In some media it is repeatedly alleged that bad conditions prevail in Russia’s children’s homes and social institutions. We want to know for ourselves and visit a large children’s home in St. Petersburg. We chose it ourselves. We are a group of teachers, teachers for special education and a social pedagogue from Switzerland and Germany.
A dance to Russian music, perfect choreography with well-known Russian dance elements as well as great acrobatic interludes, performed by children in colourful costumes tailored according to Russian tradition – this is how we are welcomed in the Children’s Home No 1 in St. Petersburg.1 The children perfectly master the choreography, they dance joyfully and with beaming eyes, they proudly laugh at us. The special thing about it: The children are mentally handicapped, most of them are affected by Down syndrome.
This demonstration is an example of the spirit prevailing in this children’s home: All children and young people are disabled, but all are proud of what they can do, of the fact that they are an important part of this community and make their contribution to it.
There are children with severe multiple disabilities who can hardly move themselves, who have sensory impairments, who are severely mentally handicapped and severely limited in their ability to communicate, up to children with slight learning disabilities and young adults. All of them are supported according to their abilities, everyone is enabled to participate as much as possible in social life.
About 200 children and 100 young adults are living in Children’s Home No 1. We drive towards a large bright complex in Peterhof, divided by many windows. This is a place one hour away from St. Petersburg, where the tsars had their summer residence. In St. Petersburg everything is still icy in April, the outdoor facilities are therefore not animated, nevertheless we notice gardens, greenhouses and sports fields on the way to the home’s entrance.
Valery Asikritov, the home’s director, and some of his staff welcome us very warmly. They took a whole day to show us their facilities and to explain their work. Mr Asikritov is a professor of special education and psychology, sports teacher, member of the City Council and holder of various orders such as the State Order of Merit as an educator of Russia.
The children’s home has been in existence for 45 years and is a model facility. Delegations from all over Russia come here to learn.
Today we are here to see how people work here. We are guided through the whole home, all doors are open, we can take an insight everywhere. We see simple but lovingly maintained bedrooms and living rooms designed with personal attributes, bathrooms to modern standards, dining rooms and kitchens. Corridors and staircases on our way through the house are designed with carefully framed and beautifully presented artistic products of the children. Nowhere do we see signs of disorder, vandalism, neglect. The doors are open everywhere, and we meet active and mostly cheerful, often proud looking children and young people, who also like to get in contact with us and want to have themselves photographed with us.
In medical and physiotherapeutic facilities with special baths, therapeutic exercise equipment and sports rooms for the physically handicapped and spastic, we experience how several caregivers, educators, physiotherapists and social educators are each lovingly looking after the children and the young people. We know many comparable institutions in Switzerland and Germany and we notice: The care key is comparatively high. In a large, bright room there are some beds with children who are so severely handicapped that they can hardly move, cannot speak and can only make contact on their own with their eyes and hands. They are in bed, and they cannot turn around on their own. These children are also cared for with love and sensitivity: the educators touch them, move them, speak to them. We gain insight into rooms where children are cared for psychomotorically and logopaedically.
The weaker children with learning disabilities are supported in the internal school, the stronger ones attend the public special school in Peterhof. In small classes of 5 to 8 children, in some cases also in individual/one-to-one lessons, the children are encouraged/supported in cultural techniques. The classrooms are bright and furnished in a modern style, there are many learning materials, games, Montessori materials. We also see students working in computer rooms and in various workshops for wood, metal and textile work. Blinis (Russian pancakes) are being baked in a school kitchen, a schoolgirl offers them to us, we eat them hot out of our hands. In the pottery there is a photo on the wall showing Putin pottering with the handicapped on the potter’s wheel. In the textile workshop everyone is busy at the sewing machines. We, the guests, are offered a small basket with small objects made by the handicapped. We are told to choose one, a heart, an arrow or a dolphin, everything made of fabric or leather and stuffed. When one of us has chosen an object, the manufacturer of the work of art is called to the front. Full of joy and pride that the guest has chosen the object he has made, the student embraces him and looks proudly into the camera. In the workshops for older teenagers, simple items such as ballpoint pens, firelighters, etc. are produced for sale, as is also done in our workshops for the disabled. Young people work here who have completed compulsory schooling but are not up to the demands of the free labour market. I would like to come back to this later.
We are far from finished with the tour through the home and its facilities. For example, there are numerous modern sports facilities: sports halls and gymnasiums with all kinds of equipment for the physically handicapped and physically healthy persons, a ballet hall and even a large swimming pool. Some of the kids are working out right now. They are not splashing around, but are engaged in professional competitive sports. What these activities lead to, we see then in a large room, which is equipped all around with showcases: cups, badges, certificates, photos of sporting competitions, residents of the home with famous sports stars and politicians like Putin and Medvedev. Children’s Home No 1 athletes regularly take part in the Paralympics and bring home victory trophies. There is hardly a sport in which the Peterhofer do not participate, up to tournament riding and dancing. And everything at the highest level. We get an ever better impression of why the children and young people living here are proud, proud of their own achievements and those of their community, proud of being able to take effect in the world.
