20 Years of Ministry to Russian Orphans

By: George Steiner

A generation, a score, two decades, 20 years. It’s long enough to make a difference and be well aware how much work is yet to be done! In March and April 1994, I was working for International Bible Society living in and around Moscow. At that time, I began to realize that the greatest—and most undeserved—blessing in my life was my family. I’ve experienced deeply loving relationships with my parents and sisters, my wife and our daughters. At the same time I felt my heart opening up to the orphans I met in Russia who didn’t share that experience, and I began to feel called to start a ministry to help them. So how did one who never considered anything so outrageous as starting a ministry—much less ever put feet to such a vision—begin?

That April while Ila Mason was visiting Russia, I shared my thoughts with her of leaving IBS and starting a new organization. In the summer of 1994, I met with Ron Harris in Dallas and shared with him what I was thinking. I also contacted John Bixler, Doug Clark, Ellie Dooner, and Jerry Furst, asking them all to pray with me about this decision.

On November 4-5, 1994, these friends and family members, along with their spouses, gathered in Colorado Springs with Kathy and me to discern God’s direction in reaching out to Russian orphans. The decisions made during those two days launched Children’s HopeChest. From HopeChest I branched off into serving orphans who had aged out of their orphanages, the most critical need I could see among Russia’s orphans. That ministry became Orphan’s Tree in 2008.

In 20 years we have seen so many changes! What began as three staff members—Jenya Polonskaya Haps, Katya Celenina, and me—has grown to more than 75 staff working on behalf of orphans with HopeChest and Orphan’s Tree. I’m so grateful for these dedicated, loyal staff who continue to faithfully serve on the frontlines day in and day out! Any non-profit is only as good as its personnel, and we have been abundantly blessed.

Many audiences have been blessed along with us, including more than 10,000 American volunteers who have traveled overseas to serve orphans in orphanages, at camps, through dental/medical, construction, life skills, ministry centers, and dacha teams. Going to Russia has never been easy, but those of you who have gone know the joy of both giving and receiving the blessings of working with orphans. Friendships have been deeply established. Regardless of relationships between nations and political leaders, these friendships will never be broken. Some of the young people who went on those early trips are now serving in full-time missions throughout the world.

The staff members at orphanages and interpreters we employ have also been impacted by the practical love and care expressed over these 20 years. Some of my favorite moments have been watching the skeptical orphanage directors and caregivers transformed into trusting partners for the cause of orphans. And what can be said about our interpreters? Many started as university students who had never had any interaction with orphans. What a joy to see some of them become committed advocates—in some cases even staff members—dedicating their careers to the well-being of orphans.

Of course I hope and pray that the greatest beneficiaries are the tens of thousands of orphans that we have had the blessing of serving. A few of the children we served were adopted. But the vast majority are young people still living in their native countries. Through our ministries, they have experienced, even in a small way, what it means to be recognized as a unique creation of God—to be an individual and not simply another orphanage statistic.

Natasha’s story exemplifies the ministry of HopeChest and Orphan’s Tree in many ways. It was January, 1995, and eight Americans (Ila Mason, Ron Harris and his son Rich, Doug Clark, Dr. Mark Littlestar, Lauren Homer, my daughter Rebecca, and me), plus Mikhail Makhov from the Kostroma Department of Education, Jenya Polonskaya Haps, and Katya Celenina, headed out on a bitterly cold day on a bus filled with shoes. Our destination was the Neya Orphanage. We were late getting started and then, of course, the bus broke down on the way. As we approached Neya, the road was closed, and we had to detour about 20 miles out of our way. By the time we arrived, it was well after dark.

We arrived at a truly dark place—dark in every possible way. At that time, there were more than 220 orphans incarcerated there, and it was obviously not a good environment. We had hoped to put shoes on each child individually, but we weren’t even sure they would still be up. When we found them awake, we had to scramble. It was chaotic as we unloaded the shoes into the auditorium and started the process of bringing in one age group at a time. Kids often didn’t like the particular pair of shoes we tried on them. I wasn’t very happy about the way the day had gone, and I’m afraid my poor attitude probably was evident.

I don’t remember this, but that night I put a pair of shoes on 9-year-old Natasha, who was in her first year at the orphanage. The important thing isn’t that I don’t remember, but that Natasha does. She recalls someone recognizing her for the first time as a person and caring enough to put a pair of new shoes on her feet.

Today Natasha is a university graduate who has been encouraged and helped along the way by our incredible staff members and dedicated volunteers. Of course she also did an enormous amount of work herself! Today Natasha is the office manager at the Kostroma Ministry Center and also teaches English classes to orphans. Natasha’s story is one of God using imperfect people in the life of an orphan who God saw, and sees, as one of His wonderful children.

In a recent edition of East-West Church & Ministry Report, Sergei Debelinsky was quoted as saying, “We should not just be called Christians; we should be Christians.” Over the past 20 years, I’m grateful for all those who, through the ministry of Children’s HopeChest and Orphan’s Tree, have truly been Christ-like in serving orphans in their distress.

There have been so many who have sacrificed in many ways with their time, talent, and treasure so this ministry could move forward. I’m grateful for those I know and thankful for those I’ve never met. No one has sacrificed and supported me more than my wife Kathy and our daughters Rebecca and Meredith. They not only “put up” with an often absentee husband and father, but actively support this ministry to orphans. Today Rebecca serves on our staff, and Meredith serves on the Orphan’s Tree board.

What a gift we have in family. And that is why 20 years is not long enough. We will continue to work wherever God places us on behalf of those who have not experienced this special blessing of family!