who had been placed by parents struggling to survive. “In the early days, we were asked to provide guidance on basic childcare, to share best practices for the orphanages," he reflects.But Douris discovered an unmet need for orphans in Russia – the crisis that occurs in most lives when those orphans age out of residential care. Ninety percent of all children who enter an orphanage will remain there until they graduate. While in residential care, the children have little opportunity to learn fundamental life skills necessary for adulthood. And they leave the orphanage with little provision. “They are legally supposed to get an apartment, and while they may receive one, few are actually livable,” shares Douris. “And for these kids coming out of the orphanages – the stats are horrendous. Ten percent of the kids commit suicide within the first year of leaving the orphanage. Over 50% of the kids will end up living on the streets after a year. The involvement in crime and trafficking is at a very high rate for kids coming out of the orphanage, and the traffickers really target the kids in order to get them into prostitution.”
Individual Guidance for Orphan Graduates
Orphan Outreach prayerfully considered options for orphan graduates, and felt it best to create a model of care that offered individual guidance. “Many have tried transitional living homes, and while they can be a healthy model for the graduates, you can only take a few kids at a time in a specific location," says Douris. "It’s difficult to serve the greater needs of the graduates – like education, sustainable housing, and job skills training. So we decided to do a case management model, where we work with the kids and help them every step of the way, just like a parent would do.”The Orphan Graduate program provides what Douris calls a “safety net” for the young men and women. “They have someone to lean on and go to, to help them through those challenges. It takes years to help a kid actually adjust and become independent. It’s not a six-month program or even a year program; it’s a multi-year program of walking with these children as they learn to do life.”Douris hasn’t simply cast the vision for Orphan Outreach’s programs – he and his wife have been personally invested in the lives of three young women in the Vladimir region of Russia for years.
Three Lives - One Heart
“I met Katya, her twin sister Vica, and their older sister Luba in 1998 at their orphanage.” At the time, Mike and his team had been asked to help improve conditions at that orphanage. “The kids came out and they were all in the courtyard. And this little 13-year old came up and grabbed my hand and wanted to give me a tour of the orphanage. Of course, I don’t speak Russian and we didn’t have a translator, but we walked all through that orphanage and she showed me everywhere, and with the little bit of vocabulary that I had, we were able to communicate.” Mike spent the day with the young girl and her friends, and she introduced him to her sisters. They all played most of the afternoon.Years later, Mike returned to the Vladimir region. His team stopped at the orphanage, and Mike thought, “I’ll be able to see Katya again – and Luba and Vica.” But none of them were there. The team spent the afternoon working with the orphanage directors, and Mike was disappointed to not see the friends he had met years before. “All of a sudden, I hear in the distance, ‘Michael! Michael!’ A lot of the kids had gone down to the river to go swimming, and apparently one of the kids in the orphanage ran down to the river to tell Katya that I was back. I’ll never forget standing there by the van watching her sprint as fast as she could across the yard to jump into my arms.”Every time Mike would visit Russia, he would make a point to spend time with the three girls. “I’ll never forget the first time I took them to a restaurant in Moscow. They ordered about five desserts. They just couldn’t get enough food because they didn’t get a lot of food in the orphanage.” The girls asked to go to the restroom. And after 20 minutes, Mike asked a coworker to check on them. She returned with the girls, who were fascinated by a hand dryer – something they had never seen before. He laughs, “It turns out they had been in there for 20 minutes, playing with a hand dryer.”The girls graduated from the orphanage and struggled to build stable lives. Katya got pregnant in less than six months, and Mike returned again to Russia and visited her. “She introduced me to her baby, and we talked about how to manage motherhood.” Katya’s sister Luba got married soon after leaving the orphanage and had a baby as well. She divorced, and then remarried and had two more children before making the decision to divorce her second husband. “There are challenges – but one lifeline for them has always been that I’m connected to them and so we write back and forth, and I provide resources for them when they need them as a sponsor. We’ve been there through good times and through more challenging times.”
Heartbreak - and Hope
Katya, unfortunately, became addicted to alcohol. “About a year and a half ago was the last time I saw her," says Douris. “She had been put on house arrest because of some decisions made due to the alcoholism, and we talked extensively about her entering a treatment program. Her sisters tried to walk her through that journey, and she started to make a turnaround. But unfortunately, the damage that alcohol had done to her system was too great.”At only 31, Katya died of heart failure. “Her death was tragic for her sisters, and for me as well. When you walk that long of a journey with someone and then they don’t make it, it’s just – it breaks your heart.” Mike returned to Russia, and joined the sisters to honor Katya’s life. “We spent most of the time in tears. It’s like they lost their right arm, because they always had each other. Now they don’t feel complete. My wife and I had paid for the funeral and burial – but I wasn’t able to get there until a month after she had passed away. We took flowers with us to the gravesite. It’s a very typical Russian cemetery, with a little fence around each grave. And they have a cross on the tombstone, with an embossed picture of Katya on that cross. The thing that kept running through my mind as the tears fell was, ‘What could I have done that would have resulted in a different outcome than this? Maybe I could have been even more involved, maybe I could have done even more to help, and is there any way I could have prevented her from dying from alcoholism?’”His voice trembles as he speaks. “To be honest, I still wrestle with that even now, because when you love somebody and you care about them and something like that happens, it leaves something undone.” Douris then becomes resolute as he shares, “It just made me realize that every day we work with these kids, we have that moment to make a difference in their lives and we can’t waste that moment. It doesn’t guarantee a positive outcome, because every child has their own volition, they make their own choices. Sometimes those choices are bad. But as far as our responsibility, we need to make the most of every single moment to make a difference in these kids’ lives, to make sure they know that they’re loved, when they have a need, that we try to figure out the best and appropriate way to meet that need, and to do everything we can possibly to provide the opportunity for positive outcomes.”
Investing in Lives
Douris believes that being a difference-maker in an orphan’s life connects them to the power of hope. “The Orphan Outreach sponsorship program is a great way to connect to a child. They see that someone cares for them enough to invest in their lives. And sponsorship provides resources for the people who are working with them and walking with them all the time, saying every single day, “I am not going to leave you.” He remembers the words of Luba as they walked from Katya’s gravesite. “She came up to me and wrapped her arms around me and said, ‘Thank you for being with us all this time and not abandoning us.’”Years before, she had talked about her parents going away – she felt everyone had abandoned them. Douris says, “I made a promise to her and the girls that I would not abandon them, that I would be there for the long-haul. It’s my blessing to be able to fulfill that promise.“When you support Orphan Outreach through finances or through going on trips or sponsoring a child or through prayer, you become part of the team that provides the face of hope for these kids’ lives – that there’s something to hang onto, there’s going to be somebody to walk alongside them. And ultimately, that hope reveals a greater hope - a hope that doesn't disappoint and will never leave."Right now, you have a special opportunity to support the Orphan Graduate program and the work Orphan Outreach does in seven countries around the world. Your donation is matched dollar for dollar (up to $300,000) when you give.