During the summer of 2002, Sarah Settelen and Iona Sutherland worked as volunteers in an orphanage in Russia for two months. The children they cared for left an indelible mark on both of them. Each child was struggling to survive in a system overwhelmed by ever-increasing numbers. Some of them will make it through this jungle. A handful may even come out with a basic education. But for most, and particularly for those with special needs, the future is bleak. While they were there, Sarah and Iona silently promised these children that they would do whatever they could to improve their chances of a real future.
That pledge echoes a whispered promise that Sarah made to her profoundly disabled daughter, Ellie, shortly after she died in January 2000 – a promise that Ellie’s cherished life would never have been in vain and that other hidden, silenced children in the world would be heard, celebrated and supported. Our organisation, ThePromise, is a direct result of these loving promises.
Sarah used an early intervention system of education with Ellie called Portage. This system was developed specifically for children with special needs. In November 2002, the Director of the orphanage in Ryazan agreed to a proposal presented by Sarah and Iona, to establish Portage there. ThePromise was set up to manage this programme. Once Portage had been successfully established there, ThePromise was then asked by another Director and the local authorities to expand the project into another orphanage for older children and to establish a community Portage service in Ryazan city. ThePromise also supports the disabled children with equipment and has sent out trained volunteers in other disciplines, including physiotherapists and occupational therapists, to work alongside the Portage team.
Ellie taught Sarah so much. Not least that we all have a unique and innate value regardless of our abilities. Whilst the system here seemed to offer little enough support for her and Ellie, there is a vast chasm between that and the support that these children in Russia are being given. Please help to give them a chance and if you feel able, ask friends, family, and anyone else who you think may be interested, if they would like to do the same, to help fulfil ThePromise made to Ellie and the Russian children.
Read an interview with Sarah where she describes the loss of her disabled daughter Ellie and the founding of ThePromise. Published in You Magazine October 2007