This is my second time returning from Hortolova Orphanage in Bryansk Russia and all the familiar feelings are there.
A heady mix of elation at meeting the kids again, seeing them thrive, hearing them laugh, hug, play and screech with delight as Debbie Deegan and the To Russia With Love crew bring another wave of happiness into their lives.
The last three days in Russia have been some of the best of my life, the culmination of many, many moments - Little Ira running down the corridor for a hug after neither of us had seen each other for over a year, little Daniel in a Dickie bow waiting to watch his film debut, seeing Nastia and her friends, transformed from the nervous girls at last year’s leaving dinner into confident independent women, kids sitting enthralled during the films screening while adults silently wept ... and the medal, on the surface nothing more than a boyhood fantasy of being deputized by the sheriff brought to reality ... but the quiet joy of running back to little Sasha (AKA the real Anya) being able to give her my flowers, to be able to stand her up for the applause, to hear she has come out of her shadow, to see the video of her confidently telling her friends they are all in the film as they watch it on a loop in the playroom, that is my real 'medal' and it is one I keep inside, summoning into my mind when I need reminding of just how lucky I am.
But this is all tinged with the equally familiar feelings of desperation. The children we met at Hortolova are the lucky ones.
Whilst visiting a baby orphanage, a perfectly run institution with caring professional staff, I was introduced to two tiny 2 year olds, one blond, one dark haired. They share a cot and both have HIV. You could see they adored each other. This cot was their whole life, they slept in it, hugged in it, ate in it. They were inseparable… and then we were told the dark haired boy has been fostered. His life is about to improve 100 fold. But the obvious, nightmare of this situation is the impact on the blond haired boy. For the second time in his short life he is about to experience unimaginable suffering as he is again separated from a loved one.
To me it perfectly sums up the situation in Russia. For every amazing oasis like Hortolova, there is an unimaginable flip side.
For every laugh, hug and joyful screech, there are children sitting silently in terrible conditions at other, as yet untouched, institutions. The babies I saw with HIV, staring innocently up with wide happy eyes. 3 year olds, sitting stunned and alone in cots instead of being gently rocked in the arms of a loving parent. Adorable 4 year olds, dancing wildly and happily at impromptu concerts completely unaware that their futures hang in the balance… because none of them know the crass brutal fact that their very lives depend on something as simple and disposable as money - the money to turn sad, hopeless beginnings into the shouts of optimistic joy heard at Hortolova.
Donations in Ireland have been devastated by the stupidity and greed of a minority in the charity sector. For every million pocketed in some pension scheme there is a little blond boy looking at a now empty crib, unable to form words to express the pain he is experiencing. Yet I have seen first-hand how €100 donated in Dublin gets spent buying a bike for the orphanage in a bike shop in Bryansk. To Russia With Love have publicly declared all their accounts, so anyone with doubts can check first hand to see how every penny is spent.
The fact is they now, more than ever, need money to continue changing lives. We hope the film delivers revenue, but it will be nowhere near enough. However even the smallest donation goes some way to improving the lives of the most desperate. We won’t hear the screams of the blond boy when the fateful day comes, but they will be there for the next 30 years if To Russia With Love can’t intervene.
As long as there are funds to do so, To Russia With Love will keep transforming tears into laughter, loneliness into hugs and abandonment into care and as long as they are willing to have me, I will be their side helping in any way I can.
Anya will be released online on April 28