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Russia’s Orphans – Haunting Memories
Five years ago, I received an unexpected invitation from the Department of Education in the Far East of Russia. They wanted me to come for a visit so that we could talk about using distance-learning technology in their remote orphanages.
As background, the DOE in Russia is responsible for the 3,000,000 orphans that live in their many orphanages. Unfortunately, the reason they were considering the distance-learning project turned out to be quite a sad story. They were hoping that by providing more education to the orphans, it would help break a continuing cycle that seemed to plague the orphanages. Former orphans, who were now young married adults, were abandoning their own children when they found themselves unable to earn enough money to support their families. They were just not prepared for the harsh realities of life. Moreover, without family members around to help them, their babies were now appearing on the orphanages’ doorsteps, in hopes that the kids would have a better chance for survival. As crazy as this might sound, these impoverished adult orphans are the lucky ones. An even sadder reality is that less than 50% of all Russia’s orphans will live to see their 20th birthday. Suicides, failures to thrive, severe medical conditions – untreated due to strained budgets or access to medical treatment – and a host of other problems has made for a very fragile existence.
As we sat in the office of the Director, all of us knew that more education wasn’t the entire solution. We clearly understood that the absence of a loving family to guide, encourage, love and nurture these children was still the core issue. However, all of us hoped that by giving the orphans more access to knowledge and education that it would help to better prepare them for life, after they left the orphanages.
After these preliminary discussions, I was off to see the children firsthand. A wonderful physician by the name of Dr. Tatiana Khoudoyarova was my guide as I visited the orphanages. She was both a pediatrician and the Chief Allergist in charge of the health for many of the children in the Far East of Russia. More importantly, she was also the only person that knew enough English to speak with me about the issues during the trip! She turned out to be a delightful person, and it was a joy to have her accompany me on this adventure. When she got around the children, I couldn’t help but smile. She laughed with them, hugged them tightly, and spun them around in circles when they came to greet her. They clung to her legs from the time we got to the orphanages until we left.
Over the nine days I was there, Tatiana and I talked about many of the misconceptions between our countries. I told her that many Americans believed the children were kidnap victims, and that these kidnappings fueled a lucrative adoption market aimed at American families, anxious to adopt. She told me that many people in Russia think that the Americans are ‘buying’ their children to kill them for their organs! The Cold War has done so much to color our opinions of each other. Now, law after law adds even more barriers to adoption, as both countries seek to insure the safety of the children.
Although I could see that these worries were without much basis, I remained optimistically skeptical. After all, didn’t we all build bomb shelters here when these people were our mortal enemies? About 3 days into my journey across the beautiful remote areas of the Far East, I saw something that really troubled me. When I walked out into the hallway, I saw Tatiana giving money to the caregivers at one of the orphanages. Hearing all of those stories about under-the-table-payoffs in Russia, I assumed the worse. How could people who were looking after these beautiful children make money from their misery?
When I finally confronted her, I found out more about this woman in a couple of minutes, than I ever could have found out in a lifetime of misinformation. There was a simple and “amazingly kind” reason behind the money changing hands. It turns out that the caregivers were telling Tatiana that the little girl had come down with an ear infection. Tatiana was giving the caregivers a prescription – and her own money – to buy the necessary antibiotics for the little girl. All this was because her adopting parents from America were coming to pick her up in a week. They were all worried that if the couple saw that the little girl was sick that they would refuse her and ask for another child.
Tatiana said that this sort of thing happened a lot, especially when there were so many kids to choose from in their orphanages. She said many parents were very worried that they were getting children with “special needs” that they might not be able to deal with. She told me that this was a healthy little girl, who didn’t deserve to have her life turned upside down because of a temporary and easily cured illness. She was simply embarrassed that there wasn’t enough money available to treat these kids, and she didn’t want me to know.
So seeing that I was okay with all this – even sympathetic and supportive – she was more open about giving out money in front of me. It was easy to see how special she felt about the children. If the orphanages didn’t have money for tests and drugs, then she would spend her own. Even the caregivers where kicking in their own meager funds to help. When I asked, she said, “No, they don’t reimburse any of us. Anyway, I don’t care about the money. I am just happy to see the children get a family to love them.”
Those sweet words dropped all of my remaining barriers. How rare, I thought, to find out that there were people like her in the world, and in all places, Russia. I started to question my own values. Had I lost my heart working all those years in the corporate world? My problems seemed so trivial by comparison to those faced by these kids.
Tatiana’s heart and love continued to mesmerize me. When it came time to end my 9-day trip, I just couldn’t walk away that easily. Yes, I was actually falling for her. I never wanted or expected it at this point in my life, but here it was. Had I not spent this time with her, I wondered if I ever would have been so attracted to her in another setting. Well, that really didn’t matter now, did it? So I steadied my courage, and invited her to be my date at a wedding here in the States – an Elvis Presley wedding in Las Vegas, no less! Although I had the honor of giving away the bride because her dad had passed away, I was thinking, “How am I ever going to explain Las Vegas and Elvis Presley to Tatiana?” I didn’t have to worry. It turns out that we send a lot of programming to Russia, ranging from TV shows like Jerry Springer to most of our Hollywood productions like the Governor Schwarzenegger movies. I thought how interesting it must be to learn about Americans this way.
