There’s no higher purpose than Service to others
Dan Millman Way Of The Peaceful Warrior
Meeting Iryna at the airport
And We're Back
Hard to believe that it’s now 10 months since I’ve been with my family in Gorodishche, the longest time that I’ve been away from the orphanage since I first went to Belarus in July 2017. But the journey begins – van, bus, plane, minibus – and 16 hours later we are “home”. We’ve taken a different route this time, avoiding London at all costs as the unknown effects of Brexit were expected to kick in on October 31st , delays were talked about, but no-one knew the real impact. It turns out to be a storm in a teacup, Brexit is rescheduled for the third time.
We are a small group of just 4 travellers. Lisa is joining Joanne and I after being with us in July 2018 whilst Bridget (also known as Bridie) is going to be on her maiden voyage with BCP. The usual panic of being overweight (the bags that is!) is dealt with by adding extra bags, we are a small group, but we are certainly not travelling light.
Planning trips begins early, events to organise; bags to pack; gifts to be bought; personal clothes to be packed; bags to be packed; and bags to be packed (the never-ending cycle of repacking). Everything is thought about, then thought about once more. It’s October (and into November), what will we need to carry for wearing inside and outside the orphanage? We’ve been in March and December and know that inside temperatures in the orphanage at these times is set to “heatwave”, unbearably warm for us sensitive Irish. But there are places that are less than warm and outside temperatures can be a little cold at this time of year. I’ve done the homework, it will be mild for much of the visit and freezing at times, that really helped with the packing! Locals remark on how it is really not typical weather for October in Belarus. Someone mentions Global Warming, but we pass this off as fake news. We pack for temperatures that range from +18c to -5c – I guess you might say we need to throw in a kitchen sink too. We are not disappointed, the weather ranges from gloriously sunny with blue skies to a Baltic -5c on one of the mornings that we are walking outside. But unlike our friends back in Ireland, we fail to see one drop of rain in the 10 days that we are in the country – think I might move here (if only!).
As we arrive, we are greeted by the volunteer group affectionately known as “the UL physio’s”. They’ve been in Gorodishche for more than a week and we have marvelled, from afar (thanks Facebook), at the work they have been doing with those that are most challenged; the ones that never get to walk. We know two of the UL group, Laura and Claire were part of the group that was with us at the orphanage in January this year (they’re as mad – or should I say dedicated – as us!). They are briefing us on all that they have observed and done the previous week, there are stories abound; new groups, changes in personnel across the orphanage; wonderful work carried out by the physio’s; and something else. Laura and Claire are mad to tell us the really big news (no, not that Tanya has a new wheelchair – which she does). It’s really big and they’re not sure how to break it to Joanne and I. “Tanya has a boyfriend”. WHAT!! “Tanya has a boyfriend”. It turns out that there is a young lad that hasn’t done his military service (he and his family have strong religious beliefs). He is sent to the orphanage to carry out his state service working for the maintenance department. And now, it seems, he has a girlfriend (don't think he actually knows this part of the story!). We spot him in the corridor one of the days, but he is clearly not keen to meet mama and papa just yet – good decision on his part. I arrive to meet Tanya on one of the mornings, but she is too busy to see me, she’s on the phone to . . . you know who!
By Hook Or By Crook
Bridget is a first-time traveller, a recent retiree from Dunnes. Fate was doing its level best to prevent her from travelling to Gorodishche, even dealing her a late curve ball as her flights to Minsk were rerouted and she had to travel alone from Dublin. No problem, she was ready, willing, and able to take on all of the challenges that lay ahead. Bridget packed a bag just for questions, every place, everyone, every situation had a question (or two), not all of which had answers – but we did our best. Joanne, Lisa, and I have been many times, but it was really great to have a newbie with us to make us think about things that we would sometimes take for granted. There’s a reason things are the way they are in Gorodishche and I don’t know if anyone knows “the why” of all these things. We got to know Bridget’s family over the course of our visit, and it was clear that Bridget was as keen to get back to Jimmy and the family (they’re expecting a new grandchild imminently) as she had been to brave a visit to the orphanage (with a bunch of crazy volunteers!)
