“Batiushka, please help us! My husband has turned me and the children out of the house! We have nowhere to go… My heart aches at the very thought of sending them to an orphanage. With you they will be safe and will be with God. Take them in for heaven’s sake!”
These words were addressed to Fr. Vitaly Tkachev, rector of the Church of the Protecting Veil of the Mother of God in the village of Yakovlevo near Moscow, by a woman who was thrown out of her house along with her two children by her ex-husband after their divorce.
The priest’s kind heart couldn’t remain indifferent to this cry. “Since God has sent us these children, then let us take in all of them and wholeheartedly rely on His mercy!” he said.
Eleven years have passed since then. Now Fr. Vitaly and his wife Ekaterina (Catherine) have forty children at their children’s home and they all live as one large family.
That first little “refuge” for two small children has developed into a fully functional children’s home, the official name of which is the Non-state Pokrov (“Protection”) Orthodox Children’s Home. Children from the most difficult backgrounds, from all corners of Russia, are brought up and educated there.
Fr. Vitaly baptizes and integrates children into Church life, and Ekaterina teaches and comforts them. And the adolescents who once lived in an atmosphere of debauchery, brawls and rowdiness now sing with shining faces in the church choir, and never forget to pray before eating.
We talked with Pokrov’s Deputy Director Yulia (Julia) Vladimirovna Maksimova about the orphanage’s life, the joys and difficulties of its inhabitants, and the Divine providence that leads us towards the real missions of our lives.
A home for real ladies
Despite its proximity to Moscow the Pokrov children’s home is difficult of access by public transportation.
The driver picked me up. We watched the changing forest landscape through the car windows… At last we entered the “children’s kingdom” through its gate. Children’s laughter merrily resounded throughout the place.
The kids were gamboling in the yard—several boys were kicking a ball about, roaring with laughter; two girls were riding on a mini merry-go-round; a pair of pretty kids were riding a rope swing, flying very high; and two older girls were tending flowerbeds a little farther away. At once I noticed that all the girls were wearing modest skirts.
Yulia Vladimirovna gave me a cordial welcome and invited me in.
The large, comfortable, bright room had a homey atmosphere, with drawings, toys, flowers, a pets’ corner with a disheveled hamster running on a wheel, numerous books on the shelves and, of course, icons. Images of saints were looking at us lovingly yet strictly from all the shelves and walls.
A little girl was marching ladylike along the corridor, gracefully pushing a doll’s pram with a dolly in it in front of her. She was so sweet in her strict, black “office” skirt and a palm-shaped quiff on the crown of her head, that I couldn’t refrain from the desire to smother her in kisses.
“This is our Lerochka [a diminutive form of the name Valeria in Russian], she is four. She has been with us since recently. Her mother has a very large family, ‘too many children’,” Yulia Vladimirovna made a sad remark.
Lerochka, who got scared of being photographed so many times, left her baby doll and crept under the bed.
“Do your girls always wear skirts?” I couldn’t tear myself away from that cute little girl in a pencil skirt.
“Yes, Fr. Vitaly decided that everybody should wear skirts. After all, we are an Orthodox children’s home for girls.”
“For girls? But there are a lot of boys running about over there!...” I asked with surprise.
“Some of them are mine!” she replied with a smile. “Frankly, I don’t discriminate against ‘my children’ and ‘foster children’. We all live as one big family.”
“So now most of the children at Pokrov are girls?”
“Exactly. But we are building another home in the Nara village (in the Kaluga region south of Moscow) twenty-five miles away, and it will be for boys. The girls will remain here. We have decided to separate them. Boys should be brought up and educated by men. Our task is to teach girls to be good wives, they must be able to run the household, cook, sew and so on. By the way, our girls sing very well and we have our own choir.”
“How wonderful! And what do you sing?”
“Ekaterina, Fr. Vitaly’s wife, teaches them. They have already released two CDs. They perform folk and spiritual songs. We often go to concerts. Even famous singers invite our girls to sing with them.”
We settled down on a big, cozy sofa. Suddenly Yulia Vladimirovna’s mobile phone rang.
“I am sorry. This is Fr. Vitaly.”
Yulia Vladimirovna spoke over the phone and then explained:
“One of our girls is going to study at St. Tihon’s Orthodox University of the Humanities. We are waiting for the exam results to appear on the website. Fr. Vitaly is worrying very much. Our girls are brilliant! Some of them are currently learning to become sisters of charity (nurses), while those who have not yet chosen their occupation are staying here and helping us.”
