‘They were silent, all with shaved heads – it blew me away as an ordinary Mammy’ – Charity queen Debbie Deegan talks changing lives.
Charity queen Debbie Deegan’s Tedx talk went live this week. She talks to Liadan Hynes about resilience, fear and changing lives.
‘I was in the supermarket when I got a phone call from the Kremlin,” Debbie Deegan recalls as we sit by the f ire in her Clontarf family home. Debbie is the woman behind the charity To Russia with Love – now To Children with Love to incorporate their Irish work. Through the sheer force of her personality she has changed the lives of thousands of Russian children, overcoming challenges where most of us would have faltered.
The Kremlin was calling to tell her she was being awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin; the medal is one of the highest honours Russia can award.
The day after her daughter Sophie got married, Debbie and her right-hand woman Trisha McGrath flew to Russia to attend the ceremony, in late 2018, staying in Putin’s private hotel. The dinner was attended by 800 guests. Separated from her colleague, Debbie found herself sitting beside the Russian Orthodox pope – the head of the Russian church.
Not religious, she was concerned as to what she would talk to him about, she recalls, but before she had a chance to get started, a huge security guard tapped her on the shoulder. “‘Mrs Deegan, I would like to introduce you to your host’,” Debbie recalls him saying. “I look up and Vladimir Putin is standing beside me. You’re looking at an iconic face, right beside you.”
Five minutes in Debbie Deegan’s company is enough to realise that it would take a lot to silence this woman, a natural communicator. But this did; she had no idea she was to be seated beside the Russian president. As he was getting settled, his translator signalled to Debbie, telling her not to worry, she was there if she needed help with the conversation. “I’ve never needed help with conversation,” Debbie smiles, “but definitely for 10 seconds I was stunned. A rabbit in headlights. I was thinking, ‘what do you say to him – where did you go on your holidays?'”
Putin’s translator hastily suggested she might discuss foreign affairs, a suggestion to which Debbie shakes her head, laughing. “I do not get involved in politics or religion. And I’m now sitting at dinner with the pope and the president of Russia.”
As it happened, conversation flowed, with Putin talking Debbie through the performances of the night. When it came time to receive her award, knowing approximately 100 million people would be watching the ceremony, she launched into a speech on behalf of the children whose welfare she has fought for since the late 1990s.
“I wasn’t nervous; I loved getting my message across. That’s why I’ll never know why my knees knocked for Ted,” she says with a smile. Ted is the Tedx talk Debbie was asked to deliver in London earlier this year, which went live this week. Tedx talks are in the mould of the famed Ted talks. Debbie was asked to tell her story, about a journey which took her from her kitchen table to the Kremlin table, and the passion, determination and resilience she demonstrated along the way.
Sixty people were interviewed for the London event, which was filmed in early January, with speakers talking under the theme ‘Cut Through the Noise’. Twelve were chosen. Debbie did not expect to be one. The interview was a disaster, she recalls. “It was 36 degrees in London, six floors up and there was no lift, and I wasn’t allowed leave my wheelie bag at the bottom. So by the time I got into the room, the sweat was dripping from my face. I just looked like I was coming in to talk about the menopause.”
Debbie was chosen, though, finding out last July. The standard of Tedx talks is renowned; speakers prepare for months. “I could not believe how big I let it get in my head,” she says now. “I shouldn’t have, because I’m very good at not letting things get big in my head. I wouldn’t have taken on the project in Russia in the first place if I wasn’t. Otherwise you’d be thinking ‘where am I going to get the 50 quid to replace those curtains? Where am I going to get the €500,000 to replace the building’.”
The official Ted guide to public speaking was helpful, she says. But still, “it’s the most nervous I’ve been of anything I’ve done in my entire life,” she says of the day of her talk. “Because I’ve watched Ted talks for years, and I love them.”
Debbie is an obvious choice for an institution built around those who inspire. Back in the late 1990s, she was a stay-at-home mum with two small children when her family took in some Russian orphans. She visited Russia in 1998, having promised one of the children she had temporarily taken in that she would visit her.
“It was just an impulsive thing. I had made a promise to this child.”