As fate would have it, the betrothed couple called off their wedding the day before the event, and just as Tatiana’s flight was landing. However, that too was only another part of God’s hand at work. Embarrassed by her long trip here, I asked Tatiana if she would like to stay and go with me to Disneyworld in Florida – to a convention where I was speaking the following week. She smiled and agreed, and then asked if she could contact a family there that had adopted three children from her. “Of course!” I said enthusiastically, and I suggested that we take their whole family to dinner on the Disney property.
That little dinner date turned out to be yet another powerful insight into this wonderful woman. They say kids only show honest emotions. Well let me tell you, when they saw Tatiana coming through the doors of the restaurant, they ran to her and jumped into her arms, yelling, “Tatiana…Tatiana!”
I thought what a wonderful feeling it must be to know how much she had helped these children, and this loving couple. Even more, what a fairy tale it must be for the kids! How could they have ever imagined moving from their orphanage to a home near Disneyworld!
Many hugs, tears, and laughs later, I was feeling more and more moved by the wonderfully fulfilling life that Tatiana had created for herself. How could I have allowed my priorities to get so out of ‘whack’ with the truly important things in life? Why did I choose the career to which I ended up devoting my life? And why did no one tell how much needed to be done in this world?
In the end, I decided that everything had to happen the way it did, or I would have never met this beautiful woman. Even more so, I would not have had the ability to take the next steps that were now becoming clearer and clearer.
The memories from that trip were very powerful, and deeply etched in my mind. Adding to these memories is the guilt of taking Tatiana away from the children. She was helping over 100 orphans find a home every year. Moreover, there was the memory of that first time I walked up to one of the playpens at the orphanage. It was so crowded with the little ones. It seemed like there were 20 three-year olds inside a space made for two. Splotches of green ointment covered the children to keep them from infecting one another. They looked like they had been in a paint ball fight.
It was when I walked up to the edge of the playpen, that those innocent babes broke my heart for eternity. They all lifted their little arms up in the air! All they wanted was for me to pick them up and hold them. There was no way I could have prepared for that moment. How could such a simple human need, be so rare a gift for these kids? I wanted to take all of them home with me. My emotions erupted, and tears filled my eyes. There were just so many children and so few caregivers. One of the caregivers had only a few more months to live herself. She was stricken with a terminal cancer, but she wouldn’t even stay home to care for herself. Who would hold her babies?
It’s just not possible to forget what I saw there. How could so many children be lost and forgotten in our world? Then I wondered which ones might have given us the cure for cancer. I wondered which ones might have brought us to the brink of new discoveries or thinking. How could finding them a home not be the primary focus for all of us on the planet?
The thought that will haunt me forever is that the only difference between them and us is the luck of birth. Everything that I considered important dissolved in those 10 seconds in front of that playpen. Tears fill my eyes every time I think about those babies. To make matters worse, I kept putting myself in their place. I wondered what it would feel like if I were always the one turned down by the visiting couples. Was it the way I looked? Was it something I did wrong? What would life be like if I was unable to make a living? Would I do what 40% of these kids do and turn to crime, prostitution and the Russian Mafia? Would I fall victim to some fanatical terrorist group who offered me food and work in exchange for some day having to blow myself up for their God? Maybe this was the best I could hope for – if I were in their shoes.
So who should solve this horrible problem? According to the estimates of the adoption world, there are over 500 million children without homes. When will we give these children their lives back? A good friend answered those questions for me. He simply said, very slowly, “If not now, then when? If not you, then who?”
So now, my life begins anew. Five years later, Tatiana and I have just celebrated our 4-year wedding anniversary. Seeing her love and focus has truly changed everything in my life. I can no longer care about “bottom lines…” Instead, I think about how to send “life lines” to those children that we left behind.
Now the hard work really begins. I am rapidly shedding my corporate life, and as quickly as possible, I’m taking on a new life dedicated to helping all those children find a home. As a Christmas present for Tatiana last year, I formed a nonprofit called The Orphan Foundation. We invested in 400 donation boxes, and we started putting them out in gas stations and convenience stores to raise money for adopting families. With domestic adoptions averaging $19,180 per child, and with international adoptions costing even more, we know we need to eliminate or minimize this financial barrier. As we grow our volunteer “donation box managers” across the country, more donation boxes will bring more dollars, and we will be able to help remove this heavy financial barrier for many loving families. It takes a full year, and 35 donation boxes, in high traffic locations, to pay for one domestic adoption. It takes 50 for an international adoption.
Many wonderful people have already signed up to help us, and we now have a website to seek more volunteers and donations: http://www.TheOrphanFoundation.org. We have a dozen business and adoption experts on our Board of Directors now, and we hope to round up 5,000 “donation box managers” this year, to help us manage 5 donation boxes, each. For all of us, it has become a race for hope. The more volunteers we can round up, the more kids we can help find homes and loving families.
So here I am, at the age of 60, beginning a new journey – a journey of love. Someone posted this question on one of the AARP chat forums: “Is life beginning or ending at 55?” A smile forms easily on my face, because I think you know the answer.
At 60, I say to all of you, “I think I finally just discovered what life is all about!” Tatiana and I send you our love and blessings, and we hope you discover the richness that waits for all of us, if we only look.
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