Going Back For More
Getting to Gorodishche is not an easy undertaking – whether you speak of this in the physical or mental sense. The journey (which involved car – bus – flight – flight – minibus) took close to 24 hours and involved travelling through the night with little (if any) sleep. Not an ideal start to a week where you need all of your energy and wits about you! The bigger part of the journey though is the mental part – deciding that giving up your time to work in an orphanage with children who have many challenges is not a decision that is made lightly. But my decision to visit was made last year when my first trip brought such amazing joy and memories as well as sorrow and pain. Like the infamous second album or second novel, I worried that the first trip was so good that I could not repeat the experience or that I might be disappointed with what Gorodishche 2018 was going to be. But no worries, my trip in March 2018 was every bit as wondrous and joyful as that of 2017. And you guessed it – I'll be back!
The journey to Gorodishche was not without its own level of adventure. Visiting Belarus is more complex than your normal visit to a country in Europe. For the week-long trip we had to be issued an invitation by Burren Chernobyl in order to get our entry Visa. Mostly that's just filling forms and getting passports stamped but the entry border at Belarus certainly doesn't give you a warm and smiley greeting – instead you are seeing a very formal and cold world, something you expect from the “cold East”.
A Special Welcome
We started our journey on the night (early morning) of March 24th, the night the hour changed. This caused initial confusion as our plan A bus announced that they would not be running on the “new clock”, plan B meant a 00:30 bus journey from Limerick to Dublin. The Famous Five (who were soon to become The Magnificent Seven) were on the move. The full group finally met in Gatwick, plenty of wait and “getting to know you” time for all. A photo opportunity at the gate and were off on the Belavia flight to Minsk. I've been on many flights over the years but I can safely say that I have never been so frightened as the pilot decided to give us a most interesting sharp bank-left followed by a sharp bank-right just before landing. At one point I was sure that the wing tips were going to clip the trees, gulp! Landed safe and sound – always knew he would.
Volunteers departing Gatwick
There's a clearly known sequence to arriving in Belarus. You go from the insurance kiosk (downstairs) to the visa office (upstairs) to passport control (downstairs) and finally to the baggage hall. Simple as unless . . . . Tired (but not yet emotional) we spent more than one hour at the visa office as the lady on that night (remember “warm and smiley”) decided that we need to re-fill significant amounts of our visa applications with information that we couldn't have known or expected to have to fill. At one point we had a visit from security wondering why we hadn't collected our bags from the carousel downstairs – don't ask me! Over an hour later, with frustration levels high, we were given the group visa and in a completely disarming moment our friendly lady in the visa booth said “thank you for what you do for our children” - I was not expecting that.
I believe that in order to volunteer with any organisation; you have to receive as well as give. The nature of volunteering suggests that this is a giving only process but I think that if there is not an 80% (giving) to 20% (receiving) ratio, people would not volunteer as they do. I know from my trip to Gorodishche last year that there is a real sense of receiving – the joy experienced when you dance/sing, hug, or stand in the presence of these wonderful people has to be experienced to be fully understood. Their joy and happiness is infectious and can be deeply moving (the famous “moments” that we have all experienced). I promised that I would return after my maiden voyage last year and I could not wait to be in the presence of such beauty and unconditional love that is the children of the orphanage. I also looked forward to spending some quality time with our heart-adopted daughters Tanya and Lida. Joanne and I promised a return in the springtime and, like any good parents would, we were keeping our promise. The excitement of the return journey becomes palpable weeks before the travel ordeal and grows as the weeks turn to days – it's 246 days since leaving the orphanage and now I've arrived
More than a translator
Our Living Saint
Tamara and Iryna were waiting in the arrivals hall, we had no way of contacting them so they wondered what the delay had been – "red tape" we explained . Iryna is truly the saint in all that is Gorodishche. Nothing is a problem for her and she works tirelessly in and out of volunteer season (we had estimated that she would not have a single day off from the day of our visit until the final volunteers left in September). No request goes without response (even finding some rare food items for volunteers in the past) and she patiently guides volunteers (new and old) through each of the groups, explaining in great detail who we are meeting and what the circumstances (family) are of each child in the orphanage. But her work goes beyond knowledge and service to the volunteers and BCP, it is clear that she is loved by the children and she spends time with them in the way a mother would – she is truly a living saint.
The New House
I visit the orphanage this time with a certain amount of knowledge – I know (roughly) where I am going and I know (approximately) what is needed of me. It’s been a long cold winter in Belarus – temperatures can reach -20o and the opportunities for the children to get out and play in the fresh air are few and far between (although they are hardy and are prepared for the harsh winter weather). I wonder what changes I will see – hoping, of course, that all of these will be for the better. The first piece of exciting good news, they are building a house on the site in order to move those that live independently into their own selfcontained living quarters – fantastic. There is a rumour that there may also be some rooms for the Irish in this new building – surely too good to be true! The build is underway and over the course of the week we see little (if any) progress – it appears that it may take more than a year to bring this to fruition. There is also confusion as to who/how this is being funded – a problem for others as we focus on the things that we can effect.