In a studio we watch artists at work and admire impressive artistic works, including figurative painting. There is a hall, equipped with an Orthodox church with an iconostasis, as it must be in Russia. Worship services are also held here on a regular basis. We enjoy a performance by the church choir, also consisting of residents of the home, dressed in festive white robes. Later we receive a video with the famous Ukrainian singer Valery Malyshev singing the most beautiful Russian songs with this choir.
Highlight of our visit was the performance of a Ukrainian drum dance. It was a great choreography with impressing acrobatics. The dance had been instructed and rehearsed by Alla Kaskadeur-Vorobyeva, a famous Russian choreographer and circus artist who practises voluntarily once a week with the young dancers and also performs the dance together with them. She made the impossible possible: three of the young men are deaf, so that they cannot hear the drums. Nevertheless they managed to dance in step. An incredible performance! Alla has already been working for 20 years with children.
After we had been allowed to see and experience everything we were served a nice lunch, a four-course-menu, for as soup and salad are always part of it in Russia, then the main course, mostly of meat or fish and vegetables, and finally a sweet dessert. By the way, we are served the same food as the residents of the home. We are entertained in a friendly and courteous manner. During the meal and the finishing coffee, we had the opportunity to ask further questions and to discuss them. On the same day, an article is published in the German magazine Der Spiegel according to which a Bremen grammar school should be forced judically to integrate mentally disabled children. One of our participants refers to this topic, causing head-shaking with our Russian conversation partners. Indeed, they are familiar with this discussion in their country, as it is also up-to-date. An interesting discussion on the topic of inclusion emerges. Mr Asikritov and his staff presented their views on the subject: There are children who need special support. They cannot get it in a normal class and therefore will get lost. In Children’s Home No 1, integration is understood in the sense that every child is supported as much as possible in order to be able to participate in life.
Those who are able to do so are prepared for a profession. In the home there is a special system of aptitude tests, which does not require written tests. According to the results, the pupils are already supported in suitable workshops in the home. There is even a fully equipped hair salon in the home where young ladies can learn to do the hair. Thus trained in the workshops, the pupils are optimally prepared for their apprenticeship. The companies are legally obliged to train disabled pupils in simple professions. They like it because they gained good experiences with them.
The home provides a study apartment where young people can learn to live independently in their own apartment. After dinner we are allowed to visit the apartment. There is everything a normal small apartment needs: Living room, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom with washing machine etc. The pupils learn how to manage a household, plan the budget, cook, clean and take care of the laundry. This makes them fit for independent living. We engage in a conversation with one of the occupants of this apartment. She proudly tells us what she can already do herself and when she plans her own future.
But there are also severely disabled people who will never be able to lead an independent life. The home has made a special agreement with Mr Medvedev. Such residents may remain in the home after the age of 18, up to the age of 40.
The child stays with the family up to the age of 4 and receives separate early intervention if required. If someone of the family can help with the encouragement of the child, it will stay longer in the family. From the age of four or later, parents can decide whether or not they want to place their child in the institution step by step. 70% of parents would do so. Parents are welcome in the home, they can visit their child every day or help with the care. On weekends or during holidays the children are allowed to join their family. Parents are advised individually or in groups.
With great respect Mr Asikritov told us about the cooperation with the Diakonia Stetten, Baden-Württemberg. There the Diakonia runs a large institution for disabled people. Their employees have been supporting the Children’s Home No 1 for decades with advice and assistance. Mr Asikritov explains that many beautiful and pedagogically valuable things in this home would not have been possible without the support of the Diakonia Stetten.
Every week he has at least half an hour of telephone exchange with his colleagues there. From his descriptions it became clear to us that a warm-hearted, sustainable friendship has been developed between the staff of both institutions, which cannot be harmed by the turbulences on the political stage.
We are overwhelmed by the level of the institution, the work done there and the loving efforts of the staff. According to our experiences, the picture often drawn in the media is completely wrong. The next day our impression will be confirmed by a visit of a large public special school in Peterhof2.
Those in charge of the home are well aware of the importance of their work. One of the founders of the home, an elderly lady, accompanies our group of visitors all day long. In the final discussion she says that there once was a time in Germany when such children were treated differently… We know exactly what she means. And isn’t there another discussion in our countries today as to whether people whose lives are “not worth living” should “be helped to die”?
We assume that not all institutions are as good as Peterhof. There is certainly still a lot to be done and in many places there is still a need for development. The support of the disabled is high on President Putin’s list of priorities. The visit of the two Russian Presidents to the Children’s Home, which can be seen in the photos, sets an example. Numerous participants of the Paralympics in Sochi, who came from all over the world, reported how excellently and barrier-free the sports facilities and homes were furnished and organised for them.
We will continue to seek the opportunity to get to know educational and social institutions in Russia with our own eyes and ears. Last but not least, it is a great pleasure to experience the hospitality, openness and warmheartedness of the Russian hosts. We feel a bit more at home in this world because of the solidarity with our colleagues in Russia in the shared educational concern and the realisation of humanity. •
1 On youtube you can see a video about the Children’s Home, Russian with German subtitles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I2vIz8PCAaM
2 A report on this visit will follow in a later edition.
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