Meet the Dubliner Debbie Deegan who saved Russia’s abandoned children

Debbie Deegan was shocked at the conditions of a Russian orphanage she visited in 1998. Twenty years after setting up the charity, To Children With Love, she invites Mary Kennedy to join her on a trip to Russia to meet some of the children she rescued.

When you walk into a pizzeria to meet young men who were raised in an orphanage, all now third-level students and your eyes fill with tears, you know this is a special moment. That was me recently in Bryansk, 400km south-west of Moscow, when I was introduced to Alex, Andre, Pasha, Maxim, Vanya and Misha.

I’m an Irish Mammy of two strapping young men and I have always had a soft spot for boys as they grow up, find their feet and make their way in the world. When I opened the door of that restaurant and saw those 19-21-year-olds, with their shy smiles and gentle eyes, my heart just melted. I wanted to hug them all. I found myself visualising their early days of neglect in dysfunctional families and their formative years in an orphanage from which they emerged as the fine young men I saw standing before me. To say I was overcome with soppy, mushy, teary happiness for them is no exaggeration. Any mother would be proud of how they had turned out. Sadly some had been abandoned as children through alcoholism and drug addiction.

Of course, it wasn’t just in any orphanage that these six lads grew up. They were in Khortolova, the orphanage where conditions so shocked Debbie Deegan when she visited in 1998 that she set up the charity To Russia With Love, renamed To Children With Love three years ago. She has worked tirelessly for the children there since then and Alex and his friends are, quite simply, a credit to her. Their bright, smiling faces, their healthy frames, their impeccable politeness and good manners belie their early years before being taken into state care and ending up in Khortolova where their lives were turned around by the love, care and vision showered on them by Debbie and TRWL. They realise they are the lucky ones. Statistics show that more than 65pc of orphaned boys in Russia end up in prison. Not so boys who grew up in Khortolova after TRWL entered their lives. Debbie told me that not one of “her boys has spent a day in prison”. Some of them, however, have siblings, all of them have acquaintances who were not so lucky. They were placed in different institutions where conditions were basic and perfunctory, devoid of the warmth of human kindness and from which they emerged, sometimes as young as 16 years of age with no guidance as to the next step. Their stories don’t have such a happy ending. Many succumb to crime and addiction and end up in prison or dead. Alex and his friends hit the jackpot when they were sent to Khortolova where they basked in the motherly love and genuine concern of Debbie Deegan and her team. They were well fed, educated, their talents identified and encouraged and they thrived. They left Khortolova with hope in their hearts and a plan for the future.

Their wellbeing continues to be monitored by the charity, even though they are now living in college hostels and taking responsibility for their studies and their future. They absolutely adore Debbie and want to do well to repay her for the opportunities TRWL/TCWL has afforded them. Alex told me he didn’t want to leave the orphanage when he earned his place in agricultural college. For about a year he yearned to return to the security of Khortolova where he was reared on hugs, good food and discipline. He’s 20 now, in his third year of studies, and he looks forward to these weekly pizza nights when he meets up with his former classmates from the orphanage and Sasha Tzukanov, the TCWL manager in Bryansk, who hears how they’re getting on, checks their grades and exam preparations and encourages them in their independent living. The fact that Sasha is 30 and also a graduate of Khortolova means he can relate to these young leavers. He understands perfectly the trauma they suffered in their early years in homes where many were often cold and hungry. Because that was his story as well. He and two younger siblings were sent to Khortolova and Debbie delights in recounting that Sasha looked out for his two sisters from the day they all entered the orphanage. One of them is married now and the other is getting married this year, a credit once again to Debbie and to their big brother Sasha. He is a delightful, helpful, efficient manager and a caring role model for these young adults and for the children in his care in Bryansk.

It is a privilege to celebrate the 20th anniversary of To Russia With Love, now called To Children With Love. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the significance of this milestone in the life of the charity and the Dublin woman who started it all. We’re talking 20 years of practical support for the most vulnerable children in this part of Russia, children who were handed over to state care and housed in orphanages for a variety of reasons. Some of these children were genuine orphans, but there is a term, “Russian Orphans” which refers to children abandoned by parents who can’t provide for them. Some parents had their lives destroyed by alcoholism, drug addiction, crime, poverty, or perhaps mothers in new relationships where the partner refused to care for another man’s child. Can you imagine the pain and heartache for those little ones, failed by people close to them and dependant on state care which provides them with food, clothes and a roof over their heads, basic requirements for physical survival but falling way short of the mark when it comes to compassion and love, essentials for a happy childhood and a confident transition to adulthood.

That’s where Debbie Deegan comes in. In 1997 she and her husband Mick adopted a child from Khortolova, welcoming her into their family alongside their two young children, Sophie and Michael. Debbie promised this seven-year-old girl she would return to the orphanage to see her former classmates and to say that she was shocked by what she saw is an understatement. On her first visit to Khortolova, Debbie was greeted by grey concrete buildings, iron window frames, broken panes through which the wind whistled. She walked along dank, dark corridors: dark because the electric bulbs had burned out or were missing altogether, stolen by children to sell in exchange for cigarettes: smelly because children were afraid to go to the bathroom during the night for fear of the dark and the rats that scurried about. Other children, starved of affection, made pets of the rats. What do you do in a situation like that? Do you give what you can to the children you’ve met, tell them their friend is well and living in Ireland now and return home to shower love and compassion on your adopted daughter? Or do you adopt them all? In reality that is what Debbie Deegan has done. She vowed there and then to care for those children and that was when TRWL was born.

