In mid-August we were able to visit the Starista orphanage with a team (from Pennsylvania and Florida) that had arrived to do the outreaches to the cities of Kaluga and Dedovsk. Some of the summer interns and staff were able to join in, too. Once again, we whizzed along the highways and backroads of Russia on our three hour journey to Tver, grateful once again to arrive safely. As we pulled up, some of the orphans were outside, big waves and smiles warming our hearts as we pulled into the back of the play yard.
Like our previous trip, we spent the first hour just getting acquainted again with the children. While some feel very comfortable with us now and will rush into our arms for hugs, others always need to won over each time and that may not happen until the end of our visit, and sometimes it doesn't happen at all. One touching moment for me in this initial greeting with the children was when one of the boys (who knew us well) came up to me smiling and showed me the new cross he was wearing around his neck, then hugged me. I was so blessed that he'd made a clear connection between our visits and the message of Jesus" love that we always shared with them.
So we jumped rope, blew bubbles, let the kids show off their skills at the swings (a couple could actually make the swing do a complete circle -- quite amazing). We taught them a new game called "Cat and Mouse," played on the teeter totter, etc., before we were allowed to go inside.
After a few of the boys showed off their break-dancing skills, we had a time of crafts, which the children always love, even the older ones. One craft was the construction of a paper bag pig puppet, which was used when the team did their skit of The Prodigal Son. The children "squealed" with delight as the skit team acted out the narrated parable of a son gone astray and the loving Father rejoicing at his son's return." The children also decorated baseball caps with foamie sticker animals and Christian symbols. As we wrapped up our indoor time with the children, they were given colorful knapsacks filled with fun items like punching balloons and heart or star shaped glasses, which they loved showing off. Once outside again, we were able to play with the kids, some playing soccer, some on the swings again, and some just horsing around.
It's always a wonder to me how the Lord uses these simple things to reach the heart of a child. It's building trust and offering a hope beyond what they experience everyday that unlocks their wounded hearts. One team member shared:
"During this visit I met a new girl named Alyona who had just come to the orphanage with her sisters. She looked so sad and didn't smile. As we did crafts together, I tried to get her to smile. I hugged her, let her sit on my lap and tried to communicate in the little Russian I know. Slowly a smile began to form on her face. By the end of the day, she was grinning from ear to ear! She is so beautiful when she smiles! What a joy to be able to share God's love in a place where many children feel as though they have no hope."
There was one older boy named Sasha who's always been hard to reach. He often hides out in the orphanage's small library, working at a computer they have. He is quiet and hangs back when he does joins the group, his dark, but gentle eyes always watching us. He's always been a puzzle since doesn't usually like to engage in any of our activities, but truly, who knows the hurts he's suffered? After all, he's here, an orphan, without parents or a place to call home. So I found it amazing that he approached me with a volleyball and with those gentle, dark eyes indicated that he wanted to play. I was thrilled -- Sasha had stepped out of his shell a bit and volleyball was my game. So we bumped the ball back and forth, though I have to confess that was the hardest dog-gone volleyball I'd ever played with! A part of me screamed "This isn't gonna work! You're gonna break your wrist!" (Not really, but it felt that way to me and the other team members who joined in.) But God was gracious and my arms became numb so we played for quite a while. When it was time to quit, Sasha paused and nodded, smiling before vanishing into the orphanage, and I praised God for this first step of building trust with this shy teen.
And this is the beauty of the orphan visits. We don't know how God's going to use our time with the children to impact their lives, we just know He does. Just being faithful to a child's desire to connect with you or one child responding to the love given them in a single afternoon all works to show them the face and the touch of Jesus, at least this is always our prayer and desire. As we drove out of the yard, the littler ones chasing the van, waving and calling out "pa-ca! pa-ca!" (goodbye), we were blessed to have been a part of sowing the seed of God's sweet love into the lives of these precious, forgotten children.