The story below appeared in the Salem (yep that Salem) Massachussetts News, and shows that no matter how old you are you can make a difference in the life of orphans. Bridget Ayers, age 12, contributed all of her birthday and Christmas money to an orphan fund. Then she raised an additional $1,000 and flew to Sibera to volunteer for two weeks at the orphanage.
— In many ways, Bridget Ayers is a typical 12-year-old. She’s in Girl Scouts, she loves reading, and she’s excited to go to camp this summer.
But she has a passion that distinguishes her.
Last summer, she began reading a blog written by a Marblehead woman who adopted a daughter from Siberia and returns to the orphanage yearly to bring much-needed supplies, toys and clothing.
By Christmas, Bridget wanted more than anything to meet her, so her mother reached out, and they arranged a get-together around the new year. Bridget and her mother, Kim Ayers, met with Marblehead resident Keri Cahill at Brothers Deli in Salem.
“Bridget handed me a giant jar filled with coins,” recalled Cahill, who is in the process of adopting a second child from the orphanage in Siberia.
“I brought all my Christmas and birthday money to donate to the fund of the little boy she’s adopting,” explained Bridget, who lives in Salem and attends Collins Middle School.
Cahill recalls that during the meeting, she was blown away by “such a passionate young girl.” Bridget said she wanted to go to Russia someday, so Cahill invited her to join her on her next trip to Siberia — as long as it was OK with Bridget’s parents and she could raise the money to go.
That was all Bridget needed to hear.
“I went home and started making sock puppets that I sold for $5,” said Bridget, who sold the puppets at school and church — in all, raising the $1,000, plus donations, that she needed to buy her plane ticket.
Accompanied by her mother, Bridget set off with Cahill and her daughter, Nastia, for two weeks in late May/early June.
“She wanted to have a chance to meet the children she is so passionate about,” said Kim Ayers, who owns the StreetSmart driving school in Salem with her husband, Jim. They also have a son, Brad, 10, who is a student at Horace Mann Lab School in Salem.
“Never underestimate the power of a little girl committed to an ideal,” Cahill mused.
Harsh realities at Siberian orphanage
The group stayed in the city of Kemerovo and visited the orphanage several hours away in Prokopyevsk, which is in a polluted and impoverished coal-mining region, Kim Ayers said.
The area is plagued by alcoholism, drug addiction, sex trafficking and prostitution, all of which contribute to the high number of orphaned children, she said.
“There are 17 orphanages,” she said.
Salem resident Bridget Ayers, left, poses with a Genya, a 7 year old who lives at a Siberian orphanage that Ayers visited recently. “One hundred kids live there,” said Bridget, 12. “It was mind-blowing.” Bridget and her mom brought seven duffel bags, weighing 450 pounds, that were filled with donations for the orphanage, including toys, clothing, soap, toothbrushes, stuffed animals, American Girl dolls and accessories.
Bridget instantly adored the children there, particularly a 7-year-old girl named Genya, whom she had seen in Cahill’s photos before the trip.
Kim Ayers said the children are crammed into 22 beds per room, and Bridget said the meager serving size of the meals was one of the things that struck her most.
“They share a bucket of rice, a bucket of condensed milk and a bucket of apples,” Kim Ayers said.
“It was rattling,” Bridget said. “It made me think about how much Americans eat.”
These are things Cahill has grown accustomed to witnessing since she adopted her daughter in 2005.
“The medical care is nonexistent,” Cahill said. “They’re all sick. They all have giardia or other parasites.
They’re all dehydrated.”
During the two-week journey, they visited the orphanage twice, visited with Nastia’s sister, and spent time with some Shakespeare students Cahill taught while she lived in Siberia for three months. (Cahill runs the Rebel Shakespeare Company on the North Shore.)
“There is so much poverty,” Kim Ayers said. “I knew this stuff because I read about it, but I still wasn’t prepared.”
‘Giving hope to the kids’
Bridget, who can be shy in person, is a talented writer, and she keeps a blog about her experiences, http://www.tomarchtoadifferentdrummer.blogspot.com/.
When she got home, she immediately missed all of the children she met in Siberia and was pained by the disparity between their lives and hers. She posted this entry on her blog on June 14:
“Have you ever heard the saying ‘Home is where the heart is’? Its a lie. Siberia is where the heart is. In the filthy coal-mining region of Kemerovo. In the little, unknown town of Prokop’yvsk.
“… Most nights I’ve been waking up at about 3 or 4 a.m. I can’t fall back to sleep. Why? Because when I look to my right, I see a window. Outside of the window is a car, so that I don’t walk to school, two miles. When I look to my left, I see a bottle of water from the sink that doesn’t have parasites in it. I see a closet full of shoes and clothes that fit. … ”
Back at her seventh-grade social studies classroom in Salem, Bridget’s teacher Catherine Rosenzweig invited her to show the whole class a video and present a talk on her experiences.
Bridget says the most important part of her trip was “giving hope to the kids,” and she’s already plotting a way to get back to Siberia.
“I think about them every second of every day,” Bridget said.
“I wish there were more people like her,” Cahill said.