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Our Stories :: Our Travels Abroad :: Orphan Rangers in Russia

May 11, 1999

As an international adoption medicine specialist, I spend most of my day evaluating pre-adoption medical reports and videos, examining children who have just arrived from abroad with their new families, and following these children long-term in the context of a primary care pediatric practice. I have a passion for this work and sometimes I have a hard time allowing the day to end. Something drives me to learn more about kids in orphanages. They appear to have secrets. I want to know who they are so much, but I know that my time with them is so limited. I wonder how I can learn more about how they became who they are. I truly want to know their perspective of life.

Working in orphanages abroad would be the only way to really explore my questions. I need to travel abroad in order to understand other cultures and to really know how orphanages function. I want to know about the staff who work in orphanages and I am desperate to really know how children are cared for in orphanages. There are mysteries about the daily lives of orphans that I cannot possibly know about by being in my office or by just listening to returning families. I have been making assumptions about childrens' lives without any first hand knowledge.

In the last 2 years, I have been abroad six times to Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, and China. I have been mostly a visitor to orphanages and although I have examined many children and presented seminars for orphanage staff and physicians, it has become clear to me that I want to be more than a visitor. My dream is to work in orphanages; Living abroad and immersing myself in the culture of other countries will be the only way to know about what happens to children in institutions. I want to understand the mysteries of attachment and language delays and I know that without spending time, I will never really learn first hand what the orphan really feels. How can I satisfy this yearning as a practicing pediatrician?

One evening while I restlessly dreamed about the day's work, I awakened actually saying the words "orphan ranger". I didn't quite understand why I had awakened; I wasn't ill and the beeper hadn't gone off. It was a familiar pattern. As a kid, I would go to bed with a busy mind and I would frequently awaken and write ideas in a notebook by my bed. At that time in my life, I would write about ideas to raise money for the freshman picnic or later about what to say in a speech when I ran for class office. Now I usually dream about the many sweet faces of children who I meet daily in my office.

As I ate my oatmeal that morning, I relived the dream. I was sending a student off to Russia to work in an orphanage. She was an "orphan ranger". She was going to take care of babies in the orphanage and she was doing a research project. She was speaking Russian in the dream. I would have a "peace corps" of students working in orphanages all over the world. The rangers will teach us the many truths about the lives of children living in institutions.

On September 11, 1997, my foundation, Worldwide Orphan's Foundation (WWO) became an official 501 (3) c (not-for-profit). The mission of the foundation is to develop educational and research programs in orphanages to improve the quality of life for children living in institutions abroad. At the heart of WWO is the "Orphan Ranger" program. Students are sent abroad to work and do research in orphanages. The student must meet the following requirements: speak the language of the country, respect the culture of the country and have a passion for working with children.

The first "Orphan Ranger", Lydia Stickney, came to me completely by accident. After I envisioned the program, I had little time to consider how I would finance it or how I would find this dedicated ensemble of social warriors. A former high school student who I taught and coached in the late 70s, is a professor at American University. After class one day, a student came to my friend and asked if she might know of a way to work in a Russian orphanage. My friend immediately called me and told me about Lydia. She knew about my work with kids who were adopted, but she didn't know about "orphan rangers". Destiny was at work.

I first met Lydia in my home in New York. It was clear from the beginning that she was the ultimate ranger. She had lived with a family in Japan in Yokohama during her sophomore year in high school and she had spent the summer before tramping through the jungles of South America. She was an international studies major, played the violin, and spoke some Russian. Dr. Natasha Shaginian Needham, director of the agency Happy Families International Center, did a little language proficiency test with Lydia over the phone that first evening. Natasha thought that Lydia's Russian language skills were limited, but she felt that she would survive! Lydia spent the next few months really studying Russian and by the time she arrived in Russia in early June, she had improved markedly. By the end of the summer, she was fluent. Natasha arranged for the invitations to Russia and secured permission from the minister of education in the Udmurtia Republic, southwest of Perm in the foothills of the Central Ural Mountains, for Lydia to work in three orphanages: Izshevsk, Glazov, and Votkinsk. The plan was for Lydia to spend 2-3 months working in these three orphanages.

Prior to Lydia's departure, I gave her some child development and language theory books to read. She also spent a few days in my office learning how to administer the Denver Developmental Screening Test II and how to measure the heights, weights, and head circumferences of children. The plan was to do developmental and growth assessments on as many children as possible in the three orphanages.

