Our family does things differently than most. We take our three children (eight years old and under) to play with Russian orphan children, some of whom have communicable skin diseases (nothing incurable!). We travel with them to the wilds of Russia, 700 km from Moscow and far from quality medical care. We give shelter to particularly troubled young-adult orphans, who live with our family for months at a time. I suppose all of these decisions could be seen as “imprudent”; yet I remain convinced that they are among the wisest we have ever made! They haven’t made life smooth and easy for our family, but our involvement in philanthropic work has been an untold blessing in many ways. It has definitely been “worth it” to do things that seem ridiculous or foolish in the world’s eyes in order to help those who are in need.
So how did my family ever get into the business of helping Russian orphans? My husband, Andrew, and I met in Russia, in the course of establishing the Russian Orphan Opportunity Fund (ROOF) in 1997. Its mission was to send teachers into orphanages where children were falling behind in school because the Russian state was not providing them with the necessary education. ROOF has since grown into an organization that supports Russian orphans through educational and vocational programs, summer camps, and an alternative housing program for young adults who would otherwise be institutionalized for life. This experience has had a profound impact on our family life, and it has made it clear to us how our life and study of the faith relate to our philanthropic work and our children’s involvement in it.
Our children must see and be part of our faith in action. Otherwise how will they believe us or understand what it means when we tell them that we are followers of Jesus Christ? After all, Jesus is alarmingly clear about the standards to which He calls His followers when He says, “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). So, just as Jesus does, we are to give our lives for the life of the world—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, and caring for those in distress (Matthew 25). We Christians are putting both ourselves and our precious children in danger if we encourage them to hear these teachings in church and then we fail to live them in and with our families. At best our children might consider us hypocrites, for it would be far worse for them to conclude that the Church isn’t important and become effectively inoculated against the possibility of taking Jesus’ commandments seriously!
Our family loves to visit the orphanages together. Our daughters, Elizabeth (6) and Anna (4), were an amazing help a couple years ago at ROOF’s summer camp for mentally and physically handicapped orphans, working with a group of fifteen boys and girls their own age. On one occasion the three of us were left with a large group without any other caregiver. Four children ran to the sink and began to cover the room in water, while one little boy tried to push his fingers into an electric socket! My girls, who have grown up around a certain amount of craziness, quickly helped me form a ring of chairs around the electrical equipment and then jumped up on the chairs to block other children from coming near it, while I took hold of the little boy and mopped up the water. I was astounded by their poise, as the situation was truly dangerous and they seemed to understand that quite well. Should we be exposing our children to these things? I guess only time will tell . . . But, to my surprise, my girls beg to go into the orphanage each day we are there—they love to know that they are actually helping. Alongside our children we are also learning, by pattern, to not be intimidated and to call on the Lord for help in impossible situations.
Indeed, who could ever wish for a better pastime than putting in a hard day’s physical, mental, and spiritual labor together as a family, to bring joy to children who otherwise sit bored, unvisited, and even drugged? Each day we set out to walk the mile to the orphanage in the already blazing early-morning sun, not knowing what genuine surprises the day will bring. Sometimes we witness little miracles together. One day we watched a little girl who didn’t speak begin to talk! Another day, a five-year-old blind boy, who doesn’t walk because no one has urged him to learn, began to take confident steps, following the sound of a volunteer’s voice!
Sometimes we are tempted to call our work “adaptive relational therapy” because we see how the children begin to blossom as soon as we start paying them warm, individual attention. Of course, most people blossom when we start loving them. But it is never long before we realize that “adaptive relational therapy” works two ways. The children are also transforming us—they are changing our stony hearts to hearts of flesh. And sometimes they are literally the examples we need in our own lives. One such example is the caretaker at our volunteer house—a young man who avoided institutionalization by coming to work for ROOF—who will never let us skip our morning or evening prayers. He truly knows poverty and teaches us how to properly depend on God.
For our family, serving God and being transformed by doing philanthropic work happened halfway around the world because that’s where we were at the time. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t go somewhere far-flung—your own backyard will do perfectly. If you offer your own time, your own homes, and your own lives, God will bless your efforts, because you will be fulfilling Christ’s commandment to love one another as He has loved us. And your families will be healthier for it, and your children will be left without any doubt about what it means to be a follower of Christ. What true Christians everywhere have to offer is precisely this unusual perspective: that glory comes through suffering together in communion when we do not shirk the crosses that we have the honor to take up in and together with Jesus Christ our Lord.
Andrew and Georgia Williams are a British/American couple who have three young children: Elizabeth, Anna, and Theodore. They recently moved to Quillan, France. Andrew also holds a Master’s of Divinity from Holy Cross. In addition, he is trained in music (MA Oxford). Georgia is also trained in economics (BA Princeton) and theology (MA Oxford). AS the founders of ROOF, they travel frequently to Russia to keep involved with various projects there.
Part of ROOF’s special mission to help orphans in Russia is to facilitate the placement of Orthodox faithful from outside Russia into projects for orphans in Russia, and we are eager to hear from anyone who would like to spend time volunteering. Russian language is, of course, a big plus, but is not generally required for active involvement in a project. For more information, visit www.roofnet.org and view us at www.youtube.roofnet.org