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Moscow: People Making a Difference 2/4/06

Across Russia, Fulbright Scholars, Volunteers and Students are making a profound difference in the lives of many they touch. It may be through working with an orphanage and the homeless in St. Petersburg, enhancing economic skills in Moscow, working with families at risk in Irkutsk, teaching people how to speak English here there and everywhere, or a host of other activities. Their stories, challenges, setbacks and triumphs were shared at a two-day retreat hosted by the Moscow Office that included advice and support from the US Embassy. The State Department and Americans can be proud of the quality of people and services rendered by these very dedicated volunteers and professionals. While there I was given the added opportunity to connect with others whom are equally making a difference, some who work for us and some who are Russians taking on various challenges from their end.

Naj with Russian rock legend Alexander Gratsky, flanked by Olga and Natasha (two friends of Naj and Yanzhima from Lake Baikal).

Alexander Gratsky

Sasha, Alexander Gratsky, is a dear friend that I have known since 1989 when in Moscow working for the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders and the Soviet Academy of Science on the second International Forum on Human Survival. He was then, and remains today, a gifted musical legend; a rock star with a powerful voice of tremendous range that reverberated the rafters of Cathedral St John the Divine in the early nineties at a Paul Winter Consort Winter Solstice Concert one snowy December night in New York City. Seeing him again after an break of nearly twelve years, was a heart warming reunion at the debut of his friend's new restaurant, packed with stars and producers of Russian theatre, television, film, and music and a table filled with close childhood friends, many of whom grew up with him in the same apartment building.

Sasha takes risks. He always has. He leaps in full throttle artistically and spiritually. Now he has taken on renovating a theatre, officially sanctioned by the state, that, if all goes well, will open in December and showcase new Russian talent coupled with artists from Europe and the United States; country, folk, blues and other aspects of our musical roots not so often heard in Russia. What's the big deal? Working with government bureaucracy. Pulling together the finances. Dealing with contractors. Trying to figure out how to market events where direct mail doesn't exist, internet marketing is limited, and newspapers charge to write an article. Recruiting, scheduling and housing the performers, say nothing of covering their fees and getting them to Moscow. His life would be far easier just as a performer, but taking on artistic challenges is part of what makes him tick. That he will succeed I have no doubt.

Maria and some of the 300 orphans she helps.

Maria's Children: Arts Rehabilitation Center

Moscow artist Maria Yeliseyeva works in a cramped, crammed basement studio in the center of Moscow, every square inch wedged with arts and musical supplies, computers, and kids practically sitting on top of one another all creating, cooking, talking and mentoring others. Clearly many are living with some physical and emotional challenges of a daunting nature. They represent a delegation from just one of ten orphanages who send a total of 300 students to spend three to four hours, two to three times a week, using the arts to express their emotions, find joy, a very loving and supportive environment, and trust; and develop the skills and confidence to live on their own after they leave the orphanage.

Participants making art at Maria's.

Maria founded Maria's Children, a Russian NGO, in 1993 in response to her experience meeting orphans near her home and studio. She and some friends, fellow volunteers, started with a dozen children from Orphanage #3, a program that grew over the years to the vibrant center of today with its affiliate summer clown camp that attracts volunteers from Russia and abroad. With that added feature it is not surprising that Dr. Patch Adams, the original doctoring clown, has become a dear friend, valued mentor, source of volunteers, and valuable aide in helping raise money and make contacts.

Maria readily admits that she is not a trained or certified arts therapist, but she has read and pulled many techniques from a wide range of arts therapy books that have provided valuable ideas for her staff to implement with great results. I was especially pleased to see a Mac computer, the same iBook G4 that I love, being used to develop drawing and animation skills. It was just one of many far ranging creative tools, beginning with ones own fingers, that were being put to bear resulting in a lively and prodigious output while others were whacking up carrots, cabbages and onions for a meal being prepared for all.

"They need love, trust and the ability to express themselves," said Maria. "That's what we provide them. The art they create goes out to transform the places where they live, is displayed in exhibits we arrange, or becomes large collaborative murals sold to help sustain the work. They are making a difference in their lives and the lives of others. We help the older students transition out of the orphanage to lives on their own. Many continue to stay connected with us, some have returned as volunteers or staff."
Maria's Children website

Alexandra Mikhailovna Lenartovich, the director of Kovcheg, a school that combines able and disabled students.

Kovcheg Secondary School: Integrating Lives and Education

When she was twelve, Alexandra Mikhailovna Lenartovich's daughter had the rare opportunity to travel with a group of students to England. While upon their return many of her fellow children talked about the sights and experiences they had, to her mother's question she responded that she was most impressed by how disabled people were well treated; buses, the metro, restaurants, concert halls and other places were accessible. "They could live normal lives like other people," she said.

Lenartovich, then teaching in a university, noticed how "students with disabilities coming into the university often were not as well educated, not as well prepared than their counterparts." She felt that problem was that they hadn't being given a fair or equal shake in elementary school. Inspired by her daughter's response, she set out to do something quite radically different, develop a school where children with disabilities would be fully integrated and that the tool for creating an equal playing field would be the arts. The result is Kovcheg.