Work in progress
Gorodishche orphanage is staffed to accommodate up to 220 children (although the term child can be taken loosely as there are residents here in their 40's). Presently it houses just over 200 – somewhat of a good news story (I think). Belarus is listed as a Democratic Republic and has an elected president (Alexander Lukashenko has been in office since July 1994). Its government has actively looked to address its issue with “social orphans” (a child has no adults looking after it, even though one or more parents are still alive ) for many years and introduced a bill in 2006 to tackle the issue. The bill (Decree No. 18) has seen a dramatic decrease in those in orphanages with numbers dropping by 65% between 2004 and 2014. Where a child has one or both parents alive, the state works to keep the child from institutional care and parent(s) must now pay the state if their child is cared for in an institution. All great news indeed (but may mean a change to the nature of those in care here as intake numbers dwindle and those leaving for adult institutions reduces).
Happy Birthday Veronika
Birthday's Are A Big Deal
“Now girls” (I've become one the girls for the week), “our first visit will be to group 7 – it's Veronika's birthday today” Iryna announces on Monday morning. What a start – not sure what day I have or what time zone I'm in and I'm off to a party (it's Monday and 9am in Belarus in case you're wondering!). Nothing gets a day started quite like cake, biscuits, and fizzy lemon. It's the first of many birthdays that we will celebrate this week, we take the opportunity to celebrate with those who fall close to the dates of our visit. Donned with the birthday hat and glasses, Veronika is wished a happy birthday in Russian (we know that song) and English before she receives birthday wishes from her friends. Based on Iryna's translation – it appears that Veronika may not treat the boys so good in the orphanage. This is the first opportunity for the new volunteers to sense Gorodishche and I remember only too well my trepidation and excitement on this occasion last year. With it being a party, this is the ideal ice breaker and all settle in to the week (albeit with a bit of a sugar rush). Polina (from the independents group) is on hand to sing a special song for Veronika – it's the song we learned in phonetic Russian/English last year and I'm happy that it is still popular (and that we can now teach it to a whole new volunteer group).
A Hall Of Many Purposes
A trip to the sports hall can mean any of a number of things; competitive sports, a disco, or a performance by the team of entertainers (or maybe a combination of all of these). We were treated to a performance of “journey through tales” in the hall on our second day at the orphanage. The cast, entirely made up of residents, brought hilarity and boredom (see the photo of Vika) to various groups and volunteers. Singing, dancing, and plenty of forest trees were on display.
Before the show got started we had to partake in the ultra-competitive sports events (I call it that because “I hate losing”) where we raced up and down the hall with one leg in a basket and a mop handle – no sign of the health and safety team here then! To top off the perfect trio of terrific treats – a disco. All of my girls were in attendance – Joanne, Tanya, Lida, Vaselina, and Nastia. As I had discovered last year, dancing with a wheelchair partner can be difficult – dancing with three or four even more so but thanks to Polina for her help when Joanne went to another group.
Lida and her sick eyes
Sick Bay Bound
Joanne and I had a sense that Lida (my girl from last year) wasn't well. From our first meeting we could sense that she was distant and very quiet. We went to our favourite place, the classroom in Group 4 where I've become Papa to all! The group loves to be part of a good sing-song, I think there's more Irish in them than their names might suggest. We sang for them as they played along with every imaginable percussion instrument and then they treated us to their favourite songs. Lida played her banjo (the blow-up type) and carefully copied me as I strummed and picked the guitar, finishing with both of us playing the one guitar. Much as she was clearly excited to have us with her, she was not that well. On Thursday we got the news that she had been taken to sick bay, I may not get to see her again before the end of the week. But where there's a will . . . . We got to meet for a short while as she was left out to visit with us in Group 4 but the best was saved till last, the morning we were leaving. I was allowed to visit Lida in sick bay (despite the mama not being that welcoming) and as I turned to leave I heard “ya tebya lyublyu” (I love you), disarming in the most alarming way – I've made an impact!
