A tiny pickpocket on a bleak and soulless Russian street changed Rachael Hughes’ life. The little boy, with the face of a child and the empty eyes of an old, old man, was hungry and homeless. He needed her wallet to survive in a hostile world where children were often the excess baggage in families fighting a constant battle against poverty. Rachael shares with chief reporter Sue Newman, the story of Living Hope, the project she has created to save Russia’s street children.
To thousands of unwanted, abused and homeless Russian children, New Zealander Rachael Hughes is their saviour, their lifeline.
With the fall of communism in Russia, many businesses collapsed and the society that had survived under harsh and draconian laws virtually collapsed under its new-found freedom. There were few jobs and thousands of people without an income. For many, their only relief lay in obliterating the pain of poverty through drink. At every turn, when Rachael arrived in Russia in 1998, there was need, desperate need. And most of those in need were children.
As the founding member of Living Hope, a charity dedicated to changing the lives of street children, Rachael has spent the past eight years letting those children know they have not been forgotten, that someone cares. Like many people who tackle charitable work, her involvement was almost accidental.
“I went into a Russian bank to change some money and when I went to put my wallet in my pocket a little hand was in there. I turned around and there was a little boy with sad, empty eyes. It just broke my heart,” she said. Rachael was not angry, instead she felt a great sadness for the child and the thousands of others she knew lived from hand to mouth on the streets. That was a life changing moment.
“I bought him food and sat with him while he ate it and the next day I made some sandwiches and just took them out for other street children,” she said. Within a month she was meeting and feeding up to 30 children, three times a week – meeting the costs out of her own pocket. The compassion she felt for the youngsters, many of whom had been driven from their homes by dysfunctional families, crippled by alcoholism, was boundless.
Over the coming days and weeks Rachael spent her time making food for the children and trying to find support from within the city of Vladivostok. Even in those harsh and deprived times, the Russian churches and many Russian people were not without sympathy for their abandoned children. Help came from the church communities, most often in the form of money, food and sometimes much needed shelter from the harsh winter. For Rachael, brought up in traditional, comfortable, middle class New Zealand, the transition to the harsh life on the poorest streets of Vladivostok was a mind-numbing contrast. Sometimes she found herself wondering at the twists and turns that had taken her so far from home.
Looking back, she knows the seeds for her life work were laid much earlier, when she first ventured overseas.
Keen to explore her Jewish roots, she headed to Israel, but having no desire to travel as a tourist, she decided to trade on her Jewish heritage and join the Israeli Army. Three months in uniform and she emerged older, wiser and with a pass mark in stripping down and rebuilding an army tank. Like many young people she continued to travel, but carried with her the nagging feeling that there was more she should be doing with her life. Motivated by her Jewish links, she volunteered to travel to Russia on a project focused on taking Russian Jews back to Israel.
“I signed on with them and they quite literally sent me to Siberia. It was incredibly cold. I just kept falling over on the ice all the time and I’d have to say I didn’t really enjoy my early experiences in Russia,” she said. She moved to Vladivostok and was asked to teach English for a year. The only qualification she needed was to be an English speaker. Her teaching stint was short-lived – the children with hungry eyes and wasted bodies stepped in and stole her soul.
Turning her one-person crusade into a charitable organisation absorbed six months of Rachael’s life, but by April 1999 the Vladivostok Homeless Children’s Rehabilitation Society had been born. For Rachael that meant six months of begging, pleading and putting the case for assistance. She became a regular on Russian television screens, pouring her passion for saving the thousands of street children into Russian hearts.
While it was inconceivable in New Zealand to consider abandoning children, in Russia, where often three generations were crammed into one-bedroom apartments with alcohol their only solace, children were simply an inconvenience. Many ran away, many were pushed out and some had never known a home, a warm bed or a hot meal. Hot water in Vladivostok is piped around the city, creating an underground network of warm pipes that made a perfect winter home for the homeless. While New Zealanders think their winter is cold, it is nothing compared to the endless, bone-chilling winter of Russia, Rachael said.
