“In 1996 I saw an ad in the paper saying orphaned children from Russia were looking for a holiday home for a few weeks. Just like many other Irish families at the time, I wanted to help, so I talked with my husband and we agreed to give it a go. I had no idea that it would change our lives and subsequently the lives of many more. We opened our home to two little seven-year-old girls, one became seriously ill and was not in a position to travel back to the orphanage at the end of their trip so we decided to adopt her. The longer she stayed, the more English she learnt, the more I heard about the children she left behind. One boy, in particular, her best friend. Until that point, I had not given Russia or her previous life a thought, but the more she talked, the guiltier I felt about ignoring her past life. I decided to go to Russia myself and find the little boy. It took me 12 years to find him in the end. He had been fostered by a Russian family in the meantime and we had no access to this family. I walked into my first Orphanage in deep snow at -29 degrees, and I was shocked. It was in a remote, deep forest. An old wreck of an institution, huge, in desperate need of renovation, packed with children of all ages. I stood there with my suitcase of sweets, face paints and balloons, a do-gooder from the West, thinking these items might make a difference. After a week with the children, my guilt and shame at being so shallow overtook everything else. I came home bewildered. A dark cloud enveloped me thinking about the children’s loneliness, the snow, and the conditions in the orphanage. What was I to do? I didn’t speak Russian. I knew nothing about rebuilding institutions or children. I had no money. Yet, I had a burning desire to return, the sense of purpose overwhelmed me. I had a vision that I could help, I knew I could do something. I just wasn’t sure what”.
“Although I had a vision, I had no idea how to get there. I was very determined to reach my goal and to help those children. I decided to ring the Kenny Live Show. I assumed I would get a researcher, but Pat Kenny himself took the call. That stunned me. I brazenly asked him to put me on the following week. His only question “Can you hold a conversation about this, on air, for 7 minutes?”. I said yes and I went on that Saturday. The Sunday Independent followed the show the next day with the same story, and the floodgates opened. People from all over Ireland offered help, wonderful Russian and Irish people came forward to help me with the plan and so we began the most wonderful project, a project that has gone on to change the lives of thousands of children. And that is how our charity, To Russia With Love, was born. You see, I could have come home in 1996 and cried for a bit and gone back to my life as I knew it, but I saw a chance to change lives. I saw an opportunity to allow these children to become stronger adults. I love the idea of human potential, I am very ordinary, but I do think ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things if they just take that first, nerve-wracking step. Passion for your work makes life a whole different experience. It changes your life and you never look back.”
Debbie Deegan founder of ‘To Russia With Love’ and ‘To Children With Love’ charities.