Alex thoroughly enjoyed his career as an Alaskan bush pilot. He was not interested in leaving the life he had built in the U.S. But God had different plans! In 1992, on a flight in Far East Russia, he was approached by homeless children and shared a meal with them. That meal broke his heart. He returned to his birthplace, St. Petersburg, to work with street children. For years, he supported his work in Russia by flying part of each year in Alaska. He started Life Orphanage, a day program, and street outreach. In 1998, he married Marta. Together they founded Voice of the Children. They lived in St. Petersburg for four years, had a soup kitchen, outreach, two orphanages, and camps reaching hundreds of children at risk. Alex spent much of his time in Russia on the streets, in sewers, basements and rooftops, befriending street kids. As the trust increased, kids hearts opened to the hope of Christ. Many children came for food and warmth at the soup kitchen and learned that Jesus loved them. Children attended summer and winter camps, and some chose to accept the open invitation of a new home in the orphanage.
Only with God's tremendous grace and strength could any of this have happened. Local Christians were inspired to continue many of these ministries, (a core value of Voice of the Children-to inspire and catalyze local Christians). The effect of these continue today. Young adults stay in touch with their spiritual mentors as they begin families and careers.
I am grateful to say that the orphanage I opened in 1994 continues today and has provided a loving home for over 1,000 children. 15-20 children make Life Orphanage their home, where they find good food, loving staff, and a caring environment. It is open to children of any nationality and religion. A physician looks after their health, and tutors help the child to catch up academically until they can thrive in regular school. Loving staff teach the children skills we take for granted, such as how to eat at a table with fork and knife, or how to keep rooms tidy, do art work, sing, ski, and other normal childhood pursuits. Each one is warmly supported as they learn to live off drugs and in safety. They get emotional, physical, spiritual and moral support. Healing from their past takes time, but Life Orphanage is committed to them for the long run.
The influence spreads well beyond its walls. Even youngsters who have moved on to other relatives remain in contact with the Orphanage. Many children return for weekends, holidays, and camps. Some children came to Life Orphanage as 5 year olds, grew up there and now live independently, learning a trade and becoming responsible productive, healthy adults. They continue to visit their "family" frequently and look to the staff as their mentors. It seeks to bring healing and health to the entire family whenever possible.
Children are housed in a group of adjacent apartments that Voice of the Children helped purchase. They live in family settings, and come together for many group events as well. Children get to hear about Christ's love for them, as they experience that love daily with the Christian staff. For the first time in their lives, they get to know what hope really is. Many have become warm dedicated Christians, growing in their faith and seeking to serve Christ and those around them. It is the most fantastic thing to watch a frightened, empty, damaged child slowly open, heal, and glow with new hope and trust as Christ's love pours into them!
Despite the hardships on the streets, it is very difficult for children to transition out of street life. Temporary shelters are not enough. These children require consistent loving care, remedial education, vocational training, medical attention, emotional healing, and long-term support from caring adults well into their own adulthood. Life Orphanage does this, and does this successfully.
Voice of the Children catalyzes local Christians to God's call around them. This is exactly what has transpired with Life Orphanage. After opening the home in 1994 and running it himself, Alex began to encourage and train local Christians to take on this ministry. By 2005 Voice of the Children was able to transition out, leaving it running well with a completely Russian staff. Voice of the Children partnered together with another organization to purchase a permanent property for the home, increasing its security and longevity. By 2009 Life Orphanage had built up its support base sufficiently that Voice of the Children was able to leave it on its own financially as well. Life Orphanage continues to thrive, serve children, and reflect Christ's warmth and hope.
Helena Kukushkina, Director, Life Orphanage. Ms. Kukushkina, a native Russian, began at the home as one of its early volunteers. She is now considered a leader in the field, and received a medal of recognition for her work from the Mayor of St. Petersburg. Police officers and city social workers bring youngsters directly to Life Orphanage because of its sound reputation.
Street Children are found worldwide. The number of children in Russia living on the street increased dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1999. Between 1996 and 1998, the Russian government opened approximately 500 additional State Orphanages nationwide to address the growing number of social orphans. Estimates for St. Petersburg, Russia run between 5,000 – 16,000 children living on the street in a city of 5 million.
Several reasons lie behind this increase of street children. Social controls present under Communist rule disappeared. The new ability to own one’s home also allowed individuals to sell their homes. Rents soared. Guaranteed incomes disappeared. Parental addictions to alcohol, drugs, or gambling quickly resulted in homelessness. Costs of transport, food, and clothing rose as government subsidies decreased. Heroin use and AIDS increased alarmingly.
Unfortunately, children bear the brunt of all these pressures. They run away from abuse, work to support their families, or are purposely abandoned. More and more children make the street their home, even as young as 5 years old. The government safety net is an extensive Soviet era system of State Orphanages. Unfortunately, many children run from this safety net, choosing street life over state orphanages. Coping on the street means survival sex, sniffing glue, alcohol, and heroin. They become victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, including murder. They fall completely out of the educational system. Even if they overcome their other problems they still face a grim future of poor employment because of their lack of education.
It has been estimated that within five years of graduating from State Orphanages, 90% of the graduates are in jail, on heroin, in prostitution, or dead. Virtually all street children reach the same fate if they remain on the street without escape.