“Yulia Vladimirovna, did the woman through whom your children’s home providentially came into existence eventually take her children back?”
“Yes, she did—a year and half later. First she got a job and then solved her housing problem. And Fr. Vitaly thought that someone else would probably need his help. People often come to church with their problems. Thus the idea to establish a non-state Orthodox children’s home for ‘orphans of living parents’ was conceived.”
“What does ‘non-state’ mean?”
“It means that we rely solely on donors’ money and don’t receive any state funds.”
“And do you manage to function, to cope with all your work?”
“The Lord has been helping us! As soon as Fr. Vitaly made this decision, things began to miraculously take care of themselves. We found a benefactor who helped us build this house and formalize the necessary documents. Though a few years ago the benefactor stopped supporting us and we had to seek for financial aid ourselves. So by the grace of God we have been here for eleven years! Since my first day here I have been marveling at how the Creator has been arranging our affairs!”
“Yulia Vladimirovna, how did you end up at Pokrov?”
“Oh, that is a long story! I came here with the blessing of my spiritual father. My life had been very different before that time. I graduated from Lomonosov Moscow State University (the Department of Economics), then returned to Kolomna [a town near Moscow], married, gave birth to three children, and worked at the Directorate for Internal Revenue Crimes…”
“Oh my! And what was your rank?”
“I was a lieutenant. Can you imagine? I wore insignia, had a husband and children… I didn’t know much about this institution… The fact is that Ekaterina Tkacheva and I had the same spiritual father, Fr. Alexander Zakharov of blessed memory. And before his death Fr. Alexander told me: ‘Yulia, quit your job and go to Yakovlevo to Fr. Vitaly immediately! They have a children’s home there!’
“His words threw me into confusion. ‘Batiushka, what do you mean? How can I retire now? What will I do in that village?’ And he replied, ‘Go there! They need your help!’ By that time Ekaterina Tkacheva had five children. But I still didn’t understand why in the world I should give up my work and go to that village with its children’s home…
“I wept a lot at that time… I couldn’t imagine myself radically changing my life and persuading my husband to do the same… Yet I couldn’t disobey my spiritual father.
“But then things unexpectedly sorted themselves out. My husband and I took the children and went to the riverside… We were lying on the sand and relaxing… Fresh air, the beautiful countryside, a large field in front of us, a birch tree and a memorial cross that could be seen in the distance… And I told my husband point-blank, ‘Darling, let us go away from here!’ And he agreed at once, ‘Alright, let us do it!’ And I thought: ‘This is a true miracle! Well done, Fr. Alexander!’”
“And you left?”
“Yes, we did, but not immediately. Very strong temptations began! We worked for the Moscow Department… So when I came there to take my documents back, my boss said to me, ‘I am going to resign and I want you to take my position!’ I thought: ‘Well I never! He is inviting me to work in Moscow! I am being offered the rank of colonel!... And I am going to move to a village…’
“And my next thought was: ‘Well, the things seem to be taking a strange turn… I’d better go away as soon as possible!’”
“I assume that at the beginning it was hard for you to switch to the new job?”
“Yes, it was. First I worked here as an accountant. Though I am an economist by profession, I hadn’t had any experience in accounting. My work had been very different at the Directorate. Fr. Vitaly told me, ‘Ask for bread. Ask for such-and-such a thing.’ At first it sounded a little strange to me, but everything gradually came out all right. You asked me what I was feeling about my work, but I don’t consider this children’s home to be work. This is not a job. It is my family. And God is close to us here. I even cannot imagine my life without Pokrov. What did I deal with before moving here? Papers, documents, meetings… And at Pokrov even the children’s dinner depends on me every day! In this place the purpose of your life becomes very clear. And miracles have become an everyday reality here. Children are a miracle in themselves; the way the Lord protects them is another miracle. I initially kept marveling, but I’ve gotten used to it now.”
“Tell us please about some of the miracles you’ve experienced.”
“Well, once I was informed that we had run out of bread. ‘Oh dear! We have no bread! What shall we do?’ I thought. I called to the nearest bread-baking complex in Podolsk, and to my amazement they said, ‘You don’t have bread? Please, come here and take it!’ Can you imagine?”
“Was it for free?”
“Of course! And they gave us bread twice a week for six years!
