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Bainbridge volunteers get set for Western Russia trip | GUEST COLUMN
BY DANA THOMPSON
This June, Camp Siberia-Kitezh, formerly Camp Siberia, a Bainbridge Island nonprofit established by 2014 Island Treasure recipient Janie Ekberg in 2001, will carry on its tradition of taking a group of Bainbridge high school age youth to Russia.
From 2001 until 2011, Bainbridge students have provided a unique summer camp experience for Russian orphans in Siberia. This year, however, will be the second time a group from Bainbridge has traveled, not to Siberia, but to Western Russia to provide support to Kitezh Children’s Community.
Established in 1992 after the break-up of the Soviet Union and located approximately 300 kilometers southwest of Moscow, Kitezh is a unique therapeutic foster community and a working model for rehabilitating Russia’s abandoned and orphaned children. The approximate 35 lucky Russian orphans who live in Kitezh gain necessary life skills, while getting a good education within the support of a loving foster family. Named for a mythical Russian city that is only visible to the pure of heart, Kitezh offers disadvantaged youth hope and a future, something out of reach to the vast majority of Russian orphans still in state-run orphanages. The Russian adults (and one Scottish man) who live and work in Kitezh are all passionate and well-educated - many are teachers, therapists, and artists choosing to spend their lives to better those of Russia’s forgotten children.
After a successful CS Board exploratory trip to Kitezh in 2012, and last year’s pilot trip when Camp Siberia-Kitezh took 15 Bainbridge teenagers and four adult chaperones, the Bainbridge Island organization looks forward to further cementing their relationship with Kitezh this year. The 2014 Camp Siberia-Kitezh group, consisting of nine BHS students and three adult chaperones, will depart June 14 for Russia, adding their spirit and energy to Kitezh.
The timing of the Bainbridge trip in the last two weeks of June offers Kitezh help when they need it most.
Every summer in July, Kitezh, a community of about 70 people, holds a coveted summer camp for over 100 orphans from all over Western Russia, and the CS-K group will help them prepare for the arrival of the orphans in July.
The Bainbridge Island group will work hard - gardening, cooking, painting, cleaning, building, sewing, clearing land and stacking hay – all community efforts to provide a positive experience for Russia’s disadvantaged youth, while gaining invaluable life experiences of their own.
“Many of the Kitezhans told us that they had never had volunteers who were so hard-working, open, loving and eager to connect with their children,” says Ellin Spenser, president of the Camp Siberia Board and one of the 2013 chaperones to Kitezh. “I could not have been prouder of our Bainbridge kids.”
Still, amid the work, there’ll be plenty of time to play, sing, team-build and make friends, as above all Kitezh is a place of joy. In the two short weeks last year’s counselors spent in Kitezh, many felt they had found a second home.
“More than anything else, the people in Kitezh showed me a capacity for kindness that I will never forget,” says Nels Challinor, a senior at BHS who went with CS-K to Kitezh in 2013. “The Kitezhans were happy to overcome cultural as well as language barriers to welcome us into their lives.”
Challinor, who will attend Boston University this fall, credits his time in Kitezh as contributing to his new-found interest in traveling the world.
“I have developed much better people skills due to my experiences in Kitezh,” says BHS senior Jack Post. “I was fairly shy going into the trip, but after realizing that all the people in Kitezh were just interested in getting to know us, it become much easier, and I feel much more willing to share myself now. The entire experience was life-changing for me, and extremely enjoyable along the way.”
Post will attend the School of Business at the University of Washington this fall. The entire CS-K program, which begins with the counselors selection in mid-December, and consists of monthly training meetings and community service projects such as feeding homeless in Seattle and community clean-up projects on Bainbridge, earns CS-K counselors an approximate 190 volunteer hours. Although last year’s trip was highly successful, Kitezh is a small community and the traditional CS group size of 18 kids is a little overwhelming. In the future, the ideal group size will evolve and will probably be closer to this year’s 9-12. Therefore, it is likely that CS-K will become even more competitive than it has traditionally been. CS-K will hold an informational meeting in mid-October 2014 for all rising juniors and seniors interested in applying for the 2015 trip.
The 2014 CS-K group also marks the first time Camp Siberia founder Ekberg won’t be accompanying the group as leader. While it will be different without her, and was a hard decision for Ekberg to make, she is confident the program will go on and continue to be a life-changing experience for all involved.
“After 13 summers of traveling to Russia with Bainbridge youth, experiencing heartwarming connections between young people without a common language, it is extremely difficult to remain on Bainbridge this summer,” says Ekberg. “However, we have a great team of skilled chaperones and enthusiastic counselors ready to make a difference in Kitezh. I never imagined we would be able to go forward in such an amazingly positive way, and the whole idea of CS, changing the life of someone else, and in the process changing yourself – is happening all the time in Kitezh. For Camp Siberia-Kitezh to be able to be a small part of that is amazing.”
As Camp Siberia-Kitezh prepares to embark to Russia, they look to continue the on-going relationship with Kitezh, and thus continue to fulfill both organizations’ missions of changing the world – one child at a time. For more information, see www.campsiberia.com.
Dana Thompson is a Bainbridge Island freelance writer, and a member of the Camp Siberia Board of Directors. She is one of the three chaperones traveling to Kitezh this June.