On a bleak, rainy autumn day in 1996 I got off the bus in a remote village in Ukraine. A two-story red brick building, like a ghost in the field, welcomed us – my amateur theater group’s director, peers, and myself – to the orphanage. We quickly grabbed our costumes as we were getting off the bus on our way to meet the orphans – we came to visit them and perform our signature play “Feline’s Home.” The moment we walked into the dilapidated orphanage that smelled like sauerkraut mixed with urine, children were crowding in the doorway, curiously gazing at us. Some rushed towards us and touched our hands. Others just stood there frozen. Right at that moment, I felt like an alien who had landed in a foreign land. I spoke those children’s language, but I could not relate to their experiences of total abandonment, deep sorrow, and absolute deprivation of love, which gushed out of their hearts. I was immediately overcome with perplexity: Why were these children, essentially my peers, stuck in that horrid place all by themselves? Where were their moms, dads, sisters, and brothers?
Almost 15 years later, I found myself meeting with the urban orphanage school principal. We met to discuss my dissertation research project (at that time I was pursuing my doctorate at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City) and to receive his consent as legal guardian of the children for me to observe and interview orphans in grades 10 and 11 (high-school age) for my qualitative multi-site case study, which spanned over 10 months of 2010-2011. In the course of my research in one urban and one rural orphanage, I studied how the educational system (teachers’ formal and informal curriculum, peer relationships, and educational policy for vulnerable populations) influenced orphans post-secondary educational decisions and destinations. In the course of 10 months, I observed and interviewed 81 students (orphans in grades 10 and 11 and orphanage alumni) and 41 educators (teachers and caretakers) in both orphanages. More than 94,000 of Ukraine’s 8 million children are orphans. Approximately 93-95% of them have at least one living parent. Of the 94,000 orphans, 25% of them live in orphanages; after graduating, the majority of them are tracked into vocational schools, after which they have limited opportunities to live a decent life.
My research findings revealed the structural inequalities orphans faced and experienced in orphanages and beyond. One of them was poor quality of education in orphanage schools and lack of additional educational resources to enable orphans to develop their academic competencies and abilities to pursue higher education. My findings demonstrated that the majority of urban and rural orphanage educators delivered substandard education enacted through an unchallenging curriculum and lecture-based, top-down instruction, lack of homework enforcement, grade inflation, and frequent cancellation of classes. Some orphanage teachers digressed from meaningful instruction to tell stories about their lives or to show blockbuster movies to kill the time with “disengaged and academically weak students,” as many educators in orphanages described orphans. The unchallenging curriculum prevented orphanage students from acquiring sufficient knowledge for pursuing higher education, which the majority of orphanage youth interviewed for my dissertation placed education at the top of their priorities inlife: they believed higher education was the ticket to the competitive labor market and self-sufficiency.
Tormented by the educational inequalities these children experienced in orphanage schools and beyond, and being an avid advocate for quality education for all children, I co-founded the organization, Sublimitas, strongly believing that through education we can contribute to social change for disadvantaged children and youth in the world. Sublimitas was founded in 2013 with a mission to reach socio-economically marginalized children and youth – neglected, impoverished, and exploited – to inspire and empower them to develop their potential through education. In Latin, sublimitas means “elevation,” or “elevated state of mind and character.” At the core of Sublimitas rests the belief in the transformative power of education to elevate disadvantaged children and youth from inequalities and to empower them decision over their own lives and those of their families and communities.
In September 2014, Sublimitas launched its signature program, Paving the Path to University, in a rural orphanage in Ukraine. Seven out of 17 students in the graduating class of 2015 enrolled in our intensive tutoring program. The seven students – Alina, Mykola, Vitya, Ruslana, Zhanna, Vadym, and Natalia – are orphaned children deprived of parental care who either have no living parent/s or have a living parent whose parental rights had been terminated due to substance abuse or incarceration. Virtually all of them have been in the orphanage system their entire life. In 2014-2015 of the Paving the Path to University program, our students met with experienced teachers-tutors three times per week (once in each of the three required subjects on which they were tested this past summer) over 10 months (September 2014-June 2015) to develop and enhance their academic competencies in subjects such as history, math, chemistry, biology, geography, Ukrainian language, and English. From the very beginning, our students were driven to pursue majors that will prepare them for the careers of teachers, doctors, computer scientists, economists, and hospitality personnel. Now that the seven students have graduated from our program and have taken the university entrance exams, we anxiously await the final admission results for all of them.
Another gaping hole that my research showed was lack of strong role models and mentors in orphans’ lives who would instill faith in these children’s success and provide much needed socio-emotional support. When orphans graduate from the orphanages, they are overcome with fear, self-doubt, and anxiety over uncertainty and adult life, for which the majority of them are unprepared. Early this year, Sublimitas launched the Change-Makers mentoring program, connecting Ukrainian orphans with Ukrainian young professionals to mentor students one-on-one over Skype and social media, providing encouragement and guiding youth in their decision-making processes and challenges.
As we continue our programs in the rural orphanage and expand our programming in Lviv this fall, I want to highlight that Sublimitas would not be here without the dedicated Board of Directors who move Sublimitas forward, individuals who helped establish its infrastructure, and of course Sublimitas’ angel donors, supporters, and volunteers! And a very special “Thank You” to InLove!
Just like education has allowed me to unearth my passion to foster education for the most marginalized and disenfranchised, Sublimitas is committed to creating more equal educational opportunities for children and youth to develop their potential and to enjoy a meaningful life.
If you have any questions about Sublimitas and would like to get involved to make a difference in orphans’ lives, please email Alla Korzh at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Sublimitas, please visit our website: www.sublimitaschildren.org and Like us on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/1MjAez9
Alla Korzh, Ed.D. Director of Research and Programs at Sublimitas.
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