december 2008

december 2008

Working with the Children in Room 4

I left for Russia to go and do some work for ThePromise in November 2008. My friend Wendy Tabuteau works for them and after many discussions about the skills they needed for the orphanage based in Yelatma, I felt I could go and see if my skills and experience could make a difference. I am an Occupational Therapist working with autistic children with experience of dealing with Adults with learning disabilities and challenging behaviour.

ThePromise, through Jo Wooster, prepared me fully for the trip. Before I knew it I had a visa, a plane ticket and had seen all the children, via DVD, to help me begin assessing them.

Children in room 4. Nikita is lying by the hot pipe for heat

Jo Wooster and I went to assess the children in what they call the ‘bottom room’ or room 4 which is where the older disabled, but mobile children are kept. They are put into the room after getting out of bed in the morning and are left there all day, every day, till bedtime. They are not given toys or played with. Most of them will sit and rock to stimulate themselves. Some display distressing self stimulatory behaviour such as self harming. Sadly, there are also a few verbal children in the ‘bottom room’ who are able to interact and learn, but are not given any opportunity to do so. While we were working with these children, we learned that some of them had been kept in the room for most of their lives – some for more than 13 years.

The aim of my short trip was to assess all 13 of these young people in room 4 and to recruit two play workers to begin working with them daily.

What struck me most, when I first walked into the orphanage, was the smell. It seemed a contradiction – the floors were gleaming and I saw people mopping and cleaning, but the air was heavy with the smell of urine and faeces. The children looked small, mal-nourished and were all confined to bed. Many times during our few days there, Jo and I had to ask the carers to change a child- they would be lying in bed in their own mess and unable to do anything about it. There were also children that were tied to their beds or who were restrained in other ways. The staff would always explain to us that they needed to be restrained as the child would harm themselves if they weren’t. The answer for the staff is restraint, not trying to establish the motivation behind the behaviour and trying to find the solution to stopping it.

But in between all of this heart ache and suffering I saw a team of woman I knew were trained and employed by ThePromise. They were taking the children out of bed one by one and doing Portage with them. It was so wonderful to see the children’s little faces light up as they got to play and be held and loved by these woman. Even though they would still need to spend the other 22 hours in bed, they thrived on the hour or two of undivided attention. ThePromise has made the most incredible impact on every child’s life in Yelatma! There are no words to describe how thankful these children are for the human touch, for the opportunity to experience toys, music, and to learn. Without this daily work, the children would have no hope, nothing to look forward to, no love and no kindness.

But the children in Room 4 are not appropriate for Portage and have not received any input like the other children. They have spent all their time confined between 4 walls, with no stimulation and no love.

Jo and I spent most of our time playing with the children in Room 4 and all the while assessing their abilities and needs. We put together goals for each of the children, some as simple as getting them used to leaving Room 4 to come to the room we had set up for playing (a corner of the dining room). Some of the children could not understand what was happening and found it difficult. It makes sense, if you consider that they may not have had the opportunity to play in 13 years! On the other hand some of them ran down the corridor, into the ‘play room’ and refused to leave when their time was up!

Two local women (Sveta and Lena) have been recruited to work with the children in Room 4 – they had both attended the 3 day Portage Workshops run by ThePromise in October. We spent time with them, discussing what our assessments for each child were and giving them goals for them. They began work the day we left and are spending 4 hours a day, 5 days a week working with the children in Room 4, taking each child out individually for one to one sessions in the dining room.

Nikita enjoying playing with a new toy with Tanya and his new support worker Lena (left)

Jo and I will go back in February to see how things are getting on and to train Sveta and Lena more. Knowing that these children will receive some love and attention as well as some stimulation every day made coming home and leaving them more bearable.

I have not cried as much as I did on this trip. The children are so beautiful and so sad. ThePromise is small but powerful! They are changing individual lives and bringing the children hope. Most of us are not all able to get on a plane and go to Russia. But we are all able to support ThePromise in some way, so they can continue to bring light and hope to the children in Yelatma.

Tanya Van Dalen – volunteer Occupational Therapist

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