“They chose to be free and lead a full life”

12/12/2023
Zaluzhye is a small village in Pskov oblast, which is no different than many other settlements in the region. It empties out in the winter and comes alive when vacationers arrive in the summer. The modest homes mostly predate the Russian Revolution. They are made of logs trimmed with planks and are heated by stoves. But there are houses in Zaluzhye that stand out, you might say, in both form and content.

Two houses with an unadorned, high-tech look are located opposite each other at the edge of the village. There are no fences, but they have well-tended gardens and are full of life all year round. They are home to eleven alumni of the nearby Belsko-Ustyensky orphanage for children with cognitive disabilities.

We asked Elena Nikolaevna Vashchenko, director of the orphanage, how it succeeded in setting up one of Russia’s first assisted living facilities for orphans with mental disabilities.

Pride and confusion

Elena became director of the orphanage in 2011 without any previous background in managing social welfare institutions. For the first year Elena intensively studied the psychology of children with cognitive disabilities and learned about their distinctive pattern of socialization and development of communication skills. She was very pleased with what the orphanage had achieved.

However, when she saw that after leaving the orphanage, children who presented well, were motivated to learn, and could do a great many things were nevertheless sent to reside in psychiatric institutions and when she understood what that meant for their lives and progress, her satisfaction with the accomplishments of the orphanage turned into dismay.

“One day I went to the psychiatric institution where many of our children ended up after they turned eighteen. I found it very depressing – an absolutely hopeless environment that was incompatible with development and where the inmates were left to rely on their own resources. When I went into the room of one of our former residents whom I remembered as responsive and capable, I was flabbergasted. This young man had lost all his skills, and his condition had markedly worsened. He just sat on the edge of his bed and stared straight ahead. This shocked me. Why would the state spend so much money and effort to instruct underage orphans if it has no place for them when they reach adulthood?”

Elena began seeking ways to make a nurturing environment for former residents of orphanages and to allow people with mental disabilities to live in freedom and security. Without even realizing it herself, she had become a pioneer in the field of assisted living.

The first step to accompanied living

In 2013 Elena Vashchenko convinced the Social Welfare Committee of Pskov oblast that it was necessary to use the resources of the orphanage to create a division for young adults with disabilities.

“This was done initially to allow our charges to remain as long as possible in a supportive environment while continuing their education and socialization. The thing is, you have to steadily forge ahead when dealing with mental disabilities. That’s the only way to prevent setbacks and further deterioration.”

The more the team from the orphanage was involved with young adults, the more distinctly they saw that many of them had high potential for rehabilitation: they could live even more independently, take on responsibilities and follow through on them.

“Then we decided to rent a dacha for three of our charges during the summer.”

Lera, Denis and Lena lived almost six months in a small village house. They did the housekeeping, cooked their own food, walked a lot, and gardened.

Of course, these young people were not living completely on their own. Some help was hired with funding from the orphanage’s Board of Trustees.

“When cold weather set in, the young people had to return to the orphanage. Everyone could see how valuable the experience had been for them. They had matured, learned a lot, and grew more capable of cooking and housekeeping.”

The transformation in Lera, Lena and Denis struck Elena just as much as her visit to the psychiatric institution had the year before.

If the psychiatric institution had shown how quickly someone could lose social skills and succumb to disability, then that summer outside the walls of the orphanage demonstrated how beneficial independent living with minimal supervision could be for wellbeing and development. So a new project came into being.

The new project

“It’s important to stress that the ZALUZHYE project was made possible only because of the young people themselves. They were actually a very close-knit and capable group of our adult residents. I didn’t hold anything back from them, and in particular we talked a lot about their prospects for living as adults.”

The choices these young people had were:

  •  Living as wards of the state at a psychiatric institution and sacrificing their entitlement to an apartment of their own.
  •  Remaining at the Belsko-Ustyensky orphanage as young adults until they qualified for an apartment of their own.
  •  Becoming wards of foundations and living in their facilities until they qualified for an apartment of their own.
  •  Building a joint home together with other wards of the orphanage, moving there and retaining their entitlement to an apartment provided by the state.

They unanimously chose a home of their own. Elena Nikolaevna then looked into the details, and there were many.

