Anna McAneny ’15 was blogging from Russia where she was part of a traveling troupe of clowns. They were working with Patch Adams, a doctor known for his therapeutic use of clowning. She visited orphanages, hospitals and more.
I am so glad that I am home and safe.
At the risk of sounding cliché, I must say that this experience has been life changing. After a week home, and a long weekend spent with family, I have gotten a chance to reflect on what I did, and what I am going to do to continue my impact while I am home.
Every day in Russia hurt. But leaving hurt more. Every person I had created a relationship with was torn from my life, thrown across the globe. My nearest friend is in New York City. However, when I got home, I realized what incredible friends I have here too. And that I don’t need to go to Russia to find compassionate, dedicated people. That helped to remind me that there are also needy people here, people without families, people in pain, people who need someone to listen to them. Russia was an incredible experience, but, to be realistic, unsustainable. The way to make my project worthwhile is to continue what I did there, here.
I learned so much, and met so many incredible people. I am eternally grateful to all the friends I made, all the children I met, all the people who welcomed me into their homes. Thank you.
View from Smolny Cathedral, St. Petersburg
I try so hard to understand why women would be drinking while pregnant. There is certainly a lack of education surrounding the consequences of consuming alcohol for the baby, and alcoholism extremely prominent here in a country where vodka is cheaper than fruit. I really want to understand, but after seeing dozens of children at an orphanage in St. Petersburg for children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, it is so, so hard.
I walked into a classroom to see six kids sitting quietly at their desks. They were very calm, some didn’t even turn their heads at the sound of music – they were in an eerie drug-induced semi-sleep, just sitting. Not waiting, not obeying instructions, just sitting.
I sat down on the floor next to the desk of a boy named Sasha. He turned his head, and watched as I took out a container of bubbles. He didn’t seem to see them in the air, but only as they landed on the table, and he popped them one by one. He held my hand around the bottle, and I gave it to him. Over the course of an hour, he had blown every bubble in that bottle. His face lit up when he popped them, or when they popped on my red nose.
On the bus ride home, all I could do was lie with Alex and cry. Every time I thought about Sasha, my heart broke a little more. He was a handsome boy, almost six feet tall, with dark hair and sea green eyes. He must have been almost 18. But when I got on the bus, I realized that he would never go to school. He would never see the ocean. He would probably never even see Moscow. This boy would never fall in love.
Did the devil make the world while God was sleeping?
It is one experience to see the children who have lived in orphanages their entire life. Today, we had a different perspective. We met the children who were only just entering this system, recently abandoned by their parents, still bearing fresh scars.
One girl, only five years old, told us that her mother and grandmother come to visit her, and she wonders why she cannot just go home with them. Why does she have to live in a group home with dozens of other children, all vying for the attention of a few nurses who are already exhausted and often apathetic? It makes you wonder if home life could possibly be worse than this. Outwardly, it appears difficult, but humane and clean and alright. But what kind of child are you bringing up if they aren’t even offered a hug by the people closest to them?
For the first hour of our visit, there were many children who did not smile. Ten clowns all working so hard, hugging and rocking and singing and being absolutely foolish, and some children just could not find laughter. Of course, there were many who were running and screaming, having a wonderful time. This place was different from the others, though, because the energy was violent. If a girl got hit on the head unexpectedly with a balloon, she would not grin, but turn and shove the person behind her in anger. It was a scary environment just because I could see how extreme everyone’s emotions were. Then again, on the other end of the spectrum, the girl I was playing with had these empty eyes, that no puppet or bubbles or balloons could open. She just stared and stared. It was heartbreaking. No two-year-old should see something that breaks their spirit to that point.
In the end, I just held this little girl in my arms and rocked her for the last hour. I saw her eyes begin to follow balloons floating across the room, growing wider as they approached her. She began to reach for them, and as I leaned down to pick one up for her, she rocked back from her perch on my hip to look at me, and smiled.
Every smile is so important, and there is something wonderful when I have an immediate connection with one kid, but I earned that one.
After a while with unreliable Internet or no camera, I am able to post again!
For our last morning in Moscow, we went on house calls. About three clowns went together to the house of a child who was disabled in a way that keeps them from going outside or to Maria’s Studio.
I haven’t said anything about Maria’s Studio.
One of the most incredible people that I have met on this trip is Maria, the founder of Maria’s Children, an organization that provides art therapy to children living in orphanages in Russia. It is important to note that many of the children in these orphanages or boarding schools are not in fact orphans, but were abandoned by or taken away from their parents because of physical, alcohol, or drug abuse. My friend was playing with a baby who had been left in a covered basket by a dumpster. Whatever the circumstances may be, Maria provides these children with an art studio. Because the orphans are often behind socially and intellectually, they are almost always labeled as “underdeveloped.” Maria’s Children provides hope and opportunity for those who have neither.
So, with regards to the house call, the children who we visited do not have the physical ability to go to Maria’s Studio, so we saw them one on one. I visited Dasha’s family, where I met Mama, Papa, Dasha and Sasha. Dasha is thirteen with cerebral palsy, and Sasha is her four-year-old sister. When my partner, Dr. Jerko, knocked on the door, we heard this ear-piercing shriek. We walked into the living room and we just saw Dasha screaming, screaming, screaming with a huge smile on her face. We played for hours, just bouncing balloons back and forth. After Dasha went to rest, Mama and Papa brought the rest of us to the kitchen, and Sasha and I snuck back into the living room and jumped on the couch while the grown-ups talked.
I could not imagine a more wonderful experience. The family had so much love, and they cared for each other so deeply. I will miss them. Seeing Sasha cry when we left broke my heart.
Anna visits orphanage as part of clowning tour.
The wonderful boys at Moscow’s Cancer Hospital for Children.
Thirteen years old and the tops of their heads don’t reach my shoulders.
I had so much fun with them, blowing bubbles and balloons and making paper airplanes and answering a barrage of questions asked through a translator – once the kids found out I was from California, they assumed I had seen every movie star in existence.
I promised a boy we would go to Disneyland for the first time together, and later that night Clown Doctor Jim told me that the kids in the ward wouldn’t see next summer. They were running and jumping and blowing bubbles with me, and yet, this is their last Christmas.
Thank you boys, and live well. I love you! Spasiba!
Outside of Moscow at the Weekend Market
My clown nose has let me talk to people I would never dream of confronting.
Walking into an airport in a tutu and facepaint is an uncomfortable experience for everyone involved. Security doesn’t know whether to worry or laugh, and I personally didn’t quite know whether I should be making a fool of myself or whether that mission was already accomplished. So, when two clowns in matching “Clowns Sans Frontieres” shirts came running across the terminal to meet me in JFK, it was like a wake up call that yes, this is real life. Alexandre and Guillaume, two clowns from Quebec are my guardian angels, with so much confidence that it is slowly rubbing off on me as I try to find out what exactly I’m doing. On our way to the market pictured, our group of North American clowns navigated the Russian Metro. Guillaume (in green) had every child on our car completely enthralled, and the way he didn’t worry for a second about how others would think of him was incredible. From that point on, I made efforts to put myself out there, and on the way home, a small girl and I performed a truly magnificent waltz across the train car.
At the market, a Russian couple invited us to sit with them for lunch. I have never laughed so hard at words I didn’t understand – communicating across three language barriers was no simple task, but the only word we really needed was “vastrovia” – cheers.
I have a lot to learn.