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I do it for love

Bolshoi Gorod talks to people whose job or lifestyle sees them confront pain, grief, tragedy and death on a daily basis — and about happiness and how to get it.

Olga Tikhomirova

Director of the Step Up Orphan Opportunity Centre and teacher of History and Social Sciences for pupils and graduates of correctional orphanages and psychoneurological institutions.

by Sergei Kazakov

“I have a great family. There’s a lot of us, everyone is loving and everything is as it should be. When I was a kid I used to love The Pedagogical Poem by Makarenko – I read it over and over. I remember that, when I was about 10 or 12, we were sat at the table for Sunday dinner and I told my parents that I wished I had grown up in an orphanage. Now I understand how puzzling that must have been for them. They didn’t know what to say.

When we were students, my friends and I went to the nearest orphanage to help out. They would ask us to do some digging in the garden. So we went and did it. And then they would say, “So give it here, then”. And we would say: “What?”. “Don’t you want us to sign something?” “No we don’t want anything.” And each time we came, the director of the orphanage expected us to bring some precious piece of paper to sign.

Everything happened by chance: 10 years ago I was working as a teacher and I needed a job on the side. A friend told me about a place where you could work evenings. I started to work there but after a few years the centre closed for a year and a half because of funding problems. And so on the last trip I took the kids on the train to Maloyaroslavets and for some reason I got out at Ochakovo. They waved at me through the window and shouted, “See you in September!” But then we closed.

When the founders decided to start everything up again, they got myself and a few other teachers together. I felt I had a responsibility to the children I’d taught before we closed and I tried to find them. I called orphanages, I called old numbers and I even sent out a request on our ‘Orphan Radio Service’. I didn’t find many of them. Out of those I found, not all of them wanted to come back because a year and a half was too long a break.

When I became the director, I really knew that I wanted to make it a place where kids could come at any time in the knowledge that people would always be there for them: to listen and to talk about absolutely anything.

It goes without saying that it’s hard for a teacher when a student misses two weeks of lessons or even more. But I am not very strict when it comes to expelling those who don’t attend regularly. An evening here is always better for them than an evening somewhere else in this big city.

A lot of the kids become too used to the set of social security benefits that they receive up to the age of 23. So, for example, they get travel passes. When the passes stop working, it suddenly turns out that a day’s public transport costs 150 roubles. Paying for a ticket is completely unthinkable. A lot of them just stop coming in to the city centre on the basis that their travel passes no longer work. If you suggest they go and buy a ticket, they’re outraged: “Do you even know how much that costs?”

I’m a caring person. Dependency irritates me. You can’t fully value what comes easily to you. And at some point you think: “I can’t do this”.

My main motivation is the success stories of our students. What we mean by a successful graduate is someone who lives in their own flat, works or studies and doesn’t drink.

I have really seen the transformative power of knowledge during my time here. The kids change on the inside and outside. They develop new interests and perspectives and a fresh outlook on things. Some of the children experience a sudden change: from simply wanting to get an education so that they can prove to people that they’re “not dumb”, they come to value learning and understand that an education makes life interesting. This is what happens with our most successful students. It’s inspiring.

One of our students, Sergei, fell unconscious on the street and an ambulance was called. Thanks to the doctors, he was saved – they found he had a serious perforated ulcer. I came to see him at the hospital and he was very worried about two things. Firstly, he had been preparing for the Year 9 exams for a while and this all happened to him out of the blue three days before his exams. His first question to me when I got to the ward was, “What do I do about the exams? Will I not be able to start Year 10 now? But I’ve prepared for them…” He cheered up the whole hospital: when the anaesthetics wore off, he asked for his textbooks and lay there studying history. His second concern was that he was afraid that they had cut out his organs during the operation. He said that as soon he was out of the hospital he was going to have an X-ray done. He didn’t tell anyone in the hospital he was an orphan before the operation. If you’re an orphan, they cut out your organs. Or at least that’s what television had taught him.

In my first few years working here, I was afraid to say the word “Mum,” because I was worried of the questions I’d be asked. I didn’t tell them anything about my family. But then after spending some time with the kids, things changed. To the question, “why is life unfair?” I reply: “because it’s unfair”. That’s it. It’s simply unfair that there are people who have no-one.

We have a literature club. Of course, it’s more interesting for those who have been with us for a while. For the new ones, unfortunately, much of what is said is hard to understand, including the meanings of words. But a few years ago I was walking home with the leader of our club and in front of us a few of our students were walking and having a conversation about literature. It was wonderful.

We sometimes hold student conferences. We ask those taking part to speak without just reading their notes aloud. For the children in psychoneurological institutions, who come to us illiterate, just reading at the conferences is a great achievement. One of the students in this group, Seryozha, finished his presentation and sat down. Next to him sat an older student who has some authority in our centre. He was sitting and playing a game on his phone and when Seryozha came up to him, he put out his hand, without tearing himself away from his phone, and said, “Good speech.” You should have seen the look on Seryozha’s face. True happiness.

A couple of years ago we were celebrating the birthday of one of our students. His classmates all stood up in turn and said their blessings and one of them spoke for a long time – he’s a sort of rapper. He talks and talks and talks, wishes him every kind of success: be a cool guy, do this, do that, do the next thing. He needs to finish up his speech somehow because there’s this expectation all around him. Finally, he lets out a sigh and says: “So basically, don’t trust anyone.”

I could drop everything if I suddenly fell out of love with it all, but so far, I haven't even come close. Nothing inspires you like another person’s joy and the realisation that you played some part in making it happen.”