Fun and games to be had
No Cheaters Here
Playing games with the boys in Group 2 is always as frightening as it is exciting. One can never quite tell what will happen next! The group is smaller (in numbers) than it had been on my last visit, that’s great news as there is more space and light in the room. This is a group of late teen/twenty something year old boys – and when I say boys, I mean just that. There’s no cheaters here (I even feel that I should not revert to my cheating ways in the face of such innocence). Simple card games (snap or pairs) always go down well with this group, although it can take some time to get to the end of any game. There are a few new additions to the games box this year and I’m keen to win any medals I can – OK I am a bit competitive I know!
First out of the box is the strange shaped plastic puzzle. I’ll show them how it’s done . . . or will I? The solution shown on the box is confusing, it doesn’t quite match the pieces that I have in my hand, and there are too many people watching! Who gives these “kids” such impossible puzzles anyway, I give up. Moments later it’s finished, the perfect rectangle of strange shaped plastic pieces – completed but not by my hands. Stupid game!!
Next up it’s giant snakes and ladders, should win this one easily. I start with two competitors, but many others join and leave as the mood takes them. I realise that I’ve been playing the game wrong for many years. It appears that the rules in Belarus are that regardless of what you get on the dice, you make two moves. The moves can be in any direction and can cover any number of squares. You can choose to go up snakes or ladders or simply place your token on 100 and win the game. I’m finished game two and I’m still without a medal, hang on – am I being cheated on?
While I’m playing, there are squeals of delight coming from the corridor. Skittles, and of course there are no rules! The boys queue up (if that’s what it was) to see who can break the plastic skittles with the plastic ball. The snakes and ladders is abandoned as it has become dangerous to be anywhere is the direct (or indirect) line of the skittlers.
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better – out come the darts. Magnetic darts I must say, but the ferocity at which this is played does not necessarily make it any less dangerous that the other kind. Between the central heating set to heatwave and the heat of battle in Group 2, I’m happy when the clock strikes 8 and we can retire to a safe place – any place to be honest.
One For The Family Album
As I said earlier, it’s been a long time since we were in Gorodishche, 10 months is a lifetime (not just for them). We have been able to “talk” to Tanya in the past months, the arrival of technology has been rapid (for some). There are hot spots and lots of second-hand phones in certain groups, contact with the outside world is now instant (and frequent). But nothing beats being there, no amount of halfbaked English/Russian conversations on WhatsApp can take the place of a real-life hug or kiss. Technology has a long way to go to match or beat that.
We make the most of the unexpected weather conditions and take a few from Group 4 on a walk around the grounds. It is a spectacular day in every way. Joanne and I wheel Tanya and Lida while Lisa and Bridget take the ever-enthusiastic Nikita (a boy) and Ruslana (she’s one to watch as her strength can topple her wheelchair with one simple move). We (the Irish) are dressed as we would on a pleasant Autumn day, the others are head to toe in hats, scarves, gloves, warm coats, etc. – no chances been taken here.
Our trip takes us to the pet farm where we make ridiculous animal sounds and sing and talk like there’s no tomorrow. Joanne has an ability to make sense of the Russian spoken by the girls (Nikita is a quiet one) and manages to get across to them what we are thinking and saying (in a mix of English and Russian only known to this small group of buddies). We take the long way home, we’re in no hurry to take this crew back.
Not More Cabbage!
As witnessed by any first-time visitor to the orphanage, nothing can prepare you for the sights, sounds, and most of all the smells of Gorodishche. Every returning volunteer recounts stories of the hum that is experienced when you arrive home and open your case – a smell that some crave (but your secret is safe with me Lisa)! Whether it’s the preparation of the food (beetroot and raw cabbage are widely used as staples in the diet), visiting the cots and beds at about changing time (did I already mention the raw cabbage), the limited access to showering facilities, or the fact that you always seem to pack a little less that you really need and have to bear with your limited changes of clothing (ok, maybe that’s just a me thing), there are many factors contributing to one of the unique experiences of Gorodishche. I often wonder if we (the Irish) smell as peculiar to our friends in the orphanage (and I already know the answer to that question Bridget).
But it’s not all beetroot and cabbage – there’s the sweet smell of in-house baked chocolate cake
My Spice Girls
No report on my visit to Gorodishche is complete without an update on our Spice Girls – the fabulous foursome that are split across 2 groups in the orphanage (they were all together at one point).
