It all began with a challenge put at Spring Harvest, a Christian worship and teaching festival, to respond to the new needs and possibilities revealed by the fall of Soviet Communist rule. In January 1992, Operation Carelift took medical supplies, Bibles and gifts to several children’s hospitals in Moscow. Many of those involved returned six months later to do evangelistic work on the streets of Moscow, Minsk and St Petersburg.
Some who went then decided they wanted to do something practical and longer-term, especially for the vast numbers of children living on the streets. Offered two rundown buildings overlooking a lake in the Ozerki district of St Petersburg, they undertook to refurbish them as a children’s home and school, and recruited a large team of volunteers for the project. Several British companies also gave generous support, and the work was carried out over six weeks in July and August 1993.
The organising group had by this time adopted the name ‘Caring Hands’; two people stayed on to work in the Home.
In 1995 Caring Hands was invited to assist the Education Department of Kirovsky Region (in the south-west of St Petersburg) in establishing their ‘Helios Centre of Social Aid to the Family and Rehabilitation of Orphans’. It consisted of a children’s home, plus a variety of facilities and services offered to the general community, with a Social Hotel (for boys in their late teens) added later. Our commitment, in helping to staff the Centre and sponsor children, was for two years but continued until the end of 2000.
A request was received in February 2001 to help with ‘cosmetic repairs’ to the ‘Malyosh’ sanatorium for young children, in the small town of Opochka, about 260 miles south-west of St Petersburg.
The sanatorium consists of two single-storey wooden buildings, plus a third mainly of brick, which needed to be repainted inside and out. Small teams travelled there each August for four years, not only completing the requested work but much else besides. Thanks to generous public response, we were able to supply new toilets, washbasins, water heaters, a bath, pipework, floor covering, a cooker, curtains, lighting – and toys!
Craft Centre - 'House of Projects' - St Petersburg
First proposed in 2000 on the basis of an activity in the Helios Centre, the Craft Centre took on a separate existence with new leadership and premises to provide work experience and training, act as a drop-in and advice centre, and offer friendship and worthwhile activity to a wide range of people. They were mostly those for whom little was provided elsewhere – pensioners, the unemployed, people with disabilities or mental health problems, and young people who had grown up in Children’s Homes. Products, especially candles, were sold through local shops, thus providing income. Resources - and a team in 2005 - went into improving conditions in the Leninskiy Craft Centre.
In 2006 the Centre was featured on local television, which led to the local authority carrying out much-needed work on its building, and looking to replicate the project around the city. In 2008, a centre on Vasilyevskiy Island for people with mental health problems was extended from two storeys to four, and thoroughly refurbished by the local authority to house a major Craft Centre. We were asked to establish an ‘English Garden’ in its grounds.
‘Our’ Craft Centre Director and a colleague then came to Britain to see what was offered to people with mental health or disability problems. We took them to a variety of state-funded and charitable providers, and noted the next year that the Vasilyevskiy Centre was now equipped – uniquely in Russia – with many of the facilities our friends had seen in Britain. It would be even better if clients and patients were allowed to use them.
Meanwhile, the building on Leninskiy Prospekt is no longer a Craft Centre, but is used as offices by the local administration. The Centre on Vasilyevskiy Island is now the sole Craft Centre in the city – a reversal of what we were led to expect - and is not being operated in a way we believe best supports the people who need it. Our colleagues felt they no longer had a role there (though one has since gone back), and so the Trustees have agreed that, while we completed work that was needed at the time, the charity is no longer required in this area.
Special Education School 432, Kolpino
Situated in Kolpino, a small town in the south-eastern suburbs of St Petersburg, the school served children with learning difficulties – people who seem to have had a low priority in Russia.
Work was needed to the buildings, primarily to deal with water incursion. As has usually been the case, there was little state help; all maintenance, repair and re-decoration work had to be done by the teaching staff during the holidays. Many of the children came from poor families who looked to the school for support, rather than they being a support for the school.
In 2006, we were able to pay a local approved builder to carry out the necessary repairs to the school’s exterior, while our team of volunteers refurbished a classroom and bought items for the school canteen. More was done in 2007, and the most immediate needs were met.
Rainbow Centre, Volkhov
While great needs still exist in St Petersburg, they are greater still in the country areas around. There you find high unemployment, ever since perestroika; rampant alcoholism and drug abuse, often funded by prostitution; a male life expectancy of 54, though many die before the age of 40; many children living in orphanages; under-funded Caring agencies struggling to cope.
