Emotionally stable parents seem to know naturally how to play with their children. The parents Sunflower supports grew up in children’s homes and they need to learn this essential skill.
Lida’s childhood was marked by multiple traumas: alcoholic parents, time in a children’s home, and several failed adoption placements before she was successfully placed with her present family. She now lives in Lensovietsky, the suburb featured in our last newsletter, where Sunflower has recently set up a support group due to the high number of care-leavers in the area.
Lida was rather passive and would just say, “you see, she doesn’t listen to me”. The Theraplay method involves repeating the same simple games. This means that it is easy for the child to learn the rules and for the parents to concentrate on their child. Sunflower had a breakthrough when Liza’s dad also started coming to sessions. He too grew up in a children’s home and came from a family of alcoholics. He is rather jealous of Lida’s relationship with her adoptive family, and this makes it difficult for her to get support from them. This puts a strain on her relationship with Liza’s dad.
Theraplay has helped bring the three of them closer together. Lida values the sessions now and is keen not to miss them. She chats to her daughter and gives her cuddles. In return, Liza will ask her mama for help and also does what she is told more often. It’s obvious that Liza really likes playing with her mama and papa now. She particularly likes being swung in a blanket.
Sunflower continues to work despite the very difficult climate. With foreign funding from many quarters disappearing and local funding also drying up many local charities have had to cut services. Sunflower continues to support 21 families in crisis, including 30 children.
Vlad started coming to our support group for orphanage-leavers in St Petersburg a year ago with his friend, Boris. From the start he engaged really well with all the activities. Our colleagues invited him to take part in the summer camp, which he did with enthusiasm. Again, he took part in everything, was very helpful and was very open in all discussions.
Vlad knew that he could stay in touch over the summer. A few weeks after the camp, our colleagues got a call from him to say that he was moving out into his own flat. He said, “Everything’s fine. I just walk around and admire my place.” Over the next few weeks he kept in touch and was looking forward to restarting the group sessions in September.
So when September came, it was a surprise to our colleagues when Vlad didn’t appear and stopped taking calls. They got in touch with his college, who said that everything was fine and that he was going to classes and living at their hostel now.
Lensovietsky is a new suburb of St Petersburg, which has become a “settlement of orphanage-leavers”. Its crime-rate and anti-social behaviour make it notorious. There is loud music, conflicts, fights, etc round the clock. Police raids and visits by social services have become the norm district. Understandable, orphanage-leavers are not popular with other residents. Quite apart from their antisocial lifestyle, they have run up debts for heating and water supply, and residents have complained about the disconnection of such necessary services. The infrastructure – medical, educational, social institutions – in the residential district is still underdeveloped. For leavers, this has become one of the main obstacles to their integration into society.
This is the context for a new class our partners, Sunflower, have set up this year for families in crisis with children under 5.
We are delighted that on 13th October our Patron, His Royal Highness, Prince Michael of Kent, visited the Sunflower Centre in St Petersburg to find out about their flagship programmes at first hand. The Sunflower Centre focuses on providing psychological support for parents who grew up in orphanages and for teenagers leaving orphanages in St. Petersburg.
Almost all the children growing up in Russian children’s homes have living parents. The are sometimes called “social orphans”, but they are not orphans in the true sense. Their parents have been judged unfit to look after them, and they have been taken away from them for their own protection. If we think about them as “children in care”, then we can be more clear-sighted about how to help them. Let’s support organisations that really make a difference instead of giving to the “orphanages” that are part of the problem.
Our colleagues at Sunflower in St Petersburg have a fantastic record working with young people who have grown up in children’s homes. With their support, the young people learn to understand and manage their emotions, to plan and take responsible decisions, and to develop healthy, trusting relationships. This takes time. The young people have complex needs having experienced a life-time of trauma. Several have run away from their chidren’s home before. Several are addicted to solvent abuse or have criminal records. Many of them have physical and/ or mental health problems. Vadim, aged 19, is one of the newcomers to Sunflower’s support programme. He has yet to fully trust the staff and his peers, but this lad who others were unable to help, is engaged and motivated to change.
Our newsletter is out now with stories from Moscow, St Petersburg, Kondopoga and Tbilisi. To celebrate our 30th anniversary we look back and appreciate how far we’ve come. We take stock of the extraordinary present day and look ahead to future plans. Dive in, and join our efforts to create a brighter future for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our regions.
Seraphim and Masha met at their children’s home. They married and Masha got pregnant. Seraphim has been involved with our programme for orphanage-leavers for some time. He brought Masha and their son, Tolya, to the group when Tolya was three months. Seraphim was such a proud dad, always showing photos of his son. He even put up their New Year tree in November, he was so excited. So it was a great shock when Seraphim died later that month.
How Masha and Tolya would be faring now without Sunflower’s support doesn’t bear thinking about. When Masha joined the parenting group she was struggling to bond with her baby. She found physical contact, or even eye contact difficult. Tolya responded by crying when he was touched, which dented her confidence further. She would say, “He doesn’t love me. He won’t look at me.“
In the months before Seraphim’s death, Masha and Tolya had been making great progress. Sunflower used play therapy to encourage more contact between mother and baby. Each week showed Masha how to play simple games which encourage eye contact, physical touching and chatting. Gradually their bond grew with Masha holding Tolya closer and interacting much more. She started to relax, obviously enjoying their growing closeness. Tolya in return became less tense and more interested in the world around him. When he first came to Sunflower he had been stiff, almost like a doll. Now he could hold his head up and look around him. He no longer cried when he was held or touched.
During this time, Masha also built trusting relationships with Sunflower’s team. So after Seraphim’s death, Sunflower have been able to regularly visit her at home to support her through this traumatic time. They are happy that Tolya is receiving the care that he needs, and are committed to working with the family for as long as they are needed.
Thank you to all our donors who help this programme survive. We know there are many more orphanage-leavers out there having to cope with difficult life events without the backup of family or an organisation like Sunflower. Having seen how the right help can transform lives, we are working to reach more of them. This is through Sunflower’s support groups and their training for professionals working with families in crisis in St Petersburg and beyond.
We aren’t helping victims, we are helping survivors of childhood trauma. Our colleagues in St Petersburg work to bring out the strengths of the orphanage-leavers they support. With time, many of the young people go on to become mentors, formally and informally supporting other young people. Just watch this video if you doubt how extraordinary these young people can be when they are given the chance.
This Christmas we are all hoping that 2021 will be better than 2020. Our Christmas appeal is aimed at making sure that is true for the most vulnerable as well, and particularly the orphanage-leavers.
Lena grew up in an orphanage in St Petersburg. She joined Sunflower’s support programme two years ago after she split up with her boyfriend. She had realised that she was getting tetchy and tearful and was going out drinking more often. At around this time, Lena lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Her then boyfriend didn’t visit her in hospital, and this was when she decided to end their strained relationship. Not knowing how to live alone, she said, “I didn’t just lose myself, but my home too. I would do nothing but work, even putting in extra shifts just to avoid having to think about anything.” Continue reading Life changed in so many ways for this orphanage-leaver.
Christmas cards and gifts for charity
Our charity shop has unique gifts handcrafted in Georgia and Russia, exclusive card designs, jewellery, books, toiletries and more. Each purchase helps vulnerable children and families in Eastern Europe.