Tanya, Lida, and Vasselina are together in Group 4 (all are in wheelchairs with limited mobility) while Nastia is in Group 3 (confined to her bed most of the time). All are generally doing well, but this high-level description of their wellbeing may be hiding an ugly truth (although the use of the word ugly can never really be used when speaking of these ladies).
Tanya has more pain that we’ve been used to seeing her with, if anyone touches off her legs, she appears to be in quite a lot of pain – and in Group 4 there are plenty wild ones to jump on top of you at any time! Her body is stiffer than last year, when I lift her, she appears rigid from head to toe. She smiles and laughs a lot, but this causes her to go into some kind of panic where she heats up and feels quite ill (this has happened a number of times on recent visits).
Lida is as smiley and curious as ever when we invite her into our company. However, she is certainly less chatty than previously, and I note that she now spends most of her time in the corner (on the mat) in the main room in Group 4. She was always in the classroom, in the middle of the chatty group. She seems distant and I failed to make any real connection with her during this visit, Iryana also told us that she doesn’t want to be part of the chatters in the group anymore, preferring her own company and the mats in the group.
I fear for Vasselina, she spent much of our trip in sick bay and does get a lot of chest infections. She struggled for breath on one of our visits to her and her size (and lack of movement) are screaming “beds in Group 3”, something that would not be a positive move for her or the buddies in group 4. She’s the brightest of the girls and is very aware of her failing health and what may become her next (and last) move in the orphanage.
Nastia is doing OK, given that she is already confined to her bed. She smiles a lot, especially when Joanne is around (I don’t take any offence – really!). She asks to have her nails done and she likes to look pretty – something as simple as a clip for her hair is enough to bring out the biggest of smiles. She sits up to eat but asks to be put down soon thereafter – she is uncomfortable in any position other than lying down.
Ojanna - Silly Love Songs
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs – yes, I’m unashamedly stealing that line from Paul McCartney. Singing and songs are everywhere when we visit Gorodishche. The guitar and the books go to all the groups and to the gatherings in the halls. But the silliest love song didn’t come from the Irish – oh no, that was reserved for Vanya. He has been a singer – if that’s what I can call it – each time we visit. He follows me around, looking for any opportunity to “play” the guitar. Little did I know that he was in the processes of writing a musical classic, and it was about our Joanne.
Vanya has struggled to get his head around the name Joanne. Most names are converted to their closest Russian variant (although how I’ve ended up being John is a mystery!). Joanne becomes Joanna to most but for Vanya, this become Ojanna – don’t ask me. And what a classic he proudly performs to the object of his artistic endeavour: -
Vanya wants to sing
“Ojanna, Ojanna, Ojanna, Ojanna, Ojanna, Ojanna, я тебя люблю” which translates to “Joanne, Joanne, Joanne, Joanne, Joanne, Joanne, I love You”.
Not just a great songwriter but a man with impeccable taste.
But there’s more than one talented guitarist to compete with in Gorodishche, Mischa is our very own Nensi Boy. Yes, a complete an utter nutter for Nensi – a Ukrainian/Russian band that have been around since the early 90’s. Mischa believes that he is a member of the band and he even plays the same guitar as the lead guitarist. He constantly plays his air guitar and sings their massive hit Дым Сигарет с Ментолом (Smoke Menthol Cigarettes). We hear that Nensi are playing in Minsk this week but there are so many reasons why Mischa cannot attend. But he is happy to have me nearby to play Nensi on my phone and for him to sing every single word, at one point he even recruited a whistle player and a drummer to be part of his fantasy band. A beautiful and heart-warming innocence.
World War II
Anyone that knows me will know that nothing goes without being researched to within an inch of its life – and so it was for my trips to Belarus. Getting information about Gorodishche is difficult, what small amount there is, is written in Russian or Belarussian and does not translate well. I had found information about some very large World War I graveyard close to Gorodishche as part of my research on my first trip. I didn’t discover more about this until this visit (and it turns out that it was a WW II burial ground). With the help of Iryana I discovered more about Koldichevo and even got to visit the eerie place just 10 minutes from Gorodishche village.