Rachael’s organisation, known as Living Hope, had small beginnings, with a street soup kitchen at two or three different locations around the city. That regular contact allowed team members to identify new kids on the streets and to build up a relationship with those who became their regular customers. Establishing trust with those who had been habitually abused, ignored and neglected was tough, but essential if they were to be helped in any way, she said. In December 1999 an American family donated money to the charity to allow a day care centre to be established. Children are invited to come to the centre three times a week, to shower and have some basic lifeskill lessons. That contact also allows volunteers to assess the children’s medical and dental needs, to provide them with clothing and to encourage them to return to school, get a job or even to return home.
Living Hope is about providing the youngsters with as many of the things as possible that a normal parent would provide, Rachael said.
“For many who attend, the Living Hope day centre has become a haven where someone is waiting for them, where they are loved and where they will always be helped. Here they are reminded that they are still children.”
Rachael doesn’t look back very often. She knows she’s achieved a lot, but there is so much more to do, she said. “I really don’t think about it, I can’t think about it, I just do what needs to be done. It’s been a lot of hard work and I’ve just gone to people and asked for help to do things.”
While the Russian evangelical church is now a supporter of the charity, it is not a specifically ‘Christian charity’, Rachael said. “But most of the people involved are Christians as it’s such hard work, you need to have something, a calling, to help you,” That hard work has paid off. The organisation has gone from Rachael as its sole, unpaid employee to a charity that employs five full-time and five
part- time staff and teams of volunteers – all Russian. New Zealanders are involved with the charity through a volunteer programme that involves a one year commitment taking children on camps.
For people with time and love to give, volunteering for a year is a great way to go, Rachael said. Living costs in shared accommodation are likely to run to $500 a month, add to that about $3500 in airfares and visas and for less than $12,000 a volunteer can live well at the same time as they improve the lives of hundreds of street kids.
When it comes to getting by, Rachael relies solely on grants and donations. “I’m totally reliant on what others give me, but I’ve never gone without.” As time passes and the work of the charity becomes more obvious, its name better known, local government grants are beginning to come their way, she said. Once significant government funding is received a 24-hour shelter will be established in the heart of Vladivostok. This will combine the functions of a youth centre, medical centre, overnight shelter, transition shelter for rehabilitation, and for training workshops.
Seven years have passed since the charity was established, and when she looks back, Rachael can see there has been progress, significant progress. “A lot of kids have now gone home – and stayed home and to achieve that, we’ve worked with families.”
While many Russian people have chosen to ignore the street kid problem, many are much more aware of the sad plight of those lost children, Rachael said. A good example of how successful the programme could be came with one young woman who had been rescued by the programme nine years ago and had now graduated from university. Another indicator of success was that the Vladivostok project was likely to be taken up in other cities.
More children might be going home, but there was still a lot of work to do before most had anything like a normal life, she said.
For some families, involvement with Living Hope had become intergenerational. There are eight project grandchildren now involved.
“Some people think we’re wasting our time and they’re not doing anything to help, but there are others who will do anything they can to help us.”
While for Rachael the catalyst to her involvement in saving the street children was her emotional reaction to one little boy, to be successful in any kind of aid work, you need to have emotional discipline, she said. “But when someone you’ve looked after for a time commits suicide or is beaten to death by the police it is hard, very hard.” Lacking English-speaking peers with whom to share the traumas of the job, Rachael comes home for one or two months each year for time out.
Over the years her role has changed from totally hands on to one of fundraising, awareness and finding volunteers. “Fundraising is not as easy as I thought it would be. People seem more willing to give to a project but this is a project that is never ending. My job is to make sure they can keep doing the work and keep paying the wages. There is a lot of money in Russia, but they still have to learn what philanthropy is,” she said. While she now works as the public front of the charity, her focus remains unchanged, Rachael said.
“My heart is in the kids in helping them.”
Anyone wanting to help the Living Hope charity or who is interested in volunteering should contact Rachael on firstname.lastname@example.org
October 14 2006