Vermont volunteers brighten Russian orphanage

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(Host) In southeastern Vermont, a group of volunteer clowns is preparing to leave on a trip to Russia, where they’ll head up the Volga River with a boatload of Russian orphans.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Sound of clowns romping around)

(Keese) In a house in Newfane, a group of teens and adults are practicing being silly. It’s a skill they’ll use when they leave for Russia next week.

(Stephen Stearns) “Okay so are you all going to dress in clown when we go down to JFK?”

(Keese) Stephen Stearns is a well known Vermont mime and an expert in clowning. He’s done a lot of work with Patch Adams, the famous clown-physician who uses laughter to promote healing. For the past several summers Stearns has been bringing volunteer clowns to Moscow. With their colorful outfits and rubber noses, Stearns says they hit the city’s hospitals and orphanages like a bucket of yellow paint.

The trip’s centerpiece is a 12-day summer arts camp on an enormous river boat that travels the Volga from Moscow to Saint Petersburg. The camp’s guiding spirit is a woman named Maria Yeliseyeva. She runs an art school for orphans in Moscow.

Russia has about 800,000 orphans. Crowded into institutions and deprived of attention or stimulation, orphans often end up homeless or in prison. Many commit suicide.

But in the warm, creative atmosphere of Maria’s art school, Stearns says Maria’s Children begin to thrive.

(Stearns) “And now there are 300 kids a week going there, studying art. From all over Moscow different orphanages are opening up to this idea of art. And the kids just blossom and they do these amazing paintings which are made into cards to support their work, murals to support their work.”

(Keese) Stearns raises funds and supplies to make the boat trip possible. Local Rotary clubs and Rotary International are sponsoring 24 orphans this year. The trip includes 80 orphans aged nine to 16, and 100 volunteers from around the world, including Stearns and his 30 Vermonters.

Together they form “nasha cemyeka.” Seventeen-year-old Nathaniel Cox, whose involvement has led him to study Russian, says the term is hard to translate.

(Cox) “I guess it’s kind of like, ‘Our crazy family.'”

(Keese) The trip allows the orphans to experience the world beyond the orphanage in the embrace of this crazy family. Campers spend their days painting, singing, doing theater and crafts. They study English. The boat passes by forests, monasteries and towns.

(Lisa Fitzharris) “Most of the days we get off the boat and tour something. And this is the first time most of the orphans have seen anything of their own country.”

(Keese) Lisa Fitzharris was one of two Windham County physicians on the trip last year. This summer an oral surgeon will be on the boat. Some of the children have never seen a dentist.

Fifteen-year-old Justin Morris – who’s also the designated Disc jockey – says wonderful friendships emerge.

(Morris) “It’s just amazing to see these orphans open up, to us. It’s just amazing to see all these people from around the world come together and there’s so much love.”

(Keese) Evenings end late, with dance parties on the upper deck. On the Volga the sun never sets in the summer. And time goes fast when you’re in good company.

For Vermont Public radio, I’m Susan Keese in Newfane.

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