“Recently our tutor came up to me and said that our children had no leggings. ‘That’s a problem! No tights are left, and there is no money on our accounts! What shall I do?’ At that moment the telephone rang. ‘Hello! We have collected piles of leggings that we don’t really need. May we share them with you, right away?’
“At one time we didn’t have enough bikes for our kids. Whenever we went for a walk, some children cycled, while others had to go on foot. One of our tutors thought: ‘Oh gosh! It’s such a pity that we don’t have enough bikes for all the kids!’ And in the same minute a vehicle stopped in front of them: ‘Please tell us, where is the Pokrov children’s home here?’ The tutor replied, ‘We are Pokrov! What do you want?’ And they answered, ‘We have brought you some bicycles!’
“Another time the children had no sooner left the church than it started to rain hard. We said, ‘Children! We must go home now! So let us pray!’ They began to sing: ‘O Theotokos and Virgin rejoice, Mary full of grace…’ You won’t believe it, but the rain stopped at the same instant! As soon as the last child went inside the house, it began to rain heavily again.”
“Look! Your future husband is standing over there!”
“How do children end up at your children’s home?”
“Because of difficult life circumstances. They are really serious. Sometimes parents themselves approach us; in some cases childcare agencies call us and ask us to take a child from one or another family; and in some cases we learn about a tragedy in one or another family and come there… For example, not long ago we took a child from a really terrible environment…”
“Do any of the children under your care ever want to go back to their parents?”
“Ask them yourself (smiles)! As a rule, they realize that it is here that they have future, not there. We are like a rainbow after a thunderstorm for them.”
“Your foster children come from non-religious backgrounds, so they neither prayed nor went to church before being admitted to Pokrov. Is it easy for them to get accustomed to the new way of life, namely the rhythm of Church life, the participation in the sacraments, standing through long services?”
“They get into the way of doing all these things quite easily. Fr. Vitaly baptized some of them. They begin to understand that such are our rules and in due course genuine faith comes to them through Holy Communion. We tell them about many things, take them on excursions to monasteries and convents… Fr. Vitaly and Ekaterina Tkachev are a living example of a model family. We pray together for the children’s parents daily, we ask the Lord to forgive them and bring them to their senses. Whenever problems with discipline come up, our children take the ‘explanatory work’ upon themselves and speak with the ‘troublemaker’ about appropriate behavior. They know that their present is much better than their past. Some of our children were brought here from orphanages, and they cannot recall their past without bitter tears…”
“And how do those who leave you settle down in life?”
“The words ‘who leave us’ are definitely not about us. We are a family and nobody ‘leaves’ us. They marry, get jobs, enter educational institutions and may leave us if they want; they do all of this independently. One of our girls got married, graduated from an university, and as soon as their financial situation improved she returned and took her two sisters under her wing. It is incredible! The Lord protects these children in a visible way!”
“How do your girls succeed in ‘making good matches’? In some sense, they live here as recluses!”
“I have no idea how it happens! (Laughs). It is the Lord that miraculously provides for all the needs of His children. And we are not recluses at all. We often go on pilgrimages, do camping, and our girls perform at concerts. We annually take them to dancing parties where they dance with cadets. Our girls keep corsets and ball gowns packed in emergency suitcases for these occasions!
“Some stories are truly miraculous. Once our girls went on a pilgrimage and visited an elder. And he said to one of them: ‘Look, your future husband is standing over there!’”
“A guy she had never met before?!”
“Exactly! He came to speak to the elder and was queuing… So the elder introduced them to each other. The girl returned from the pilgrimage and told us, ‘My fiancé will come here soon!’ We didn’t get it… Soon a nice young man did come to us… Now they have their own children.
“Some find their special ones at universities. One girl met her husband through the internet… He was from a priest’s family. The young man came here to Pokrov, Fr. Vitaly spoke with him and gave them his blessing. Now he calls us every day and every time comes here with flowers! Isn’t it amazing?”
“Surely your girls are beautiful and impressive!”
“Not only beautiful. First and foremost, we speak of moral living and virtue with them, and then we teach them to be good wives. Each of our girls can sew a dress for herself and cook Russian borscht.”
“How do you teach them chastity and virtue?”
“We explain these things to them. I try to set them an example. I say to them that if a girl is frivolous, if she wears a lot of makeup, it cheapens a decent young man’s attraction to her and he won’t want her to be his life partner. That is why a girl should try to be pure, modest and simple. And they realize that I am right. And they feel what is appropriate, and what is inappropriate for them.”