Me & My Girls
The Magnificent Seven were a mix of experienced and first time volunteers from counties Clare and Offaly. Joanne, our leader, has been many times and has enough of the language (in words and gestures) to get us through any situation – even stopping “strangers” in the street to give them big hugs. Selina and Aisling had been once before and were well aware of the routine. Our newbies for the week were Melissa, Sophie, and Roisin. For a group that had only met in Gatwick airport on the Sunday of our trip, it felt like we had known each other for years – there was even some controversy as to why we didn't know about Aisling's long-term relationship until the Tuesday (“kept that one quiet”). Living in close proximity for more than a week with such highly charged emotions requires a group that is willing to bond and we did, rumours of sleep-overs and all night chats abound (not me I need to add quickly). To fellow travellers in the airports I wondered if they might have thought Joanne and I were bringing our 5 daughters away on holidays
Joanne, Aisling, Sophie, Melissa, Roisin, and Selina
What to bring with you on the week-long trip is always a challenge. There's a balance between bringing clothes and food, to last a week, and bringing bits-and-pieces for the kids. People have different approaches to packing; from my minimalist approach; to Joanne's outfit for all occasions; and everything in between. But there are some specifics that are worthy of mention. On arriving at the orphanage we could see that Aisling and Roisin had managed to fill the fridge and as the week went on we were amazed at the beef stroganoff, stir-fry chicken, fresh sausages that had managed to get all the way from Tullamore to Gorodishche. I doubt that the kitchen in the orphanage had ever seen such delicacies prepared! However, “exotic food of the trip” prize must surely go to Melissa who brought tinned pineapples in her case, sure how could you travel without pineapples I ask!
Joanne & her baby
It feels like Mama Joanna is part of the furniture in Gorodishche, she is known by (and loved) by many of the staff. She throws out hugs to all, and they respond. From the bus driver in his car to the lady with the baby on the street to the hairdresser who wanted to smell like Joanna – they all have a place for her (and her for them). For part of the trip, and in certain groups, I become “muzh Joanna” (Joanne's husband) – a man with no name! But pride of place for Joanna is surely in Tanya's heart. Tanya cannot take her eyes off her mama from the minute we arrive to when we leave. At one moment during the disco when Joanne had to go to another room (being a leader meant a lot of extra work), Tanya was constantly asking where she had gone and when she would be back. In a rather bizarre way (evidenced by the photo) Tanya and Joanne look like they are related and in their hearts they really are Mother & Daughter. I'm proud to be part of this wonderful relationship and so happy to be Papa to our Tanya.
The great thing about the second visit is that you can be prepared for the places that might upset you or cause the famous “Gorodishche moment” to take you over. Group 3 beds and cots were really not good for me on my initial visit and I often had to excuse myself in order to regain my composure (which isn't necessarily important but I am a man after all!). One of the many magic moments of my visit last year was with a young lady called Masha. I reached out to her and she responded with her eyes shut and my hands on her hands, a beautiful peaceful “connected” moment.
We visited the group that she was in during the week and I was conscious that she was there (mostly with Selina). I was happy to engage with others in the group and we have a really nice time. We were getting up to leave and she moved towards me – what happened next I really cannot explain. I bent down to look at her eye to eye and I felt a stillness and calm come over the room. I reached out and she smiled and did the same. She moved towards me and climbed in to my arms, eyes shut as they had been last year. As I lifted her I was overwhelmed and began to cry, the sense of tranquillity I experienced was breath-taking. Joanne asked if I wanted a photo facing the camera – I declined and was caught up in the moment of pure magic and bliss.
WOW! Moments like this make the trip so worthwhile, it's where the 80/20 became better than 50/50.
Local home in Gorodishche
The Village Of Gorodishche
The town of Gorodishche must look forward to the visiting Irish and the boost this gives to the local economy. Over the years there have been new shops opened and I have to ask how a town of this size can stock so many yoghurts for supply to the kids (through the Irish) – do you think they know we are coming? In the course of the week I expect that we bought them out of water, yoghurts, mega chips, sweets, biscuits, and a strange thing called Fizz (hydration is very important, even in the depths of winter). We were less than adventurous with the local produce, staying safe with local cheese, eggs, bread, and milk – next time (I swear). For such a small town it boasts a hospital, a public library, a massive hardware store and many general stores (of which we frequented just two). There are also two impressive churches (one Russian Orthodox and one Catholic). I need to do some more research before my next visit to fully understand the large World War II Jewish graveyard that also exists in the town.
A Proper Gentleman
Vanya is a handsome young man that I had the pleasure of meeting in the sports hall last year. He is more able-bodied and brighter than most in the orphanage (me included) and he is in his comfort zone when playing in the sports hall. He was the one that I caught cheating in the games last year and played him at his own game (I know; I am a bit overly competitive). Vanya is camera shy, preferring to be directly involved in or assisting others in the sports that take place. He shouts words of encouragement and runs beside people that are struggling – he is a gentleman in the making. Sporting (get the pun!) a newly forming moustache, he excels in more complex ball sports. He took joy in juggling three balls (one football, two tennis balls) when we had some outdoor sports in the snow. Not content with being the sports star of the place, Vanya also turns up as the leading man in the show – dancing and acting his way through the many fairy tales that were dramatised for us.
