From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Children of Russia

Everywhere we went, the Russian Rotarians were so honored by our visit they rolled out the red carpet. As a member of a group from the United States, Canada and Australia, we were traveling together to present official charters to four new Rotary clubs in Western Siberia in 1997.

They showed us their cities. They dined us, and they fed us an obscene amount of vodka. When we arrived in Tomsk, I expected no more and no less. I was wrong. That visit literally changed my life.

“Carolyn, would you take fifteen minutes out of your schedule,” asked Savely Volfson, my Rotary host. “I would like to show you the first humanitarian project the new Rotary Club of Tomsk wants to sponsor. I want to take you to the children’s cancer ward at our hospital.”

Thinking like a good Rotarian, I agreed but was not eager.

In the nearby city of Seversk, there is a nuclear plant. Radiation had leaked. Although the size of the leak was not dramatic enough to be reported on television, the effect was the same. The doctors were seeing more and more children coming into the hospital with leukemia and other forms of cancer of the blood.

Although the doctors had a fine chemotherapy program with an 80 percent success rate in May 1997, the hospital had gone a year without receiving its government funding. The doctors, who had often used their own salaries to help purchase the medicine, had gone unpaid for a year. Families were left to beg or borrow the money to buy the chemo medicine so their children would live.

Be strong, Carolyn, I kept telling myself as I rode in the car to the hospital. These children have already suffered enough. The last thing they need is to see a grown woman cry.

I walked through the big, wooden double-doors to the hospital. I met the doctors and listened to them explain how they treated the children. They took me along the hospital corridors, downstairs, upstairs and finally to the children’s cancer ward.

The ward accommodated ten children in little tiny cubbyholes that were smaller than some American bathrooms. There were seven children—and their mothers— there that day. Because most hospitals were short on staffing, the mothers had all moved into the hospital to be with their children.

The kids went on instant alert. They looked. They sat up. They came to the doorway of their cubbyholes. Who was this person?

They were weak. They were pale. They were thin. They were bald. I wished I had brought presents. Something. Anything. The only thing I could find in my purse was my Rotary business card with a picture of me in my red jacket. I gave a card to each child. Each kid looked at the card, looked at me, then held the card to his or her heart and smiled. I knew right then and there that I was a Rotary trading card, and I was worth a lot!

Well, I did not cry. I thought I had satisfied Savely’s request and that I would get out of the hospital without disgracing myself. I was wrong again.

Each mother came out of a room. Through the translator, each mother said the same thing to me: “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Thank you for coming.”

Then it hit me. My visit was not just a visit to the mothers. They thought my visit meant something. They thought I would take their stories outside the four walls of the hospital. They thought I would help. They thought their children would live. They had so much faith in me.

I knew their faith was misplaced. I had not come to save their children. In fact, I was already thinking ahead to the evening’s festivities, to curling my hair and shaking the wrinkles out of my dress. Savely had asked a favor, and I was done. Wrong again.

After that meeting, I learned more about the children of Russia. I learned that, throughout Russia, the children were in crisis—dying, abandoned, orphaned, abused, suicidal, hungry, cold and uneducated.

Looking back, I now understand that meeting the children in Tomsk was no accident. It was destiny—theirs and mine. They had the courage to fight and to live. I had to find the will and the ways to help them.

It was a defining moment in my life. I am so accustomed to carefully mapping out my life and eliminating the risks. This time fate took charge of my life. Lightning struck and got my attention. I never stood a chance. I was committed and took a risk.

Just one month after that fifteen-minute time-out in Tomsk, it couldn’t have been a coincidence that I began serving as an officer of Rotary International. My new position automatically gave me many opportunities to tell the story of the children of Russia. And a year after visiting the kids with cancer, Rotarians worldwide had raised $620,000—enough to finance thirty humanitarian projects for children in twenty-two communities in Siberia and Far East Russia.

Raising the money was breathtaking. But I never forgot the seven children who were the inspiration for the “Children of Russia” project. Would they still be alive by the time the money was raised, the grant application approved and the money transferred to the hospital?

I went back to Tomsk in November 1998 and revisited the children’s cancer ward. This time I remembered to take presents. I brought a supply of baseball caps, the perfect fashion accessory for a bald head.

The doctors reported that all seven children were still alive and doing well. That’s the happy part. The sad part is that I met eight new children who had leukemia. One little boy was less than two years old.

You wonder how these kids endure chemotherapy treatment, hair loss, nausea and all the side effects. Yet when you come to visit, they can still smile, pose for pictures and speak softly to their moms. Cancer is definitely not for sissies.

Every day those children do what they must do in order to live. I only have to try not to cry.

Carolyn E. Jones

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For more information on Rotary International, contact One Rotary Center, 1560 Sherman Ave., Evanston, IL 60201; 847-866-3000; fax: 847-328-8554; e-mail: [email protected]; Web site:]

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