Kaladze is mother to Russia’s street children
But as they embrace the humid summer air — a rarity in the St. Petersburg area — some of the boys’ shorts and shoeless feet reveal muddy brown splotches. The sores, now healing, are from impetigo or other skin rashes acquired in prison. These children have done jail time for stealing.
But Natasha Kaladze takes them in and becomes their mother.
Every year Kaladze, a member of the church in Gatchina, a St. Petersburg suburb, brings the children to Bible camp. A reserved, unassuming woman, she patiently sits in the back of the classroom and watches them explain the meaning of parables in the Bible to their teachers — volunteers from the West Erwin church, Tyler, Texas.
Her quiet demeanor makes it easy to forget she’s in the room, but the students often look back for her smiles and slight nods. They want her to know when they get the answers right.
Many of these youths have experiences far beyond their years. Cast out or abandoned by their parents, they roamed the streets of St. Petersburg. Some stole for a living. Others lived with alcoholic parents in impoverished conditions.
‘The most horrible thing is that these kids see these things,’ said camp director and West Erwin member Joy Rousseau.
They’re not alone. Research from a university in St. Petersburg shows that the number of street children in the city of 4.2 million is at least 16,000, according to a local newspaper.
And 77 percent of these children — some as young as 9 — work exploitative and dangerous jobs, according to the newspaper.
Many are addicted to chemical substances. Model glue, squeezed into plastic bags and sniffed, is especially popular.
Kaladze, a psychologist who was baptized three years ago, has brought no less than 19 children to the camps. Several were baptized last year, and returned this year with their friends. An additional 12 were baptized this summer by West Erwin members in the waters of the Gulf of Finland.
But Kaladze does more than bring the children to the camps. She also takes them into her home.
She and her husband, Aleksander, use what money they can to feed them, bathe them and help them improve their reading. Kaladze runs her home like a school. Students wake up at a regular time, eat hot meals and do their lessons. Kaladze is there to tutor them.
‘Most can’t read well, but later they learn to read much better,’ she said, speaking through an interpreter, her daughter, Anya.
Kaladze is reserved when describing her own life, and she shyly turns away when other church members interrupt, eager to expound upon the extent of her generosity. But her head raises and she begins to speak with excitement when describing her kids’ accomplishments — especially their achievements in school.
Once they’ve gained the necessary skills, Kaladze helps the children re-enroll. But the children usually must start school where they left off — and sometimes that was years ago.
‘It (is) very hard for them to go back to school,’ Kaladze said. ‘There’s more structure, and also, when they come back to school, others make fun of them.’
Her ministry doesn’t always produce success stories. Children have stolen from Kaladze and returned to the street, Rousseau said. The losses are heartbreaking after Kaladze has invested time, money and love in the lives of the children.
But she doesn’t let the bad experiences discourage her. Some boarders have heard the message and become church members in Gatchina, which has about 20 regular attendees at Sunday services, many in their teens.
Missionaries say Kaladze’s children are becoming faithful church members, and are contributing to the congregation’s ‘youthful’ feel.
‘It’s her. That’s why the kids from Gatchina are being baptized. It’s not the missionaries,’ said D’Anne Blume, a missionary in St. Petersburg.
Chuck Whittle, who has worked with infant congregations in the St. Petersburg area since the early 1990s, said he expects the Gatchina church will ‘grow substantially because of the young people in it.’
Kaladze said she would like to open a center for street children in a separate apartment, giving it a name such as ‘Noah’s Ark for Children.’
Anya, 15, chats and jokes with her adopted brothers and sisters like real family members.
She admits that going through her teen years can be a bit frustrating with a mother whose attention is divided among several children, but she remains her mother’s biggest supporter.
‘I have to share my mom,’ she said. ‘That’s OK for me. I know they need her more than I do.’