Twenty years later, thanks to Debbie’s endless energy, commitment and big heart and thanks to the generosity and support of Irish people, she is back in Bryansk to celebrate with the young people who are now in their twenties and living a life they could never have dreamed possible were it not for the intervention of this Dublin woman, a mother who responded with love to the needs of vulnerable, abandoned, unloved children. If you ask Debbie, “why Russia?”, when there are so many needy children closer to home, the answer is that is where her life path took her. She adopted a Russian child, visited Khortolova and saw the lost children. “I have seen first hand, many tragic situations in our world, but when a child has no one to love them, I think it is the saddest thing you can see. We would never turn our backs on abandoned children. We will stand by them until they are strong confident adults.”

During this anniversary trip I accompanied Debbie to visit Olga and Valya, two of her “children” as she refers to all of the orphans who grew up in Khortolova since 1998. They are both 30 now, married with two children each and neighbours in a very modest, high-rise apartment block in a suburb of Bryansk. We were offered tea and cake by Olga who had given birth to her second daughter, Valentina, a week before our visit and who was visibly excited and proud to introduce Debbie to this little beauty. Valya, her neighbour and former classmate was there to offer her friend a helping hand. Valya remembers the filth, neglect, soaked mattresses and rotten food of Khortolova prior to Debbie’s first visit in 1998. The toilets overflowed, girls were handed bits of rags when they had their period, there were regular outbreaks of scabies and headlice. When I asked Valya about her memories of life in that orphanage after 1998, her face lit up and she replied, “big smiles”. She said she came to realise that life can be better. Another abiding memory of Debbie’s first visit is of the perfume she wore. Turns out it was Eternity by Calvin Klein and Valya showed me a well worn and well-loved box from the perfume which she treasures. Debbie, for her part, continues to wear Eternity on every visit to Bryansk because of the good memories it evokes for those first TRWL children. Both young women came from homes where their parents were alcoholics. They are wives and mothers now and they are, to a woman, determined that their children will have a happy childhood, “with lots of smiles”. Valya is a midwife and Olga is employed by TCWL as a mentor for teenagers as they leave Khortolova to embark on adult life. Debbie is proud of the fact that not one of her “children” has put their baby back into an orphanage or a shelter. The cycle has been broken. What a joy to be able to say that!

It’s been an all-consuming 20 years for Debbie Deegan and she has more than fulfilled that promise, made when she welcomed a seven-year-old girl from Khortolova orphanage into her family all those years ago. That girl is an adult now, her classmates have left Khortolova and the focus of Debbie’s work has changed. Three years ago the charity changed its name to To Children With Love and has expanded its portfolio to include working with vulnerable children in Ireland. The Rising Tide project is an example of the work TCWL undertakes in Ireland, where children in disadvantaged areas are helped to reach their full potential, be that an apprenticeship or entry to a vocational college or university. TCWL is there to advocate for them and the work of Rising Tide is modelled on the successful programmes Debbie and her team have been undertaking for 20 years in Russia.

Around the time TRWL became TCWL, Khortolova closed its doors to orphans as the state tries to phase out the era of the big institution. That’s in line with Debbie’s thinking. She has always had a good relationship with the Russian administration; the charity could not have done what they did without the help of many good Russian people. It was also a joy to witness the easy warmth and common purpose she shares with the people who run the smaller homes and shelters which the charity now supports in their work of finding caring foster parents for the children who continue to be abandoned in heartbreaking circumstances.

We visited Zhukovka orphanage where TCWL has financed the playroom, filling it with equipment and furniture and opportunities for the children to enjoy life as they never have before. They are carefree youngsters now for the most part. Two little ones, 10 and 12 years old, stood out for me when they took my hands on a walk in the snow. Tanya and Misha are brother and sister. They are pale, incredibly shy but making good progress at the orphanage.

When they first arrived at Zhukovka, they kept their heads bent and they cowered in a corner together, timid and fearful. They are learning to respond to love, something they never knew before they came here. It was lovely to watch them read a book on cushions in their colourful playroom and play in the snow with the brothers and sisters they have now in their new family.

It’s impossible to put a figure on the number of lives that Debbie Deegan has enhanced over the past 20 years. There are also lives that have been saved by TRWL/TCWL. Kirill was neglected as a child and taken into care. His mother was told she could have him back if she changed her lifestyle. Every May, for a number of years, Kirill stood at the gates of the orphanage in case his mother came to pick him up. She never did and Kirill remained in Khortolova. His behaviour was bad. He told me he was “the bad boy” of the orphanage and they wanted to get rid of him. Debbie, however, was having none of it and Kirill is adamant that she saved his life. He is 30 now, a panel beater in Bryansk. He plays pool, goes to the gym and designs websites and he recognises the fact that if it weren’t for TRWL he would have gone the criminal route. I met Lena, whose mother sold her for a bottle of vodka, when she was three years of age. She grew up in Khortolova, has been sponsored by a Dublin family over the years and always attends the pizza gatherings with her former classmates from the orphanage. They all love Debbie and deeply appreciate the difference she has made to their lives.

She has shown that kindness, love and patience can change lives and that children in care deserve our respect and love every day. The work continues with To Children With Love, both in Russia and with the Rising Tide project here in Ireland. Debbie Deegan shows no signs of slowing down.

She is a powerhouse of energy, commitment and love and she needs our support.

Any donations to will be gratefully received and put to good use.

Mary Kennedy
for The Independent 9th April, 2018