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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

More Orphanage Horror Stories from Russia

The Binghampton (New York) Press reports:

Ann Marie Schaeffer had never been to Canada or Mexico, so contemplating a mission trip to Russian orphanages seemed like a wild -- and maybe pointless -- idea. Her mind kept returning to one question, Schaeffer, 42, says: "What can smiling for a few hours at these children really do?" The answer came from her father, Tom Rittwager of Deposit, who had lived in an orphanage himself as a youngster. "You can't think that way," he said. "If someone spent an hour with me, it meant everything." So last November, she went. And in many ways the trip changed her life.

Sponsored by the Bainbridge Rotary Club, she traveled as part of the nonprofit Orphan Cry ministry established in 2003 by Ken Wilcox of Bainbridge and David Ford of Binghamton. Volunteers travel to the places where the region's most challenged children can be found: orphanages, boarding schools, hospitals, rehabilitation centers and youth prisons. They hand- deliver "Care Paks" filled with toys, school supplies and messages of Christian faith, as well as food, clothing and medicine. Sometimes the Orphan Cry mission unfolds in the shape of one-on-one encouragement and small gifts; other times it means working toward building new facilities, and acquiring beds, medical equipment and supplies to care for those children.

Schaeffer was horrified to learn of the fate awaiting many of the young teens she met: As outcasts in their society, they are generally ineligible for more education and thus unable to get good jobs. Too often, their only options in life can be found in the underbelly of their world -- in drugs, organized crime and prostitution -- or in homelessness, incarceration or suicide. And because of the number of such children and the cost of housing them, young teens are often asked to leave the orphanages to find their own way in life.

Orphan Cry is scrambling to gather money for scholarships, so it can give at least a handful of the children the golden opportunity of education. Memories from the trip are etched indelibly in her mind and thoughts of the children she met cross her heart every day.

A 20-something woman named Tanya was older than most of those Schaeffer and her companions met, but her story was no less poignant. Afflicted with multiple inoperable brain tumors, Tanya lives in a hospital whose stench almost made Schaeffer gag. Tanya is blind, but must go on a bus to get her own medication -- and when she returns to the hospital, she must dodge the "bandits" known to wander its halls.

"I felt so overwhelmed with grief for her situation," says Schaeffer, who -- with husband Mike -- has three children of her own. "I cried in the van; it was too much to bear that night." She no longer wonders if she wasted time and money in taking that overseas trip. Instead she's spurred by her awareness of all that's left to be done. "The fact that she went there may have touched one of those children or one of those who worked there," Rittwager says. To those in the orphanages, she represented a world of possibility they were ordinarily unable to grasp. Those who never experienced such a life might not understand, but in extending her smile and her heart to those children, he says, she gave them an unfathomable gift.

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