A family village centered around children with disabilities
My Russian child welfare colleagues are experimenting with a number of different models designed to support children with disabilities in stable family placements. Today, I visited one of these experimental models, a family village two hours south of Moscow. Described as a “closed community,” this family village consisted of 17 beautiful modern homes, each housing up to 11 children. But these were not the group homes I am used to seeing, these were family homes. Families are hired, with a salary plus living expenses, to live a normal life with their foster children in these homes. As one foster mother said, “it is so nice for me to be able to walk out of my door and have the neighbors understand if my child is having a hard time, because their child is similar.” While I at first felt uncomfortable about the notion of a closed community, given my American orientation towards community inclusion, and the dignity of risk, I came to see that in Russian culture, this model makes a lot of sense.
The highlight of my time in this family village was a visit with one of the families, who foster nine children with disabilities, four of whom have Down Syndrome. As I entered the house, I took off my shoes, which is a customary courtesy, but was soon whisked into the kitchen where the children stood in two lines, fronted by the three youngest in traditional Russian dress. The girls were holding a wooden tray with a round loaf of bread topped with a tiny dish of salt. My intrepid and amazing friend and interpreter Elena Nosova quickly explained to me that I should take a piece of the bread, dip it in the salt and eat it, as this was a welcoming ritual. Thank goodness for cultural brokers, or I wouldn’t have known what to do!
As we sat talking over a sumptuous tea table filled with sausages, cheese, cake, bread and an apricot-almond conserve, I learned about the family, who took on their fostering role as a result of their religious convictions and the mother’s 30 years of experience as a special education teacher in Siberia. No better family could be had for supporting these wonderful, happy children! This was an inspiring visit for me.
I’ll end by sharing that the family was very warm and loving in giving me a hand-made good luck doll (with no face, so that she would not catch any evil), a framed photo of our visit, a lovely decorative box and a warmed heart.
Another interesting Russian model that appears to be working for the almost 200 children in the village!