We hurried from Khust to drive down to Vinogradov, to visit the Light of Love program for street children, run by the Polichkos. As we drove through the gate of the compound, we were surrounded by children and quickly became the center of attention. The Polichkos greeted us warmly, and immediately gathered the children to sing for us.
The children were of all ages. Most of them (at a guess) were pre-teens, but some were older and some a good deal younger. They sang beautifully, led by the melodic Irina Polichko, with music provided by a very talented gentleman on a keyboard. Many of the songs had hand movements or little dance steps that went with them, and almost all (if not all) were about God and His love for us. It was charming and moving to see.
After they had sung a few songs, I was asked to sing; my mind went immediately blank, and all I could remember the words to was "Gué, Gué" as sung by the Kingston Trio. Being a lullaby, it wasn't entirely a propos, but I did the best I could (I later realized that I should have sung "Great and Wonderful." Ah, hinsight!). The kids listened so attentively that it was a little unnerving. What must they have thought of this crazy woman who was singing a creole lullaby about bayous and singing crocodiles?
When I had finished, they sang again, and then Mrs. Polichko asked Victor to tell the children about children in America. So Victor asked me to talk about my boys and I did my best, wishing I knew what to say. When talk ran low, Beverly prompted me to get my photos. I was soon hemmed in by a mob of children, all pushing to get close enough to see. I handed around the flimsy computer-printed pictures and used my best pidgin Ukrainian/Russian to try to say what was in the pictures. Victor helped a little bit, but there were just so many kids, so many questions, that it was impossible. I'm not sure they were even really listening, or whether they just wanted to see.
Of course, even the excitement of pictures did not hold them for long, and we stood awkwardly, just me and a whole bunch of kids. Some wandered off to play or to visit with Kassie, but a little knot of them remained with me. We tried to exchange names, and that worked for a while, though I have forgotten most of the names and to whom they belonged. There were too many to remember. When I spied a cat on one girl's shirt (she is one I remember, Katya--for we were both Katyas that day, and it made us feel special somehow), I forgot the word for cat and a boy, Yuri, who looked like Steven, meowed. I meowed in response, and so for several minutes we made all kinds of animal noises and they tried to teach me the names of animals.
When even that grew stale, someone spotted my camera, and soon my small section of the yard was a hubbub of children pushing to take pictures or to have pictures taken. They pressed me so closely that they almost tipped me over! I ended up sitting on the ground, a decision that was a great astonishment to them, but I held firm. In this way, they could get as close as they liked without my balance being in danger. Photo after photo was taken of me with various children, all nestled against me as though we had known each other forever.
It was sweet, but also so sad. How much must they crave attention and love and physical contact? The Polichkos have a worthy work, and also a huge one. It seems as though children needing love and care are endless. The message that came through the clearest is that these kids don't 'want' a lot of things. All they want and need are parents to love them and care for them; despite the fact that most have biological parents still living, the Polichkos are providing the real parenting.
Before long, we were all called inside. I had no translator (Victor was in another part of the room), but it appeared to be a lesson and prayer time. Kassie had brought gummy bears, which she passed around. They were an immediate hit! I was soon sick of gummy bears, however, as all of the kids around me wanted to share. I didn't really want to take them, but they were very insistent.
The lesson drew to a close, and Mrs. Polichko asked "Brat Victor" (Brother Victor) to speak to the children. They asked each of us; I at first demurred, but I was overruled. I talked about my love for books and about working at the library.
When we had finished speaking, the children sang again. Beverly followed along with the pantomimes that accompanied the songs. During the second song, they were doing different animals, including a bear and a crocodile. I turned to look at Bev during the part about the bear, and she pretended to be a bear chasing me. I, of course, pretended to be afraid, which won us several smiles from the kids; the smiles turned to laughs when the same thing happened during the crocodile verse.
After another song, we were dismissed for lunch. I found myself pulled along by Lolita, who rushed us willy-nilly down the hall, inadvertently running me into several doorframes.
The lunchroom was tightly packed and became tighter still as they brought in more chairs so that we could all sit. The food was served family style, with those who worked in the kitchen getting everyone started and then everyone at the table helping when needed.
We were served some kind of soup, a salad with cabbage (I think), mashed potatoes, and cake (there may have been other things as well that I have forgotten). We had compote (?) to drink, a sort of water fruit drink. I didn't think it very tasty, but I drank it anyway. After all, when in Vinogradov...
The little girls at my table were all laughing at me. I have to assumed that either:
a) my accent is really funny;
b) my natural humor crosses the language barrier really well;
c) I am funny-looking; or
d) they taught me to say naughty words in Ukrainian.
After lunch, we had just a little time to play with the kids, but then we had to leave for our appointment with the mayor of Khust. It was hard to leave, but we promised that we would come back (I was so happy to hear this, as I was afraid that this was the only time we'd visit and was quite heartbroken).