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How Camp Siberia, orphans and rural Russia led me back to Bainbridge

David Kroman gathers with Russian children and other volunteers during his visit last year to Kitezh. At right, some of the children of Kitezh that Bainbridge Islanders met during the visit by Camp Siberia organizers.  - Dana Thompson photos
David Kroman gathers with Russian children and other volunteers during his visit last year to Kitezh. At right, some of the children of Kitezh that Bainbridge Islanders met during the visit by Camp Siberia organizers.
— image credit: Dana Thompson photos

BY DAVID KROMAN

Special to the Review

Seven years ago I decided to not watch a Seahawks game and instead to attend a Camp Siberia information meeting.

It’s strange, but I can’t think of any decision I’ve made more significant than that one.

Camp Siberia is a nonprofit here on Bainbridge. From 2001 to 2011 the program took Bainbridge high schoolers to Novosibirsk, Russia – a Soviet city in the center of one of the most undefined and mysterious regions on the planet, Siberia.

Before that meeting I had no intention of ever caring about Russia or, frankly, about anything east of Germany. Russia was a place my parents and former presidents talked about; an old foe turned into just another free market.

What’s not often talked about is that when the USSR collapsed, safety nets for tens of thousands of families disappeared. Soon, a country that once claimed to have not a single person without a home, saw thousands — by some estimates millions — of children abandoned. The streets filled, the warm metro tunnels filled, the orphanages filled. It was the beginning of an epidemic.

Until taking its last group in 2011, Camp Siberia was a small relief.

Outside of Novosibirsk, by way of a green train, is a country cottage (a “dacha” in Russian) where this group of high schoolers would stay and make a summer camp for Siberian orphans.

When the kids from the orphanage arrived, our worries of a language barrier disappeared. We played games and did crafts and ate American peanut butter and Russian soup. When they left, we were heartbroken. It was only a few days, but it was enough to make me forever care about kids from the other side of the world.

After high school, I deferred college and returned to Russia, this time for six months.

My first three were spent in

St. Petersburg, studying Russian. My second three months were spent south of Moscow in Kitezh — a therapeutic community for former orphans now given a family and a community to grow up in.

I found Kitezh on the internet. After Camp Siberia, my group was paralyzed by things we’d never felt before: an urge to see, not France or Italy, but the places in hazier parts of the world; a desire to be happy and sad at the same time; a push to go very far away and to come back a little different. Camp Siberia didn’t solve the problem of orphans in Russia. But it made young people like us see that we didn’t need to solve anything to make a difference; that it was worth going great distances for one kid out of thousands.

Back on Bainbridge, I searched “volunteer children Russia.” Kitezh came up. Six months later, I was dropped off somewhere near a town I’d never heard of, near a city I’d never heard of, in a country few people ever wish to visit, to try to do one more small but important thing having to do with children.

Kitezh is the premier example of collective living. It is a community of foster families, about 60 people in all. They invite two or three kids from an orphanage every year.

And while each child has his or her foster parent, the community is their family. They eat together, they work together and they play together. Kitezh is a school from which the children receive a state diploma. It is also a place where everything is meant to rehabilitate, to encourage, to teach, to energize and to empower children still suffering the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kitezh is quiet.

It’s even quieter than the dacha in Novosibirsk. Except for the patches of birch trees, the country is as flat and endless as the great plains of the U.S. It’s beautiful. If Camp Siberia could have bottled the energy of its alumni and turned it into something permanent, it may have very well been Kitezh. Even after 20 years, the members of Kitezh still work hard every day. And being there made me want to work hard, made me understand why people work hard at all.

It took those paralyzing feelings I felt — and that I know others have felt after Camp Siberia or Ometepe — and turned them into something concrete: a basketball hoop I installed that still stands; a road I built that they still walk on; and a few teenagers who remember running through the snow with me when they were little.

Five years after I left Kitezh, Camp Siberia approached me regarding a relationship between the organizations. The Russian government had made the Novosibirsk program impossible. So Dana Thompson, another Camp Siberia board member, and I visited Kitezh last summer. We asked if Camp Siberia could bring American high schoolers far from their homes to help for a couple weeks. They said absolutely. So Camp Siberia exists again.

I chose to not watch a Seahawks game and now I am helping to launch a second phase of Camp Siberia. So, if you are a sophomore or a junior from Bainbridge Island, come to Grace Church with a parent or guardian at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16. You don’t know what you might find.

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