Today I completed my last volunteer placement with CCS Russia at the “Hospital for Kids”. The exact purpose and reach of the institution is still as vague to me as it sounds to you now.
I noticed several new children had arrived since I’d last been there a week ago. One was a small and painfully frail girl, maybe five years old, who alternated between crying frantically and shaking like a leaf in a state of total shock. She clearly had no idea where she was. Her face was shaped a little differently than a normal child’s and she may have been nonverbal. Her eyes were soft blue-gray, perpetually glossed over with tears, with pupils that seemed out of place and cat-like. I don’t know how well she could see, if at all.
Luckily for her, she had the best caretaker she could ever hope for. Sasha, a nine-year old boy who is the most consistently gentle and joyful child I’ve ever met, ran over and hugged the nameless girl every time she started wailing, petting her head and telling her everything was ok. He would escort her to a chair and help her sit down, away from the other children. He protected her from their rough games and flying objects. I asked Sasha when she had arrived. He told me yesterday, or maybe the day before. I told him he was very kind to look after her. He thanked me and said he was just trying his best to keep her calm.
The hospital is a difficult placement for all the volunteers. It’s loud, intense, high-energy, and sometimes frightening. The building is old and large and feels very institutional. The children suffer from a vast range of physical, mental, and emotional problems. Most are orphaned or abandoned or at the very least neglected, and they all live there full-time together for weeks or months at a time.
When we work with the children, we stay with them in one pale blue (or maybe it’s off-white?) room with several tables and benches. It’s usually monitored by one or two sleepy nurses. It’s not uncommon for kids to jump onto the tables, to fight with each other, to cry or scream. A few of them appear completely detached from the world around them, sitting in corners or pacing back and forth talking to themselves.
We have a very structured program: first a group craft, then indoor games, and then outdoor games (weather permitting). We prepare the craft materials in advance and count the scissors before and after distributing them.
This is my favorite placement for several reasons, some of them selfish ones. It’s where I get the most love from the kids: whole-hearted hugs, kisses, requests to draw pictures and sign autographs. It’s also clear that this is the place of greatest need. They are desperate for love and companionship and home. The sheer lack of home is written on all their faces and manifests itself in infinite ways.
One day I took out my iPod to show a boy named Pasha photos of my parents and siblings. I used the opportunity to ask him questions about his own family (a “gypsy” family, the nurse told me). Pasha told me has a mother and a sister. Then has asked me if the iPod was a phone, and if we could use it to call his mommy.
Today, two boys were playing on a part of a jungle gym shaped like a car on the playground. They would run around for a few minutes dodging invisible villains and jumping over tree stumps, then yell “To the car!” as they hurdled into the front seats. They pretended to shift gears and twist steering wheels and replicate “vroom vroom” sounds. I asked them where they were driving to, expecting to hear Gotham City or someplace equally fantastical. “Home!”
So what can I do for a child without a sense of home? What difference can I make in four-hour shifts a few times a week? Is “making a difference” even a reasonable goal, or a self-aggrandizing one? I’ve settled on being comfortable with making smiles. I am very much the clown at the birthday party, and I am ok with that. I give hugs, I draw pictures, I teach basic English phrases, and I let them cheat in Uno so they beat me every round.
I will be nothing more than a vague memory to any of these children after I leave, much like in Peru, and that’s fine with me. I also won’t make any difference in whether any particular child ends up being a policeman or a criminal. But I think I made a few of their days in that austere building a little more enjoyable, and I think that’s valuable in the same way “Random Acts of Kindness” was a worthwhile campaign to promote in elementary schools.
As for whether I’ve considered taking any of them home (ignoring for a moment how obnoxious it is to think of these children as an abandoned litter of kittens), the answer is yes, of course I have. I’ve thought about what it would be like to take Pasha back with me, to feed him ice cream sundaes and give him his own over-sized, fluffy bed to sleep in at night. I’ve thought about taking him to Disney World and reading him billions of books and putting Sponge Bob bandaids on his scraped knees. It’s the first time in my entire life that I have craved motherhood in a very real way.
In that way, this seven-year old “gypsy” boy has changed my life. I’d throw myself in front of a train for him without thinking about it. I have no idea where that feeling comes from. I’m sure there is some biological explanation I heard in my “Evolution of Human Nature” course freshman year of college. I don’t care. It feels good to feel it.