Over the summer I spent some time in an orphanage in a place called Yerlatma, helping with a summer camp for the children there.
One of the things that really struck me when I arrived in Russia was how I am no longer fazed by being in Russia – I just felt like I’d returned to another home… like how I feel when I move back to Birmingham. Definitely a good thing seen as I’m about to move there!
I’ve been to Yerlatma two years ago and lots of the children recognised me from before. I didn’t speak any Russian then so when I started speaking Russian to them they were really surprised!! It was such a joy to be able to talk to the children without an interpreter (don’t get me wrong – the interpreters do an AMAZING job, without them we wouldn’t get anything done!). But I felt this year I really got to know the children better than I had before.
This year I spent a lot of time teaching English. I had a little group of 5 children – two of the older boys and three younger children. They wanted to learn how to read so I thought we should start with the alphabet. I made them an ‘alphabet guide’ – I wrote out all the English letters and then wrote how to pronounce the letters using letters from the Russian alphabet. From this I wrote out some phonetic words in English that the children could read. Has anyone ever tried to find phonetic words in English?? There are NONE. Our language is too hard! Massive respect to anyone who has learnt English!
The day after I’d taught them the alphabet one of the younger girls came running up to me first thing in the morning and showed me the English sheets I had given her the day before. She had spent all night learning the words and had written them all out in English herself! She’d also written her name in English using an alphabet guide! I was so proud and nearly burst into tears! That evening I talked to one of the older boys in my English group, he’d been really struggling and was embarrassed to be behind the younger children so I did some mini tutorials with him. He was trying so hard and refusing to give up. He told me how all he wanted was to learn English but there was no-one in the village that could teach him. It dawned on me that the children here are craving education more than anything and when they are given the opportunity to learn they grab hold of it. I am blessed with an opportunity to study at university and I completely take it for granted. It really made me think about how I need to make the most of my degree as it is an opportunity that only a minority of people in the world are given.
By the end of the week my little English group knew the English alphabet, could read simple words and had learnt numbers, colours and body parts in English. That was with just one week of English teaching! I was overwhelmed by their willingness to learn and how hard they studied. Remember, these are children who are viewed as being unable to be educated. At the end of the week when I had to say goodbye to my group I remember seeing such sadness in their eyes that their English lessons were over. They kept asking and asking if I would come back to teach them English. I don’t know how easy it will be to do that but I really hope that sometime I have the opportunity to!
Throughout the week I also got to know the youngest girl, Nastya, in the orphanage. She had just moved up from the Dietskidom (a home for toddlers) and was at the bottom of the hierarchy of the children and was clearly being badly bullied by the other children. She was terrified of the team and for the first few days would sit in the corner on her own. One day I asked her if she would help me make a flower mobile in one of the craft sessions. I’d noticed that the children never let her use the stickers that we had given them so I gave her a piece of card and a whole pack of stickers. Her face just lit up! She covered that piece of card with every sticker she had!
The next day we had a princess party, something that we do just for the girls. I did a presentation about how all of the girls were beautiful and special and then we gave them all a tiara to remind them that they ARE beautiful princesses. Nastya really came out of her shell that afternoon. She was dragging me round everywhere making me take photos of her and at the end of the afternoon we listened to a story and she jumped onto my knee and cuddled all the way through, it was lovely to see her begin to trust the team and by the end of the week she was hugging everyone!
The children at Yerlatma are intelligent, talented and loving children. I always find it so hard to leave them. They deserve to have the best opportunities in life and it saddens me that they aren’t given them. I hope I get to visit them again. I hope I get to teach English there again. And I hope that one day they will get the opportunities they deserve.