The Raduga (‘Rainbow’) Social Rehabilitation Centre in Volkhov, about 75 miles to the east of St Petersburg, exists to help children - looking for people to foster orphans, providing temporary accommodation, providing meals, activities, medical care, legal assistance, support for troubled families, even help with homework!
We took a team of volunteers to work there in the summer of 2009, in partnership with members of local churches, to refurbish the gymnasium, which had been effectively unusable in the winter months. However, the building in which we worked has since been re-let by the local authority to a private nursery.
The Raduga Centre now occupies an old orphanage building (‘Radnichok’), a much larger place, with all the attendant maintenance problems. This is, among other things, now the place to which ‘at risk’ children are brought while decisions are made about their return to family, fostering, adoption etc.
The usual kind of work needs to be done in most of the building – including the gym. It epitomises the dilemma we face in knowing the best way to support facilities like this.
If building maintenance and decoration work specified by inspectors is not carried out, Raduga could be fined. If the work is done, might they be moved out again?
The 'House of Hope' at Murmanskie Vorota
Vera Zhuravleva – who, among other things, represents Scripture Union in NW Russia - uses her house in the village of Murmanskie Vorota as a centre for people in need, providing activities for children, refuge for the abused, help for the elderly, encouragement to all. Ours was the third British team to work on the site between June and August 2010, but such was the scale of work to be done that no-one had to wonder how to occupy their time. Boundary fences were completed, the outdoor dining area roof was re-fixed, a lot of scrap metal was dug out (and in some instances, re-homed), and various other building and painting jobs were completed.
That the team of three men and two women represented members of different churches working together was noticed, in contrast to the fragmentation and lack of co-operation of local churches.
With no gas supply to the village, heating depends on wood-burning stoves. Winter temperatures are routinely below that of your domestic refrigerator, and snowfalls are often to be measured in feet rather than inches, so you need a good supply of wood to make best use of your building.
Thus in 2014, we undertook to rebuild the wood storage shed in one corner of the property, on the basis that this would enable Vera to make more effective use of the place to the benefit of the local community through the winter months.
In the event, we built a woodstore with an adjacent garage. By the end of the time, both were virtually complete, with much thanks to Vanya (a relative of Vera and a builder by trade), especially in the early stages, and for finishing off after the team’s departure.
The outside wall of the new kitchen, apparently damaged by severe winter weather, the verandah in front of it, the verandah of the banya, and some white decorative strips were also prepared and painted.
'Filippok' Rehabilitation Centre for Disabled Children, Volkhov
The Centre was established in 1993, one of the first such places in Russia, working with newborns to age 18. It offers mostly daycare for around seventy children, with some short-term residential provision, especially for people from more distant villages in the Volkhov Region.
Its present building is a 1960s-built former orphanage. Despite having its present use since 2000, it had not really been adapted – most doors were not wide enough for wheelchairs, there were no ramps or fully accessible toilets – or properly maintained, due to lack of funds. It suffers the common fate of tiny subsidies, much bureaucracy, local poverty and constant attempts at burglary.
In 2011, we were able to fund the replacement of four doors (each with a window alongside) – due to the acumen of the Centre’s Director in securing good prices – and send a small team to refurbish one of the balconies which serve as ‘fresh-air’ opportunities for wheelchair-bound youngsters.
In 2012, we refurbished the other three balconies, mustering our biggest team for some years, with six 6th-formers from Stowmarket High School among the total of eleven.
The work involved the complete cleaning and repainting of the walls and metal grilles, and the fitting of fine netting to let the light in while keeping the pigeons out. We were also able to fund the provision of sufficient doors to ensure that each balcony was equipped with two. They are all now clean, bright and colourful!
We had only two volunteers in 2013, but it’s amazing how much they achieved (they’d say it’s because they’re Scots!). Two rooms, a washroom/laundry room, and a kitchen for parents staying, were repaired and re-decorated. These are on the ground floor off the main corridor and would be the first to be looked at, whenever government inspectors turn up.
'Filippok' is a small boy in a story by Lev Tolstoy.
One of the encouragements of recent years is the greater openness of Filippok and Raduga to local Christian work that now exists, apparently since our work in those establishments. Of course, all these projects are only means to an end. If people have been helped and encouraged, both in their work and in seeing God’s hand in their lives, there is a result more permanent than buildings.