It was very different to be on this trip with such a small (two person) team. At times, it was challenging to balance the needs of so many kids with the important tasks of supporting Galina and the staff. For the most part, everything seemed to work out great, with the only issue being that I was unable to share all this in person with so many of the other Mission 1:27 travelers and supporters.
Now, that being said, there are a few advantages of a small travel team. The biggest advantage was the opportunity to do things that absolutely could not be done with a large group - a level of intimacy that can only come with one-on-one interaction. My first (and only) night in Slobodskoy provided one such opportunity.
Galina was kind enough to grant my wish to tuck in some of the younger children before they went to bed. Ernie had noted that some (but not all) directors had let this occur when there is a very small group - and Galina was thrilled to accommodate the request. It is unclear if this will be an opportunity on future trips with larger groups, and I am grateful to Galina for being so willing to do this.
Right after our dinner (about 8:30 p.m.), Galina, Ernie and I headed to the kids' rooms for a few bedtime hugs and kisses. I could not have been more unprepared for what I was about to experience.
As I walked into each room, the kids were under their covers with big smiles on their faces. As I approached them, each would reach up in great anticipation of some love. I'd reach down and give them a hug, whisper something in their ear (usually "I love you") and give them a kiss. But if the smile before the hug was precious, apparently the smile after the hug was even more powerful. Ernie captured some of this on video and pictures.
Koyla after his hug and tuck in!
Ilya with a letter for Greg Arthur
Rinata coloring a picture before bed
Self portrait with my buddy Katya
Alyosha ready for his hug
Ernie getting in on the action
It was not until AFTER I got home that I realized the reaction of many of these kids. For many of them, they have not had a male influence in the life provide them with warmth, love or support in many, many years...or perhaps ever. They craved the physical reminder of how much they were loved. You could feel the hunger, love and hope in every hug. These were not normal hugs - they were embraces that offered a brief moment of connection that may get them through a tough night in the future.
The most poignant moment of the evening came when I went to tuck in Masha. She was out on holiday when we were there in March, so this was my first chance to interact with her. She had followed me around all day, hoping to learn English and practicing on me. She has perfect diction, a steel trap mind and a penchant for the English language. As I went to tuck her in, we spoke in English. This young girl has tremendous potential in so many areas.
Not surprisingly, Galina has recognized that potential, too. She discovered that Masha can sing...but Masha is very shy and will not perform in front of others. As I was tucking her in, Galina asked if she would sing for me. Without hesitation, she sang a beautiful song about war and love. Her voice was confident, melodious and full of emotion. She would stare me in the eyes as she sang - which made it difficult as I was using every ounce of energy to hold back the tears. At the end of the song, she looks up at me and in her perfect English, she says, "I love you." For about three minutes, the world stopped as a shy, nervous young child gave me of a gift of love that I will in no way be able to repay in a lifetime of visits.
Thanks to my good friend, Ernie, it was captured on video for me to cherish forever. I have already watched it more than 10 times, each time producing the same mixed emotions of joy, love, sadness and hope. This precious child deserves a chance. That's why we're here and why we will keep coming back.
It is impossible to recreate the feelings and emotions from that night - nor will I try on this blog. All I know is that for me, I will cherish this night for a long, long time. And I will do my best never to take for granted the ability to hug my own children at night, no matter how old they are. Especially when so many children around the world don't ever get that opportunity