Koldichevo is not a simple graveyard, it turns out that this is the home of a Nazi concentration camp from 1942 to 1944. More than 22,000 people, mostly Jews, lost their lives here over a 3 year period. The most gruesome day in its ugly history came on June 19th , 1944, when 2,000 prisoners were shot and buried in a pit – a story that Iryana recounts having heard firsthand, of this event, from her father. The pit, now a mound, is watched over by a frightening statue which is one of many in the county that are put in place “lest we forget”. The statue is titled “Mother Waiting For Her Children To Come Home”.
Kyriel features regularly in my memoirs, a very intelligent and handsome young man. Kyriel has family that visit regularly, he’s a twin – his brother does not have the same physical challenges that he has to deal with. He has moved to a newly formed Group in the orphanage and it really is good for him. He was a “minder” for our girls in Group 4 but now he is one of the young lads in Group 8 (there was one of them and its now called Group 9 – confused?). Kyriel has more independence now and makes the most of this, he, and his assistant Sasha, join us for chai (tea) each evening in the Irish kitchen.
He is now at an age where he is finishing his schooling and there are worries in the orphanage about how to keep him engaged and developing. I get a translated message from him – “can I meet you alone later”, he doesn’t want the boys in the group to know what he is planning. “I want to work for you” is his request to me when Joanne and I meet him. I want to be an IT guy. Well, I wasn’t expecting that! I think about it overnight and come up with a plan to have him convert some manual lists to Excel sheets – he’s keen to learn and quickly asks about payment (I told you he was intelligent). We agree that I will pay his phone each month (€4) as “wages”. What I get next is the biggest shock – “thank you dad” is the message I receive (in English) when I open my WhatsApp.
Music As Therapy
My trips have music at the centre of most things, that’s where I think I can make a real contribution. We’ve learned (if that’s what you call it) a popular Russian pop song and we’ve taught many of the residents of the orphanage how to sing our version of Spancil Hill, these are the core of any rowdy sessions that we are having. But there are lots of other songs that bring calm and serenity to the groups.
I brought the guitar to Group 3 on one of the days, Iryana thought that it would be nice to sing to the group before lunch – “keep it quiet” was the advice. We went from cot to cot and from bed to bed, offering lullaby style music – gentle as we could. It certainly had the desired effect, there was peace and serenity across the two rooms (and a few doing their best to sing along)
I spotted Adam in one of the pushchairs, he was going to enjoy lunch today in a fully upright position. As I approached him, I could see him “bopping” in the chair and he was certainly looking to get me engaged in his little disco. It was wonderful, he reached out to play the guitar and he danced as if no-one was looking! On subsequent visits, simply clapping in rhythm was enough to bring out the bopper in Adam, a very content young lad.
Adam has not always been a happy young man. I remember early visits a few years ago (when he was in the cots) where he would spend his days crying and wailing, what a change in this beautiful young boy.
The Shannon Connection
Fate or coincidence, Shannon Parish is blessed that Canon Brendan O’Donoghue read a small piece in the Parish newsletter while visiting his sister in Derbyshire in January 1999. The Canon and Parish Council were thinking about an appropriate project that Shannon might support for the celebration of the new Millennium. A charity that represented “real people that we might come to know” was what he started to search for on his return from Derbyshire. At that same time, Br. Liam O’Meara was looking for support for his new undertaking – an orphanage for special needs children in the town of Gorodishche, Belarus. Both men met and so the Parish and Community of Shannon started on a journey that is now 19 years young. Volunteers and supporters, in so many capacities, have ultimately brought comfort and joy (and a few treats!) to Gorodishche on behalf of the people of Shannon and environs. Everyone is grateful for the fateful day and the meeting and vision of such great men. Long may we celebrate what has become such an important part of our wonderful town.
Canon Brendan O'Donoghue
Vitalic, Vanya and Lisa
There is a group in Gorodishche that shouts of hope. The newly named Group 9 (they will always be The Independents to me) are living with little support from the staff at the orphanage; although independent might be a little beyond what is their reality. There are some new faces here as a result of some who have left the orphanage to live in true independence, working to make a living. Within this group we now have a set of twins – albeit that they are completely unrelated! Vitalic and his sidekick Vanya are inseparable, and we refer them as Vitalic and his shadow.
