Roman Sklotskiy spreads a new idea in Russia: Be a 'big brother' or 'big sister'

Volunteering to mentor youths wasn't a familiar concept. So Mr. Sklotskiy became director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia to promote it.

Svetlana Balashova/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Roman Sklotskiy longed to do charitable work, and he found his calling in developing Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia.

Roman Sklotskiy, a former businessman and a graduate of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, didn’t dream of having a career in charity. In the early 2000s he was a pioneer in the telecommunications industry, testing applications for mobile networks.

But then he was invited by a friend to be the administrator of a theater for deaf actors – a charity project launched by a group of professional actors and directors. He was so inspired by the experience that he decided to pursue charitable work.

In 2007 he learned of a nonprofit group trying to bring a United States-based mentoring program to Russia. Big Brothers Big Sisters International is a volunteer program that helps orphans and children from troubled families find mentors who provide them with a role model and help them build a healthy relationship with an adult.

In Russia this kind of volunteering was a new idea. Mr. Sklotskiy decided to join the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Russia team and became its director, spending six years developing it.

“Kids from orphanages ... don’t experience much individual treatment and attention. That’s why communicating with an adult from a normal background is very helpful for them,” he says. “We try to give them a chance for a better life.”

When Sklotskiy started working with orphans, he was struck by their vulnerability and isolation. Some children didn’t know simple everyday things, such as that tea doesn’t always contain sugar. In group homes they had received tea from a big bucket, where sugar was already included.

Sklotskiy’s own “little brother,” who was 15 years old at the time, was unfamiliar with the idea of work.

“Once I brought him to my office and turned on the computer for him to play games,” Sklotskiy recalls with a smile.

“After I finished work he told me I was lucky because I got paid for just sitting in a room where you can play computer games.”

The selection process for people who would like to participate in Russia’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program is strict. Program case managers try to find out potential volunteers’ motives by interviewing them. The candidates take psychological tests and must supply documents showing they are in good mental health.

Those who are selected receive training. Psychologists work with them and explain the unique demands of communicating with an orphan. “Only 2 people out of 10 eventually become mentors. Those who are not taking it seriously drop out at the very beginning,” Sklotskiy says.

Participants come from many backgrounds but often from the business world. For many, the life of an orphan is totally new and unknown. About 85 percent are women. Many are young, single city dwellers with higher education and a stable income.

Mentors sign a one-year agreement with Big Brothers Big Sisters in which they agree to spend time regularly with the child. A psychologist works with the mentor and the child to try to solve any communication problems and ensure a healthy relationship.

Children from 6 to 17 years old participate in the program. However, the relationship between a mentor and a child doesn’t necessarily end after a child graduates from the program.

Nikolay Kharlamov, a graduate of Big Brothers Big Sisters, keeps in touch with his mentor. He says the program made him realize there is a different world beyond the orphanage walls. “I found not a mentor, but a real friend, who I may call a brother,” says Mr. Kharlamov, who is now 25 and works as a cashier at a filling station.

“We try to keep in touch with all our former graduates and follow their lives,” Sklotskiy says. The goals are modest: If the child grows up to lead a productive life and has a job, that is a success. They don’t have to become wealthy or pursue higher education.

In Russia, Big Brothers Big Sisters is a registered nongovernmental organization funded by private and corporate donations, often from large international companies. It also holds fundraising events.

It can be hard to get people to donate money to the program because the beneficial effects on the youths it helps are not always visible right away, Sklotskiy says.

The mentoring program is a rewarding experience, not only for the child but for the mentor, too.

Nadejda Lyamzina, a manager at a Moscow hotel and a mentor, says that participating in the project brought her new friends and expanded her horizons.

“My ‘little brother’ Timur was a whole new world for me,” she says. “I realized communicating with him changed me as well.”

Maria Govyazina, a former mentor, says the program taught her a lot about children and gave her a valuable experience that she can now use in bringing up her own daughter. She had to stop participating in the program when she moved to another country. However, she still communicates via e-mail with her “little sister,” Masha.

Alexandr Gezalov, an expert on child adoption and orphanages, says that the project is very successful.

“I’ve never seen a more effective format for communicating with an orphaned child,” Mr. Gezalov says. The success of Big Brothers Big Sisters should be shared with other organizations, he says.

Today Sklotskiy serves as director of charitable programs at the RVVZ Foundation. But he’s stayed involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters as chairman of the board. And he thinks it still has great potential to grow and help even more children.

Currently Big Brothers Big Sisters is operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

“We realize we are not a massive project, but we are doing our best to help children start a normal life,” Sklotskiy says.

How to take action

Universal Giving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups that foster education and mentoring:

WorldTeach works in developing countries to provide volunteer teachers. Take action: Teach in Bangladesh.

Volunteer Action for Change Kenya promotes a society in which the dignity and liberties of every person are respected. Take action: Volunteer to mentor youths in Kenya.

WeWorld safeguards women’s and children’s rights in Italy and the world. Take action: Help Italian children receive an education.

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