Sunday, November 18, 2007

Patch Adams & Maria's Children (What Wonderful People, What a Wonderful Cause, What a Wonderful Night...)

Two weekends ago I attended the most amazing fundraiser, an auction lead by Patch Adams, the famous American doctor, to benefit a local charity called Maria's Children. (You might have seen the film about him starring Robin Williams). Through his organization, the Gesundheit Institute, he comes to Russia every November with a group of up to 40 people from all walks of life who spread hope and joy to orphans in hospitals, orphanages and in hospice.

I can't believe that in our three + years here, I had never heard of Maria and the incredible work she does. Her website describes their mission this way:

Maria's Children uses art therapy to help in the social, psychological and intellectual rehabilitation of orphans and special-needs children. In this way, we seek to enable them to become fully-valued members of society, sharing the same rights as everyone else. We would like there to be the greatest number possible of happy and successful people in our society.

Maria runs a studio where the children learn about so much more than just art... While at the studio, orphans are encouraged, loved and able to interact with compassionate adults and children who are outside of the state orphanage system. I would like to join the adults who volunteer there, bringing their own children along. What an opportunity for Katya and Natalia--to paint with such an accomplished artist while developing friendships with these special children. I met an American businessman whose wife and daughters volunteer at the studio often and he said that it has changed their lives.

Click here to see a gallery of artwork done by Maria's children. The paintings are absolutely beautiful and full of such hope. Here is a sample of some of the collaborative paintings and quilts:

I was invited to the fundraiser by a colleague of Chris's who has been working with Maria's Children for a few years. I leaped at the chance to go; it's too bad that Chris and Katya were still in America. Natalia and I arrived the American Bar & Grill unsure of what the evening would bring...

There were clowns everywhere!! The forty people that Patch had brought with him to Russia were in full costume, larger than life, celebrating with Maria, her family, the many children she helps, volunteers and supporters. Natalia was quite afraid and clung to me. Patch himself came over to put her at ease, making some silly faces to elicit a giggle. So what did my little girl defiantly tell him, perhaps the most famous person she has ever met, looking him straight in the eye?


He was clearly used to working with all types, and he smiled and tried a different trick for Natalia... After which she deadpanned, again...


He decided to cut his losses and moved on...

One particularly kind girl came over and made it her mission to make Natalia comfortable. She is the sweetest, sweetest girl and sure enough, she won over my defiant and frightened little girl. Natalia cried when we had to leave later that night; she didn't want to leave her new friend.

I later learned that Heda and her brother (they're together in the picture below) are refugees from Chechnya that Maria has welcomed into her home. (In addition to her four children, there are eight other lovely boys and girls in need who live with them). Heda's home was destroyed during the war and there's no place for her and her brother in the refugee camp where their parents are. The visiting clowns (mainly from the USA, but also from Canada, South America and Europe) were so moved by Heda and her brother's attitudes of gratitude and hope in the face of their personal difficulties that they pledged to provide the necessary money to rebuild their home. Once the construction is complete, their family will be reunited.

The clown in the black and white has run the financial operations of Patch's organization since it was founded and this was the first time he decided to participate personally. He was joined by his granddaughter, an impressive young woman who just finished nursing school. The two of them had goosebumps as they spoke about what this trip has meant to them; they will go back to the USA changed people--and as a nurse with a whole new perspective.

This man and wife have devoted their retired lives to volunteer work and they were equally passionate about what they have seen on this trip. They met two very special boys at one orphanage that they wished they could have brought home with them. They gave every bit of energy they had inspiring the crowd to donate and celebrating all of the young artists. Another man I met is a very successful head of a internet company in Canada who had a life-changing moment last year in an ER waiting room; he watched a man his age (early forties) die of a brain aneurism while he waited for care (mainly because of quotas in the Canadian healthcare system that lead to very long lines). He doesn't really need to work anymore, and he has devoted himself to fostering change in his country's healthcare system. He was accompanied by his seven-year-old daughter (look for Raggedy Ann in the pictures of the auction) and they were having the time of their lives while making a difference in others'.

The auction itself was fantastic. To set the scene, many of those in attendance had donned clothing from the "dress up" piles in the entryway (Katya has to join me at this event next year!!!). We were all encouraged to fully participate; as a result, you had no idea who was a poor Russian volunteer, who was an expat businessman, or who was a Russian multi-millionaire. This was sooo different than other charity events where people come to see and be seen--and the charity is just a backdrop. The people at this event CARED about the children and whole-heartedly supported what Maria is doing.

These children's stories... the stories of the children dying in hospice... of children dying because they can't afford medical care... of children abandoned by their parents due to war or other problems... of children maimed by terrorist bombings... of children valiantly struggling to survive... these stories could have left one in tears. The remarkable aspect of this evening was that there certainly were tears shed--but through laughter and hope.

Each child had decided how the money from the sale of his or her painting would be used. Many of the artists were present, and we learned a little about them before they talked about their artwork. Then we heard about they were determined to make the world a better place, how they wanted to make a difference with the proceeds from the sale of their paintings, collages, textile art, sculptures and ceramics.

I was particularly moved by the story of a girl in Beslan who lost her sister during the attack on their school three years ago. At the summer camp Maria runs, she became friends with an orphan who was injured in the bombing of a central Moscow subway station years ago. The girl from Beslan wanted the money from the sale of her painting to fund dance lessons for her friend in Moscow who dreams of dancing, even without one of her feet.

Yes, I know. How can you hear that story and not be moved to ACT?

Each painting had an equally moving and important story.

It was particularly awesome to learn just how all the money raised last year had been spent--and to see the pictures of each child whose life had been saved or significantly improved. Every single dollar made a difference.

I HIGHLY encourage anyone in Moscow who reads this to attend the auction next November--or to get involved sooner in some other way. I've made it my mission to tell every expat friend I know here to spread the word throughout their offices; that auction should have been attended by MANY more people than were there. To those of you not in Moscow, visit Maria's website and donate!!

Here's video from the final sale of the evening, a set of a painted table and chairs that went for $25,000!!!! Words can't describe the looks on the faces of ALL of the artists as we guests fought to own their artwork, donating sums of money beyond their wildest comprehension. Look at the girl in the tie-dyed shirt to Patch's right; she's one of the artists and the recipient of the dance lessons.

I couldn't exactly afford the auctioned works, but I bought over $120 in cards and calendars to give as gifts this Christmas. I also bought a set of two mugs... by twin brothers with severe physical disabilities who have grown up abandoned in orphanages and are now too old for the orphanage--so they've been sent to an "institute" with minimal care where they're basically just left to die. The ceramics teacher who works with Maria still visits the boys and brings them clay and other supplies. One brother is much more capable than the other and he is the one who has participated in the ceramics lessons over the years. The second mug, however, was made by his brother--who can barely move his arms--after his brother taught him how. These mugs are now Katya and Natalia's favorites.

This was my 100th post... I had wondered what I'd write about, would I make it special in some way... I hope this did the trick! I hope that my blog can in some way inspire others to help these children.


Tami said...

What an amazing experience! I don't know how you were able to come out of there without bawling like a baby. What an amazing display of selflessness.

Rachael said...

Very fitting for your 100th! What a wonderful thing to have witnessed and been a part of. I'm a little jealous!

Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. I hope you find some way to celebrate, but it's probably school and business as usual.

Thinking of you, anyway.