Vitalic is a great role model for his, easily influenced, sidekick (hopefully Vanya won’t be as determined and brutal on the soccer field as his master – that would leave us all in big trouble). Both are regular callers to us in the Irish kitchen, partly because Vanya is in to sit with his “sistra” Lisa. Vanya has spent summer breaks living with Lisa’s family in Ireland, they are very close, and Vanya refers to Lisa’s mother as his Mama. He is relatively new to the independent group and this impish 18-year-old is now high on the list of those that become the lucky ones and go on to live perfectly normal lives outside of the orphanage D.V.
Iryna is keen that we should visit a local school at Arabovshchina, just a few miles from the Orphanage. It is the school that she worked in, for many years, before joining the Burren Chernobyl Project team in Gorodishche. Iryna was an English teacher at the school and her replacement is going to host our visit. It is a secondary school and has just 42 students attending. There is talk that the school may close, and the students may be transferred to the equivalent school in Gorodishche.
She is as proud as a peacock as we sit in front of the class of about 20 students and teachers. Proud to show off her school to us and proud to show us off to her school, it’s clear from the questions that we get from the students that not a lot of them get to travel outside of their small town. They are fascinated to hear where we have been – and even intrigued to hear what Irish people eat! Iryna is truly in her element, translating from them to us (and back) and taking the opportunity to ask how many of the students have relatives working at the orphanage. A reasonable showing of hands as they explain that they have grannies that are mama’s and mama’s that are cooks (if that’s not too confusing!).
At Iryna’s request, we have brought some art material to the school, they are most grateful. But nothing is over until we have a communal sing-song (isn’t that why they brought me?). We sing with them; we sing for them; they sing for us. And in the middle of all of this is the always marvellous – Iryna.
Iryna the teacher
New house - nearly done
Lots Of Change
There’s a different feel about the orphanage during this visit, everything feels brighter – better. There are changes in who’s in what group, there is a new group (to alleviate the overcrowding that we saw in previous visits), and the staff seem to be . . . happier. The change of director’s seems to have made the whole place much more child-focused – not that it wasn’t that way before but there is definitely a change for the better with the new Director, Lena. We meet with her on one of the days and she is keen to ask what she can do to improve the place for those in residence. There are a few things that we’ve noticed, very minor things, but we are keen to point out all of the things that appear to be much better since she has taken over the role.
To prove how things have changed, we even meet Lena feeding in Group 3 one of the days. Not one to sit behind her desk, she is truly hands-on when it come to the welfare of our friends in Gorodishche.
And then there is the house – the building that has been a work in progress for more than a year and a half. It’s still a partially complete residence, lots more to be done on the inside we hear. To the innocent eye, who has no access, it looks like it is ready to be lived in, but we hear that there is plenty more time before the previous Director’s pet project is ready to receive the Independent Group from the orphanage.
Concert time I hear, we’re herded to the hall to be entertained by some of the fantastic talented young people of the orphanage. Some we haven’t seen performing before, others are well known to us from previous shows. There’s full orchestral backing tracks (nothing done by halves here) and some incredible dance breaks mid-song. In a totally uncharacteristic expression of emotion – Slava pledges his love to Joanne at the end of his number, “Joanna Ya Tibya Lublu” he enthusiastically shouts into the microphone as he and Alosha finish their number.
Joanne and I are asked us to sing, not so easy to follow some of what we’ve just seen but we give it a go. Halfway through one of the songs it all becomes too much for Joanne as she looks down at crying eyes and realises that it’s all too much for most of us. Exit stage left – crying all the way!
Joanna Ya Tibya Lublu
Lisa And My Babies!
What is it about Lisa and my children! This is our second time being at the orphanage with Lisa, our first time together was just after her leaving certificate in 2017. It seemed that all of my special ones (OK I admit, some stand out more than others) were also hers. We didn’t quite come to blows the first time but waited patiently in line to spend some time with Masha – one of those that clearly have something special about them (Lisa and I agree that the word Soul is about right to describe what we see/feel in some). But there are lots of people to love here, plenty to go around (especially as we are such a small volunteer group). Highly unlikely that we will pick the same one in other groups – except Vanya in Group 9, Diana in Group 6, Olga in Group 3 – the list goes on!