What she found was a hell hole, she recalls. “Russia had just broken up. People had lost everything; they hadn’t been paid in six months.”
Conditions at the orphanage were horrifying. “I could not believe this sea of children, all in institutionalised clothes, old worn-out duffel coats that looked like something from a Dickensian movie. They were silent, all with shaved heads. It blew me away as an ordinary mammy. I was there with my suitcase of sweets and balloons and face paints to change their lives,” she says now rolling her eyes. There were rows of old metal beds, dreadful smells, piles of laundry, rats the children had tamed as pets.
What Debbie did next was what makes her so extraordinary. She committed herself to the wellbeing of these children, indefinitely.
“I knew from that moment that this had overtaken me. As a mother, I reacted instinctively. It consumed me from day one, from the minute I saw it. I thought ‘I can’t leave these kids here, we’re going to have to change the way they live, rebuild the whole place’. I’m married to the charity, as a passionate labour of love,” she reflects. “And I’m never going to not be that person. The way we started it was the way you don’t start a charity. We became a family that turned into an enormous family.”
Debbie went home to Ireland and immediately began fundraising, starting with a coffee morning, and the establishment of her charity, To Russia with Love. She expected her plan to take two years: “In two years’ time this will be done. The place will be painted pink, it will all be gorgeous, everyone will have a new coat, we’ll have done our job, and everyone will go home.”
That, of course, wasn’t the case. Debbie is still in contact with the hundreds of children who have gone through her care. They come and stay with her. She knows their children. As we speak, her WhatsApp constantly lights up with messages from people she has helped.
To begin with, Debbie and the team she put together were faced with rebuilding an orphanage that at the time had no electricity, heating, or running water; it was overrun with rats, and surrounded by snow in a forest eight hours from Moscow. She did more than rebuild, though. She created what she describes as a veritable Disneyland.
Interior designers worked with the children, who chose lace curtains and pink paint. She brought make-up artists, basketball players, an astronaut. She and her team stopped the policy of siblings being separated, and spent seven years trawling through Russian orphanages (no computer system documented the children), reuniting orphans with their siblings.
She stopped their heads being shaved, procured glasses for those who needed them, had the children’s teeth seen to. She found grandparents. Light and heavy stuff, she says.
“Fixing broken hearts every single day. We still do to this day.”
In the first decade that Debbie was there, the stats revealed that 80 per cent of Russian children who left an orphanage would eventually end up in prison.
At one point, Debbie was on the board of 47 Russian orphanages, so has overseen systemic change. Drink and drug abuse, as well as prostitution, are rife among orphans when they leave the system, she explains.
“Not one of our children in ten years ended up in prostitution or trafficked, we didn’t have one suicide, in 21 years. Our statistics were off the scales in comparison to the national norms,” she smiles. “Our children felt that no matter what the problem was in their life, they would come to the Irish and the Russians working with me and we would solve it.”
Debbie and her team provided a safety net. “We made the children believe that they could be more than an orphan.” She seems to have been daunted just once, when the economic crash in Ireland meant donations suddenly dropped off.
“That crushed it. My kids still call it my nervous breakdown time, because I sat here and watched the Kardashians for about three months. I hadn’t got the energy. I thought ‘what am I going to do? Tell the children there’s a recession in Ireland, good luck’. We were halfway through. There was no way I could leave them. The place was built and rocking, but the children were just beginning to go into colleges, beginning to feel ‘my god I can be anything I want to be’.”
Walking away was never an option. It’s exactly the kind of grit and resilience Tedx talkers are known for displaying. It’s also what is characterising the next step of Debbie’s journey; she’s now in growing demand as a speaker from organisations and businesses.
“More and more people are asking me how we made a change in such a difficult environment, and they’re asking me to talk about it. About overcoming challenges, coping with change, bringing a team along.”
She’s happy to be using her voice, and her experience, to help others, in all kinds of walks of life, do what she did, she explains. Debbie is a change maker, an example herself of tremendous grit and determination.
“Not one of our girls has ever put their baby back into an orphanage,” she says with pride.
“We’ve broken the cycle completely. And to keep them strong, we’re still there for them, and we will remain so.”