From the orphanage to their own home

When a child becomes resident at an orphanage, a bank account is opened for them, into which their benefits are deposited. When they attain adulthood, that money is accessible to the orphan, who is then entitled to spend it at their own discretion.

“All the former residents of our orphanage are legally competent, and this means that they can live where they wish and spend their benefits as they please. We identified eight young people who had no physical disabilities, were well socialized and wanted to live independently. We proposed that they invest in construction of a home and become its owners.”

As private parties, they bought two plots of land in the village of Zaluzhye and began building a house for young women on the larger of the two plots and one for young men on the smaller plot.

“There was another important legal consideration: children officially designated orphans are entitled to receive an apartment of their own from the state. It was essential to me that their entitlement to it would be preserved. For that reason, the living space in these houses was kept small enough that the portion each person owned was less than the legally mandated standard and the benefit would be retained.”

The money available was enough to construct two house frames with windows and roofs. But there was not enough money left for interior finishing, wiring and outfitting.

“I believe in the power of setting goals and taking action. We understood that the money needed for everything was not there, but doing nothing was also not an option. When construction came to a stop, we began waiting for a miracle. And one happened. Two, in fact.”

Help in completing the women’s home came from Russian philanthropist Anton Nikolaevich Kolyadin, father to two sons, one of whom is autistic. He took charge of the whole undertaking, paid for the finishing, and purchased everything needed for comfortable living – from plumbing fixtures to forks and bedclothes.

In December 2018 five former residents of the Belsko-Ustyensky orphanage left the division for young adults with disabilities and moved into their own home.

“This was a wonderful, joyous moment, but sad too, because the boys were still living at the orphanage and their house was still unfinished.”

Elena told everyone about the success of the ZALUZHYE project, about the fulfilling and normal way of life that the young women now had, but also about how important it was to find financing so that the young men could also make that move as soon as possible.

“Natalia Kovalenko, who was at the time director of development for CSS, was told about the project by a trustee of the orphanage. Natalia gave a presentation of ZALUZHYE to David Russell, the founder of CSS Foundation, and he became interested in our project. David traveled from Melbourne to the Russian countryside where he could see how the young women were getting along. Everything he saw persuaded him that the idea was useful and viable.”

CSS agreed to finance construction of the home for young men, and by December 2019 they were able to move in.

Elena Vashchenko had configured ZALUZHYE as one of the orphanage’s projects, and the social welfare agency for the oblast allocated staff to cover the residents. This meant that employees from the orphanage could live full-time in both homes and provide help to the residents whenever necessary.

At this point, ZALUZHYE consists of two homes for eleven residents. They confidently manage their own affairs, and they have greenhouses where they grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant as well as plots with strawberries and potatoes, apple trees, currants, and raspberries. This gardening keeps them in vegetables and fruit for the entire year.

Results, plans and hopes

Eight of the residents are officially employed. Two others do not have a job but pitch in willingly with housekeeping and gardening. One of them, unfortunately, is having health problems and cannot work at all.

Two of the residents have already been granted an apartment from the state, while the others who qualify for social housing are on the waiting list with all their entitlements acknowledged.

”ZALUZHYE is a unique project created for these residents. They truly were and are very close-knit and capable. Each one took an active part at every stage in the project’s execution, and they have continued being instrumental to it for over five years now. The motto of ZALUZHYE is ‘Our home – our choice.’ They understand exactly what those words mean: being free, living as independently as possible – that is precisely their choice.”

Pskov oblast takes great pride in the project, and the village is frequently a destination for officials from various agencies and NGOs. However, Elena does not know of even one other similar project being undertaken in Russia.

“In 2013 our division had thirty young people with disabilities, and we were able to transfer out eleven of them. Now they are independent adults – they live, work, and manage their own affairs. Imagine how many could also be helped at a psychiatric institution with five hundred wards! It’s a pity that our experience has still not been upscaled.”

Elena Nikolaevna’s ambition is to build a third home as part of the project. There are some very promising adult residents at the Belsko-Ustensky orphanage. Five years ago they were excluded because they had cerebral palsy or other serious physical impairment in addition to cognitive deficits. A home for them would need a more complex design and infrastructure.

“That dream is on hold for now. Construction costs are increasing every day. But, as we in Zaluzhye know very well, miracles do happen!”