I regularly volunteer in orphanages, predominantly for disabled children, in Belarus. Though challenging, this year’s visit was as wonderful and inspiring ever. Seeing the small improvements year on year motivates me to continue fundraising, volunteering and sharing my experiences.
I worked with other volunteers in one orphanage for the majority of the time, helping with care but also organising additional treats and activities. Resources in state care, both financial and operational, are limited. Due to the ratio of staff to children, one-to-one support for those who need it, let alone anyone else, is impossible and tight routines guide daily life.
At 9am every morning, the children are dressed and fed breakfast. The children are bathed once a week. Teeth are not brushed. The majority of children, those who are younger or bed-bound, are wrapped in green cloth nappies as the government allocation of nappies is only one a day per child. Children are often left to sit in their wet nappies for a long time.
After breakfast the children are either placed back in bed, in wheelchairs in the playroom or outside. Most are tied with ‘restraints’ – their arms can be strapped against their chest, restraints tie them into their wheelchairs or to the bars of their beds. It is only the older and more mobile children who are able to enjoy the freedom of going outside or entertaining themselves.
The children eat lunch at 1pm. They are fed well, technically; lunch consists of both soup and a main meal. The food is liquidised to make it easier to feed younger children, those who are less responsive and those with few teeth. However staffing is low and there is no time or patience to feed the most difficult eaters. Furthermore while the orphanage is officially for children and young people aged 5-25 years, there are some living there in their late 20s and 30s. The food allocation might be sufficient for the younger children, but everyone gets the same, so the teenagers, young men and women do not always get enough.
At 2pm all the children and young people in the orphanage sleep for 2 hours. This includes the older men and women and the orphanage is not unknown to use tranquilizers in food. In the afternoon, children either remain in bed, their wheelchairs or, those more mobile, outside or in the playroom.
Dinner is at 6pm every day and again staff are not always patient with feeding. Lots of the children are malnourished and find it very difficult to eat, but as there is little time, there is force-feeding and some children regurgitate. Meal times are the part of the day that I find most distressing.
On a volunteer dietician’s charts, some of the young children did not meet the lowest weight level, at which a child would immediately be hospitalised in the UK, for their age and height. Some did not even make it onto the chart.
All children are put to bed at 7pm, apart from the oldest groups who are mostly 18+ years. Again they are left to their own devices in the playroom or outside.
Clearly large chunks of the day are unstructured. As volunteers, we got the younger children out for supported walks in the sunshine, took the bed-bound children out in chairs, and put on lots of treats and activities for the full range of kids. This included a disco and cinema trip, a magician that came to the orphanage and taking groups out for dinner and a picnic at the Lake.
The most important thing to me is that we volunteers give care and attention that, with the ratio of staff to children, the orphanage doesn’t have the resources to give. While the treats are wonderful, the time spent with a child who otherwise would be sat in a wheelchair all-day, unstimulated, is invaluable.