The children used to arrive at the orphanage in Russia with their life history in a file. It was heartbreaking,’ says mother of three Debbie Deegan. ‘They were dumped off by bus in the snow at the orphanage gates and were absolutely terrified.
Now when they arrive, a specially trained mentor meets them with a pack that includes a teddy bear, a map of the orphanage, new pyjamas, a tracksuit and snow boots – so they come to a really friendly place.’
Dubliner Debbie’s first involvement in the orphanages was when she adopted a seven-year-old Russian girl. ‘The minute we met Zina, we fell in love with her. The thought of that sweet child going back to a bleak Russian orphanage horrified us.’ Two years later, Zina moved into the family home.
‘They’d been like brothers and sisters to her,’ says Debbie. ‘When I finally took her to Russia to see them, I was shocked at how many there were.
I had a very strong sense that I had left hundreds of other orphaned children behind. I came back to Ireland and cried my heart out.’ The experience inspired Debbie to set up To Russia With Love, which has pledged to improve the life of orphans throughout the country.
But Zina left many friends behind in the across Russia and Debbie has visited 66 times to monitor projects. As well as providing for orphans in the present, To Russia With Love also ensures they have safer futures by teaching sewing, cooking and mechanics, so they can find work as adults. Without such skills, many of the girls end up as prostitutes and the boys in prison.
So far, about £1.5 million has been raised for the orphanages. But with 750,000 Russian orphans, Debbie says, ‘There’s no end in sight. At other orphanages, the children are still in their institutional little brown suits – their personalities are stripped. I’d love to help many more.’
How can you help?
For more information and to make a donation, visit www.torussiawithlove.ie.