By Scott Collins
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – It would be impossible to find the Buckner Boys Transitional Home without help. But help is what this place is all about.
The entrance is a non-descript doorway that looks like thousands of others in St. Petersburg. The building was built in 1882 and the entry looks unchanged from the past 125 years. There is little light and the familiar musty smell of a Russian concrete building greets the nose. Dark and musty.
When you arrive on the seventh floor and the door to the transitional home opens, so does a whole new world.
The “home” is really a large apartment owned by the government and leased by Buckner. It opened in September 2007 after what the Buckner staff calls “impossible renovations.”
If ever a place was filled with life, it’s this place. It’s home to 10 boys – young men, really – between the ages of 17 and 22. All grew in orphanages in St. Petersburg and all had no where to go when it was time to leave.
“Without this place, most of these boys would not have made it to this point,” according to Natasha Voytakova, director of Buckner Russia. “These are kids who could go on to get their higher education, but they lacked a place to live. The transitional home gives them a place to live so they can concentrate on their studies.”
Here, they are able to attend a local university while living in a safe environment. And their education isn’t just in the classroom. Marina Pletemehuk sees to that. She is the director of the program.
While living here, the boys are taught responsibility and how to manage basic life skills they didn’t learn growing up in the institutional setting of an orphanage. They take turns cooking and cleaning, while also learning to manage their finances.
Pletemehuk spent 17 years working in Orphanage No. 9 in St. Petersburg and knows something about the needs orphans have. Her role is a combination of mother, disciplinarian, teacher, and counselor.
A common theme from the boys is that without the Buckner apartment, they would not be in the university right now. And while tuition is free for orphans to any state school, it would be impossible to attend because they have nowhere to live.
That’s a theme echoed by Yuri Shelukhia, director of Orphanage No. 27 where four of the 10 boys currently living at the home are from.
“It is extraordinarily important for these boys,” he said. “It’s such a great way for them to get an education. It is absolutely invaluable to these young men.”
They also like the comfort of living with other orphans because the boys can relate to each other.
“This is a family environment and we all support each other,” said Vanya. “And we get a lot of help from the staff and from Buckner. I probably would have lost this opportunity because I can’t organize myself and I would probably have gotten lost.”
And while the transitional home is giving the boys positive opportunities, it’s also keeping them from going down the wrong path.
“I would have had to get a job and would not have had any support,” said Sergei. “And without the support, I would not have had time to study.”
Paul added his life “most probably would have led to some sort of criminal activity. I know friends from the orphanage who are in jail now.”
Because the young men living in the transitional home have seen what happens to other orphans who don’t have this chance, they are extremely goal oriented, Pletemehuk said. And while she says they still have lots of struggles, they remain highly motivated.
She said the goal is to prepare the boys to live independently. “We’re teaching them how to manage everything,” she said.
And her role with the boys doesn’t stop when they leave the apartment to go to school. Pletemehuk is in regular contact with their professors, insuring the boys are succeeding in school as well. And when they are ready to leave the home, she will help them find a job.
“I treat them as I would my own kids,” she said. “I can be very strict with them, but they know that I love them and they understand I mean well.”
To learn ways you can assist the Buckner Transitional Home in St. Petersburg, contact the Buckner Foundation at (214) 758-8050.
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