“Can you tell us about the needs of Pokrov? Some of our readers will probably want to help you.”
“Our main problem is the monthly pay to our staff workers. We have our own school, and the kids need qualified teachers. Since we are in a village, there are no state schools in the vicinity that can accept so many pupils. So we take their education upon ourselves. Of course, excellent teachers who wholeheartedly dedicate their energy to pupils are extremely important to us. I realize there should be no salary deferments… There is a need of special pedagogical approaches to our children, above all, love and patience.
“Over the years I came to realize that with our passions, we can never know the inner world of a child. So we must just love them. Until recently we had a tutor who was a good, religious and well-educated woman… But one day she said to me: ‘Yulia Vladimirovna, I can always tell your children from all others! Yours have good genes.’ And that was the end! At that moment she ceased to exist for me! It is crystal clear that she will never be able to love children. True, there can be such factors as awkward age or ill temper… In these cases we sit down and talk with the kids. We call Ekaterina, she comes and joins us… Mutual trust is vital. And I value our staff workers: they are the most trustworthy and sincere people.
“This is the main reason why I ask for money: in order to be able to pay my teachers. We manage to get enough food and building materials; people are aware that this is done for children. But when it comes to ‘ready cash’ to pay our staff workers, there are serious problems here. If somebody has doubts, you can phone me and I will give you our teachers’ card numbers so that you can transfer money to them directly.
“We want as many qualified specialists and professionals as possible to be involved in our activities so that we could open various clubs and hobby groups.
“By the way, do you know about our excellent cooks? Our food is always ‘finger-licking’ good! So you have to stay with us for dinner!”
It was hard for me to decline the invitation. Yulia Vladimirovna led me to the dining-room and treated me to hot cabbage soup, a baked potato casserole with sauce, and a fresh vegetable salad.
“By the way, our children keep the fasts from the age of three,” Yulia Vladimirovna noted.
After a delicious homemade dinner we went outside and I came up to a couple of girls digging, who wore their hair in braids.
“Girls, may I ask you a question? Do you want to go back home?”
“No!!!” they exclaimed with terror and with one voice. “We really feel at home here. Our living conditions are good, we are well fed, and we have one large family.”
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I would like to sew clothes,” said Lera, a slender red-haired girl. (“She is the girl whose ‘fiance’ comes from a priest’s family!” Yulia Vladimirovna whispered to me).
“And I want to be a priest’s wife,” said Olya [a diminutive form of the name Olga], a modest girl with a long, thick braid of dark, curly hair.
“You want to marry a priest, don’t you?” I asked with a smile.
“Yes,” she replied seriously. “I will enter the Choir Directors School at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra and hope to find my husband there.”
I saw that Olya was very determined.
“Our Olya appeared on the front cover of an Orthodox magazine,” Yulia Vladimirovna remarked.
“Girls, how did you end up at Pokrov?” I asked.
“Earlier I lived at an orphanage. It was terrible there. Older children would beat the smaller children…” Lera said in a sad voice with downcast eyes.
“What about you, Olya?”
“I have been here for a very long time. My mom and I chose this children’s home together. My mom was going through very difficult times, so she had to send me to an institution like this. We did all we could to choose the best one.”
I imagined how her mother, in tears, clutching her baby in her arms, knocked the door of the Pokrov children’s home with the words: “Take her in for heaven’s sake.”
Though I am probably wrong and the woman in question didn’t cry at all. But what really matters now is that her daughter is an intelligent, beautiful girl with a sincere faith in her heart.
* * *
We emphasize that Pokrov is a non-state private children’s home that depends solely on donations. Let us do our bit to help Fr. Vitaly and Ekaterina Tkachev in their great work that pleases God.
You can learn more about the needs of Pokrov by contacting Yulia Maksimova by phone +7-926-080-21-70 or through its official website: http://www.detipokrov.ru/.
You can transfer money to the card of Sberbank of Russia of the father-confessor and Director of the Pokrov Children’s Home Archpriest Vitaly Mikhailovich Tkachev:
4276 8383 5106 0670
Or on this account:
The payment recipient: Негосударственное учреждение социального обслуживания Православный детский социально-реабилитационный центр «ПОКРОВ»
The payment purpose: Пожертвование на уставную деятельность.
Bank: ПАО «СБЕРБАНК РОССИИ» г. МОСКВА
Settlement account: 40703810938180100642
Correspondent account: 30101810400000000225