Vanya and Don
The lovely Nastia
It's Not All Good!
People who know me know that I fell in love in and with Gorodishche last year. The love story continues but it would be remiss of me to paint such a pretty picture without some level of balance. I'm a glass half full man, I want things to be better than, maybe, they really are. My personal disappointment of the trip came in the form of one of the beautiful young girls in Group 3. Nastia was one of the shining beacons from my trip in 2017, she had been part of the Group 4 girls but was moved back to the beds some time ago. I spent quite a bit of time with Nastia during the trip, painting with (or should I say for) her and just sitting in here presence – holding her hands. Her body seems weaker and more contorted than I remember and on one visit I observed her having mild seizures every 2 minutes, going off to a strange place and losing contact with me physically and mentally. Selina joined me at one point and we both watched as Nastia would let go of our hands and drift to a place that I hope wasn't too painful. As we left Gorodishche on the Saturday morning I called in to say goodbye, I'm sorry I did. What I saw was not the lasting memory that I would want of this beautiful girl.
Leading By Example
Every team has to have a leader, good; bad; or indifferent. Our leader (Mama Joanna) was the most experienced of the team but it wasn't length of service that makes Joanne a great leader. She has established credible and lasting relationships with everyone in Gorodishche – I mean everyone! Whether it's the mama's or the residents, everyone loves our Joanne. She communicates on a level that defies normal understanding – empathy, kindness, gratitude and love are truly a language that she can speak fluently. I'm so happy that she convinced me to make my first trip in 2017 and I look forward to a lifelong relationship with my best friend and our family in Gorodishche.
Joanne and her boys (and the duck!)
The Wild Ones
Group 5 was my shocking introduction to the orphanage last year. The boundless energy and constant “in your face” nature of the kids was scary (as well as the fact that they wanted to climb all over me all of the time). I wasn't going to be shocked by this group on this visit but I did make some beautiful connections with this wild bunch. Sasha is the alpha male of the group, he demands and commands attention. This distracted me last year and I spent much of my time trying to avoid his attention. But this year I saw him simply as a mischievous, playful kid. I really enjoyed his company – being with this group in the hall is a must. When I wasn't enjoying his focused attention, I found Katia to be such a gentle and beautiful child. We spent quite some time dancing in the hall, her feet on mine as we made our way around the floor – her in her somewhat fashionable white shoes.
Our Poster Boy
Sergei became a bit of a poster boy in Clare after I arrived home last year. A number of the papers liked the shot of him and I and published this with some of my story. Later when we were looking to publicise the CD, this same photo became the image of BCP. I was delighted that I could give him the t-shirt with this image on this visit. To say happy would be an understatement (as witnessed by that smile). He is one of the quieter ones in the group and stays very much in the background (where I found him for our quiet moment – my first selfie). The down side – the t-shirt might become a standard order for every visit!
Winter in Gorodishche
Bleak Mid Winter (in March)
Winter has not left Belarus just yet, apparently it's later this year than normal (must be because us Irish love the snow!). The weather was bearable and staying in the main building (as opposed to the Penthouse) made the trip so much more comfortable (don't get carried away, we are still on the 1 star at most category of accommodation). We had snow on a couple of the days there but nothing that settled for too long. In keeping with the outside feeling – we had Christmas songs in the kitchen one of the days. I can safely say that I will remember the walk to the library and the intense cold breeze that took hold of all of us en-route. We had one afternoon with a mixed group in the snow at the back of the old orphanage. The kids know not to mess in the snow but there's no controlling the Irish! Minsk had a lot more snow than Gorodishche and I expect that spring is just around the corner, where things will become a little greener and brighter
To The Manor Born!
I could keep writing, and there are lots more people that I really would like to tell you about but there is only one more “lady” left in my story of March 2018. I spent a lot of time with Olga in Group 3 last year and during this visit, something brought me to her bedside on every trip to 3. I visualised her as a lady from another time, someone who may even be of royal heritage. I greeted her as “my lady” and she responded with that smile – the one to die for. I could never truly tell if the sound she made was one of happiness or distress but I sensed that she wanted me to be beside her. I cup her face and say a prayer, she laughs (or cries) and I move on.
And finally, a few thank you's: -
To the quiet man who makes it all happen – Br. Liam. I don't know where he gets his energy and the vision that he has to make the institutions in Belarus a better place for all – one small step at a time.
To Shannon Parish and Fr. Tom Ryan who have kept Gorodishche and the needs of its beautiful children on the agenda long after Canon Brendan O'Donoghue's millennium project was delivered.
To Iryna for all that you’ve done and continue to do for the volunteers and children of Gorodishche
To Tamara who bring us safely through the visit – from door to door.
And to The Magnificent Seven – the volunteer group of March 2018 – Спасибо