"I never seen such an office of a school official," said Ekaterina Molukova, a coordinator of educational and orphan programs for IREX in Moscow referring to Lenartovich's jam packed office with books, files, arts supplies, and artifacts stacked, hung and posted floor to ceiling. "I've never seen a school like this. Brightly colored walls. Art everywhere. Children happily racing about. It's unimaginable."

A hallway at Kovcheg.

Children didn't march to classes, they charged with enthusiasm as if they couldn't wait to get there through imaginatively patterned hallways and stairwells festooned with paintings and sculptures. Once there, who could blame them? Each classroom was unique and alive with plants, people and ideas. Many students started in on projects well before the bell rang for the class to begin. In class after class it was clear that those with disabilities were equally as enthused and involved as everybody else. A good case in point was the music class. Sitting in a large semicircle with an array of instruments that ranged from a piano, a student with a flute, numerous others having tam tams, a large drum, shakers, recorders and their teacher on a violin, after a run through of the instruments and part each was to perform, all launched into a Mozart composition that did the master musician proud. While the students' parts ranged from accomplished performances on the flute and piano to a simple slide of a sea drum, the timing and marriage of all abilities combined to a beautiful whole with each part equally celebrated by their teacher. All were justly pleased by their own and everyone else's contribution.

Music teacher Yulyi Yulievich with class.

Music teacher Yulyi Yulievich said, "The arts creates a level playing field. Every student here is talented at something. We find and celebrate that talent. I use music to really sock it to them that every person here is vital. After that, math, history and science are not such a threat. Just another note to learn." He went on to add, "What's special about this school is that we created the school with our own hands. We wanted it to be like this. We made our dream real."

"We have 514 students who go to school everyday," said Alexandra Lenartovich. "We have another 40 who are one and a half to five years old and twenty that are older than eighteen, young people with disorders that prevent them from having a right to work. They make and deliver meals to pensioners. We show them that they too can help others. This gives them the force to live. Of all the students who are here, 210 are living with some form of disability. When we started this school fifteen years ago, we wanted to create an atmosphere that would give all children a will to learn. We use the arts to create that atmosphere. The faculty are committed to helping children. Many have adopted children. I have adopted two. The more people who love a child the better. We create an atmosphere of love and trust and they respond."

Kovcheg has now created teams available to go to other schools to mentor and help them develop similar programs, indeed spreading the benefits of this approach a vital part of their mission. Some schools, such as Beslanskaya, known the world over for the deadly terrorist attack and subsequent brutal rescue that left many faculty, students and staff dead in its wake, had several of their surviving students and faculty in residence as part of a rotation and outreach program to help that community rebuild. Indeed as we talked they stepped into the room to give their good-byes. Lenartovich shrugged her broad shoulders and spread her strong arms and hands, "It was something we could do to help heal the wounds," she said, "and help them bring joy back into their shattered lives. The arts and love are helping them heal."

She wrapped her arms around folding them into a deep embrace. In the distance the laughter of children could be heard.

The American Center

I can't leave this topic without giving a brief, but solid endorsement of The American Center in Moscow and it's director Marisa Fushille. In Moscow, and elsewhere, the American Centers reflect what's best about our libraries, open access to information, books and magazines to browse, access to the internet, stimulating lectures, tapes and CD's, and a staff of dedicated professionals whose basic motto is, "how can I help." This center provided me the opportunity to give a presentation to a full lecture hall on cultural tourism and examples of economic development in my region, the Adirondacks. But more than that they bent over backwards to help me deal with a vexing problem of rearranging my travel back to the States in April, successfully I'm glad to add. Indeed on that end, their help was a tag team of great support provided by the Embassy and the Center, Marsia in particular; this while she was deeply engaged in supporting a dear friend get critical medical assistance. I found a similar spirit at work in the American Center in Irkutsk. Day in and day out across Russia the best of American values are on display and accessible.
The American Center website.

The US Embassy

Ambassador William Burns can be justly proud of his Public Affairs division. Deborah Guido-O'Grady, Tobias Bradford, and many others are all dedicated professionals serving our country, and in my case, supporting the Fulbright program. Russia is a huge country. Indeed a large map stretches across a wall of their fourth floor offices dotted with pins showing the placement of American Centers, Fulbright Scholars and Students, volunteers and others reaching out to share our experiences and gain from the experiences of Russians. The Embassy, The Fulbright Program, USAID and IREX are among the vital programs being administered by or in cooperation with the State Department to facilitate activities of mutual benefit. Maria's Children and the Kovcheg School are but two of many beneficiaries. My trip to Kemerovo was another as is the expansion of my Fulbright grant by 2.5 months to provide more time to work with five children's hospitals in Buryatia.

Is everything done perfectly? Hardly. Our Fulbright retreat seminar space was so chilly that winter gear had to be worn inside, but with Moscow, indeed Russia experiencing the coldest winter since the Germans launched what became their frozen attack on Moscow in WWII, certain things are out of anyone's control. Could have been worse, several nearby communities lost their central heating altogether. On the other hand, for those of us coming from central and eastern Siberia, - 20 to -30 temperatures were just another day of sitting inside a tramway commuting to work.

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