Smiles, if nothing else

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.


  1. Pingback: Things I’ve learned by volunteering – Soulshine Traveler

  2. I love reading your blog, you are an amazing writer, you truely have a way with words and your stories are amazing and very touching. This blog entry is beyond beautiful, I actually had a few tears in my eyes; I wish more people in this world had the kindness and heart that you have.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Mario! I am glad that you connected with this post so much. Being in Russia has moved me in many ways, and I’m happy I could pass that along.

  3. Thank you for the post. Feeling love for total strangers just because they need that love is a very admirable quality in my opinion–a quality I hope my ten year old daughter maintains throughout her life. You have random strangers on the other side of the world cheering you on!

    • This means a lot, thank you! I have to admit though, sometimes loving strangers in abstract can be easier than loving our family members on a day to day basis, haha. But I do agree with you, it’s a value that is worth cultivating when we’re younger, and it goes hand in hand with empathy. If you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, it is easier to understand why they behave a certain way and to love them.

  4. I just came back from 3 days work in an orphanage helping set up their library (they have lots of books, but all jumbled up and packed away) so that they have some sort of system, especially for the older kids, to take advantage of. In between working on labeling and sorting and filling up index cards, there was a lot of playing and hugging and just creating an atmosphere of hope for them. When people question the value of such little time spent with them, I think it’s best to think of how a simple, random act of kindness (as you have pointed out yourself) can make a difference in your day, and sometimes even your life. So, for people who want to volunteer and help, even for just a few days, less questioning, more doing and being in the moment is my motto.

    • My thoughts exactly, chiefmadapple. I have always believed in the rippling effect of small kind acts, regardless of whether we can measure them. It must have been a wonderful experience for you at the orphanage! Thanks so much for sharing with me.

  5. Wow, Meghan, what a post. I think working with children would be the hardest job of all simply because they are kids. You want to protect them and save them and make sure they are cared for and loved. I never had an assignment with children for CCS but as a mother I bet it would be heart-wrentching especially because I’d probably want to take them all home! How wonderful that you were there and able to connect with these kids. Doesn’t the experience make you truly appreciate your own circumstances and upbringing and make you want to change the world? That is how I felt and feel now. WHat an experience you had, but I know you will have many more equally if not more amazing than this! Go for it! Change the world! 🙂 The world needs people like you…young, smart, caring and eager to make a difference! If I could do it all again, I would have started my giving back earlier. It took until a few years ago for me to reach that point. You are already there! 🙂 Nicole

    • You’re right Nicole, it is especially emotionally challenging to work with children, because I feel a certain entitlement on their behalf. They are so new to the world, they deserve to be loved and to be treated with kindness and, darn it, to have some cookies and ice cream and hugs. It’s hard to see so much potential in a person being compromised, either by a social system, negligent parents, or sheer bad luck. But I’ve loved the time I’ve gotten to share with them. Smiles are powerful. 🙂

  6. Sid Dunnebacke

    Beautiful, Meghan – I’d love to see a follow-up about the frail little five-year-old you mentioned at the start. You’re doing remarkable things, and I thank you for sharing your adventures.

    • Thanks Sid. I’d love to know how she fares too, but sadly I’ve already left Yaroslavl. I’m hoping my friends who work with the organization can provide me with updates from time to time. Otherwise I’ll just have to come back to see for myself!

  7. Su

    Beautiful post Meghan, Im sure these children will remember your involvement long after you have moved on. You really have a lovely way of sharing your experiences thank you.

  8. This is beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. I’m so happy you’re there, even if for a short while. And, you know, I wouldn’t be so sure that they’ll only remember you vaguely. After my mother died when I was young, I can remember one or two adults who really made a difference in my life. As I continued schooling, I thought of how proud they’d be of me.

    I bet Sasha will remember you in that way, too.


    • Loni, that gives me a lot of hope. I had no idea that your mother died when you were a young girl. I’m glad that other people stepped in and made such an impression on you. And I hope Pasha and Sasha remember just a little tiny bit of me along the way. (-:

  9. Chrissy

    I definitely know that feeling your talking about. It’s amazing and a bit scary all at once. It’s wonderful what you’re doing for these kids but I suspect that what they’re doing for you is even more wonderful. As a teacher I know that no matter how much I teach the children throughout the year, they always end up teaching me just a little bit more. Each day with them brings a new learning experience. As for the title of your post, smiles are probably the most valuable thing you can give them. A wise woman once told me, “Smile. Always remember to smile. Even if you don’t feel like it. Make funny faces in the mirror if you have to, but always smile. It makes a world of difference.” Mom-Mom Johnson said that to me in the hospital after she had suffered a stroke one year on Thanksgiving. She was right, a smile can make all the difference. 🙂

    • Chrissy, you have no idea how much this made me smile (speaking of smiling…). I remember you reading that quote at Mom Mom’s funeral. I think about it frequently. It’s such a wonderful message. Thanks for reminding me of it again today. 🙂

  10. The difference you make is devoting your time to children who need warmth, compassion and positive adult interactions. They may never remember you, but the influence you leave will penetrate. I’m sure.

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