She traveled to Moscow on June 3, 1998. She stayed with a host family provided to us by Natasha Shaginian and with her backpack and violin, she boarded the trans-Siberian railway for 24 hours to Udmurtia. She lived in guest houses and host family's homes during her stay in Udmurtia. She ate like a Russian and spoke Russian. We spoke once a week over the phone and tolerated the 30 minute limit with unannounced cut-offs. We e-mailed frequently. Lydia had to go to town and pay storekeepers for the use of their e-mail services. The first few weeks were tough. The food was too heavy and fatty. Poor Lydia had to be polite and smile at the generous portions and as a result she had frequent belly aches.

Many hours were spent in the orphanages, feeding, and diapering babies. Lydia fell in love with her little charges, especially a little gypsy boy named Ruslan. She became part of the staff after many weeks. Some staff people were very suspicious of her, but after a while, they could feel that she respected them and that she was willing to work just as they did. Her ability to converse with them in Russian allowed her into their hearts. When her own voice would not suffice, she played her violin and reached their souls. She brought a Denver Developmental Screening Test that was translated into Russian by the daughter of the host family where I had stayed in Moscow in August 1997. Lydia had the instruction manual for the Denver translated into Russian for the staff at the Izshevsk orphanage so that they could use it to teach themselves how to administer the Denver. She taught one of the psychologists how to use the standard American growth charts to plot the children's growth. The psychologist called them the "look and know" charts!

Lydia became part of the scheme of life in the orphanages. Some of the orphanages were more difficult to assimilate into, but even where there was some resistance, she was able to accomplish her tasks. She measured 151 children and was able to administer 151 developmental tests. We learned much about the differences among the three orphanages and we discovered that some orphanages can enhance a child's development when there is dedication and caring, even with limited financial resources.

Lydia kept an extensive journal that contains pictures of all of the children she evaluated in the three orphanages. Under each picture is found the Denver, the anthropometric measurements, and sometimes even pertinent medical and family history. I was able to organize data about failure to thrive, microcephaly (small head), and developmental delays. Intimate details about orphanage schedules, feeding practices, play habits, and parent visiting routines, along with an in depth understanding of the work habits and politics of the hierarchy of the three orphanages were revealed. Lydia's reactions and commentaries about the conditions in the orphanages are tender, vulnerable, and real. They make the journal truly unique. Lydia's original artwork in the journal gives it a storybook quality.

Below you will find some of the specific statistics about the three orphanages.

  • Gender of children in Izshevsk, Glazov, and Votkinsk
  • Range of ages 2.5 months to 54 months
  • Mean age=20.6 months
  • 92 males
  • 62 females
  • Failure to Thrive in Udmurtia
  • 151 children measured (height, weight)
  • 46% children failed to thrive (not growing normally)
  • Head Circumference in Udmurtia
  • 145 children measured
  • 38.6% had microcephaly (less than 5th%)

Developmental Screens

  • 151 children evaluated
  • 69/151 (45.7%) normal
  • 82/151 (54.3%) delayed

Izshevsk

  • 44 children
  • 13/44 (29.5%) normal
  • 31/44 (70.5%) delayed

Glazov

  • 59 children, 2 not cooperative (57 evaluated)
  • 26/57 (45.6%) normal
  • 31/57 (54.4%) delayed

Votkinsk

  • 52 children assessed, 1 not cooperative (51)
  • 30/51 (58.8%) normal
  • 21/51 (41.2%) delayed

Votkinsk had 58.8% developmentally normal children

Glazov had 45.6% developmentally normal children

Izshevsk had 29.5% developmentally normal children

This supports Lydia Stickney's conclusions regarding the conditions in the three orphanages. Votkinsk had a dedicated director for 28 years and had developed a program for children that actually enhanced normal development.

The next orphan ranger is Meredith Holtan who just graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa in international studies from the University of New Hampshire. She speaks fluent Russian and has traveled to Russia on a number of occasions. She comes from a family with two biologic children and three internationally adopted children from Asia. Her mother, Barbara Holtan, is the director of adoption at Tressler Lutheran Services in York, Pennsylvania which specializes in the placement of special needs kids. Meredith's sister will be working in an orphanage in Bucharest this summer. Meredith will enter a doctoral program in psychology at Berkeley in the Fall 1999 with a focus on attachment disorder. This summer she will go to orphanages in St. Petersburg and Borovici to work as an "Orphan Ranger"; she will explore language acquisition and attachment issues in orphans.

It is my hope that the orphan rangers will multiply and fill orphanages all over the world. They will engender the ideal of service and commitment to the improvement of orphan's lives.

For more information about the Orphan Rangers research, visit Orphan Rangers Research in Worldwide Orphans Foundation section of this site.

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  This page last updated November 19, 2002 10:25 PM EST