Give And Take
Volunteering; to me, whether in Gorodishche or elsewhere, is such a symbiotic experience. When I look at what I get from my time here, I sometimes feel a little guilty. People ask, “but isn’t is depressing to see what you see” or “how can you walk away from what you experience and feel” and I answer very simply – I actually enjoy being here and I look forward to my next visit from the moment I leave. Whatever we bring is abundantly returned by those that we are hoping to serve in the orphanage. We bring material things and we return with gifts from the craft groups but, most especially, we give and take an enormous piece of US and THEM.
It took me years to travel with Joanne but now that I have experienced the joy of giving (and taking), I’m hooked! How could you not; I say.
Sasha from Group 5
The Hugging Mama
When I’m not called John, I get another name, Joanna Mouche (that’s phonetic Russian that translates as Joanne’s husband). Not unusual really as I’ve been called that by lots of people in the past – I seem to be the one in the background, and I’m OK with that. But if I was to give Joanne her name for Gorodishche it would be “The Hugging Mama”. Everywhere we go there are hugs being dished out, residents, mama’s, nurses, directors (yes, both the old and new directors were on site this week) were at the receiving end of Mama Joanna, even the people on the street are not immune (or shy from) the hugging mama.
There’s nothing mechanical about the hugs from Joanne, all are delivered from her heart (or deeper). There are people who dash across roads, and others that come out of the cars, all to be at the receiving end of Joanne’s love.
No Easy Farewells
The last day of our trip is always a mix of panic and high emotions. Panic in order to get to all of the groups and give final hugs, and high emotions as we leave behind our family and friends. It’s a mad scatter to go up and down stairs, in and out of groups, reserving the final visit to those we consider to be the most special one.
For me that means a final visit to Tanya and Lida, normally these two ladies are found together in the classroom in Group 4. But Tanya has been in sickbay for some days and access is (sometimes) difficult. I go there first, hoping that it will be OK to come in and see her before we head for home. All is good, the mama on duty beckons “come on in” and I head over to Tanya and explain it’s time to go – she knows, she probably doesn’t sleep when the departure date looms. Hugs (and a few tears) and it’s time to head on, we know that we are already delaying the departure time.
I head to Group 4 and get a big happy hug from Lida, she’s happy to be listening to music with Sergei (they share a headset – one ear each). She hadn’t connected as much on this trip – that’s OK – and she heads back to her new group in the main room of the group.
But the picture is very different when I look to Vasselina, she hasn’t had a lot of time with us on this visit as she was also in sickbay for most of the trip. She sits on the floor, in floods of tears. How could I not join her!
I really don’t like the last day!
Vasselina in Group 4
Volunteer group and Br. Liam
Pizza In Minsk
I’m a creature of habit, even returning year after year to the same places on holiday (and requesting the same room in a hotel that Joanne and I go to in Leenane). At my age, that’s not likely to change – what with being over 40! There are habits of a lifetime and habits that are newly formed, the comfort and familiarity of Prego Pizza in Minsk is a new habit that I particularly enjoy. On our way to Minsk, Br. Liam suggested that the place may not be open – oh no, what will we do? But like before, and before that, we find a cosy table in Prego Pizza (a small homely bar/pizzeria close to where we will stay on our last night in Belarus).
The simple things are best (and maybe I’m one of those!). Once we get to our home for the night; a shower, a cuppa at the long table, a chance to reflect (and breathe), and pizza with some local beer – yes please! And a chance to start offloading and sharing the best and the worst of our days in Gorodishche – next stop Home.
Whilst I write about those of us that travel to Gorodishche, there are so many that make this possible. We have so many people who support us, in so many ways – you have no idea what a difference each of you is making in the lives of our friends at the orphanage. This is not a personal crusade or journey; this takes a whole community. Here’s looking forward to our next visit. To Joanne, Lisa, and Bridget – Thank You (Большое спасибо)
My last words are reserved for the woman of wisdom at Gorodishche – Iryna. On one of our many conversations with her over the course of our visit she offers – “happiness costs very little here”. How simply true.