Debbie Deegan (above), founder of To Children With Love; two Russian orphans her charity has sought to help. Pics by Terry.
Terry McMahon writes:
Filmmakers are asked to do some dodgy stuff. People get excited by the idea of having their story captured on camera, their life and their legacy, their fantasies made real. Some folks are driven by ego, some by vanity, some by a desire for fame, and the really dumb ones think they might even rich out if it.
Having five insane kids, an exhausted missus, and a relentless bank-manager means I have to say no to most requests. But, sometimes you get asked to do something that transcends all the nonsense.
Someone proposes an ongoing story so complex, courageous and beautiful that you remember why you became a filmmaker in the first place.
Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get invited to Russia by the founder of ‘To Children With Love,’ Debbie Deegan.
Strolling into the airport with a small camera on my back, I had no idea what I was getting into but I didn’t question Debbie. She asked for trust and that was good enough for me.
I had gotten to know Debbie through her powerful ‘Ted Talk‘ but thinking you know somebody and spending twenty-four-hours a day with them for a week are not the same thing.
Debbie wanted some of the unfolding events captured. The days were going to be long and the engagements were going to be raw. We have a newborn miracle baby at home, which means I was already vulnerable to the profound fragility of children.
Steeling myself for the inevitable heartbreak of visiting similarly vulnerable miracle children in Russian orphanages, the truth is, I was very nervous. But I hid it because I was ashamed of my fear, ashamed that I might collapse like a cheap accordion at the first orphan child who looked at me.
In Dublin Airport, Debbie introduced me to her translator and longtime collaborator, Zhenya Chevrenenko.
A charismatic Russian with good looks and effortless charm, Zhenya was the kind of bloke every woman wants and every man wants to be. An incredible translator, Zhenya couldn’t have been nicer, in five languages, but the airport was eerie, with some of the staff at our boarding desk a little on edge.
Nobody else was wearing gloves and a surgical mask but this staff was. It made us feel a little less ridiculous for wearing the gloves and masks that Debbie insisted we wear. The larger world had yet to wake up to the insanity that was coming in the form of Covid-19.
We were greeted in Moscow by Sasha Smiyan, a young redhead, whose cheeky grin could light up any room. The way she hugged Debbie would stir the most cynical soul.
They gripped each other like their lives depended on it. Maybe that was because, many years ago, their lives did.
Formerly an orphan herself, Sasha had grown into an incredibly insightful boss. To strengthen me for the task ahead she wasted no time evaluating the virgin filmmaker in front of her, and, frankly, I have never enjoyed being slapped around by a human being more. There’s no love like the tough love of a brilliant Russian boss.
Then there was Kirill Cherapanov. With the hulking figure of a lion and the brooding stealth of a hired assassin, Kirill had been beaten by life more than a broken, bare-knuckle boxer. If anybody had been given excuses by life to become a world-class asshole, it was Kirill. Instead, this powerhouse young man became my brother.
We stayed at a wonderful hotel owned by a generous supporter of ‘To Children With Love.’ I’ve worked in several hotels, so I’m aware of how the hierarchy works; some guests are treated very well because they are supposedly ‘important,’ but you can tell the staff’s heart isn’t in it.
This was different. I watched them from a distance and, though she’d modestly deny it, the adoration they had for Debbie cannot be faked.
Next day we caught a double decker train to the city of Bryansk, where we were met at the station by the tall, gentle, enigmatic, Misha Serdyukov. Just like Sasha before him, Misha is also a former orphan who knows Debbie since he was a child.
This would become a pattern with many of the incredible twenty-something and thirty-something year olds we would meet. Life would prove, yet again, that the people we presume to be broken by their childhoods are sometimes the strongest among us.
Taking it upon himself to become my guide and confidante, in less than a week, this remarkable man, Misha, would become somebody you would trust with your life.
Before we got to the first orphanage, there was a brief diversion. In awe of the recent honors bestowed on Debbie by Vladimir Putin, a television crew wanted to interview her. They chose an arcade and children’s play area in the kind of modern shopping mall that would have been unheard of in this region a decade ago.
As the camera crew set up, the children of the orphanage we were about to visit played in the background. This was the perfect backdrop to the interview: the infectious, uninhibited joy of children without a care in the clichéd world.
Stunningly articulate and more compelling than any of the pretenders we have become accustomed to, Debbie was a revelation on camera. Intercut with Putin presenting the highest award that can be presented to a Westerner, it made powerful television.
Debbie later explained that most of these children had never been in a play centre.
And many might never be again.
The first orphanage was small. They didn’t know we were coming. So there was no show put on for us. It was just another day. No bells and whistles. And what an incredible place it proved to be. Children, ranging from five to fifteen invited us into their world. The kindness they showed us was beautiful.
But it’s easy to show kindness to strangers. What made these children and staff so remarkable was the kindness they showed when the thought nobody was watching.
We moved on. Deeper into woods. To the larger orphanage. Darker. A place buried in isolation. A place with a painful history. A place haunted by the ghosts of recent heartbreak. A place where even the prowling wild dogs were nervous.
Then we met the youngest of the children. And they turned all that darkness into light. Initially hesitant, the moment they realised I was with Debbie, they opened up. One nod from her was all the permission they needed to offer complete trust.
This was the only home they knew. But it was their home. And they showed off their rows of new beds in their home with pride. The concrete walls couldn’t kill the spirits of these kids. They laughed and played and engaged as if life is a miracle. Because, to some of these kids, merely being alive was.
But their nightmares were outside the gates. Inside this building, they were safe. Inside this building were people who cared. People who are saving lives. Every day.
We moved to the section with the older kids. These are the ones whose time in the orphanage would be coming to a close in the next few years. The ones who would normally be spat back into society, with zero back up.
But that’s where ‘To Children With Love’ is different.
These people don’t give up on the kids. They don’t wash their hands of them just because they have reached an age where the orphanage can no longer keep them. ‘To Children With Love’ helps them all the way into adulthood.
Watching Sasha and Misha engaged with the children was incredible. As people who have been through the system, they have an insight and sensitivity like no other. These incredible adults who were once orphans themselves were there to help every one of these kids to build their own courage, independence and self-determination.
And Zhenya was there, too, seamlessly translating every word. The combination of courage and trust is incredible. These are the people who return year after year. To bring gifts. To bring hope. To bring love. Their impact on the lives of these children is profound.
I didn’t want to be just another voyeur with a camera so I handed the camera to the children. Let them see themselves. Let them film each other. Let them be the ones in charge of the narrative, for a change.
And they lit up.
Before we left, we looked inside the dining area. Cold, grey walls outside were hiding colourful warm food, inside. The kitchen staff was a little cold, too, initially. But, like countless other times on this journey, once a little trust was earned, they blossomed. As we were leaving, I knew that I would have to return some day soon to capture these lives on film.
We went on to visit another graduate of the ‘To Children With Love’ orphanages who grew up to be a happily married father and successful businessman. Andrei Zibrov. He is also a devoted supporter of what Debbie and her team are doing. Just like the other successful businessman, Pasha Potemkin, yet another ex-orphan.
Then we met up with three of the most remarkable women in the world. Julia Gulova. Olga Kuralenko and Valya Covelova.
All three are former orphans and, now, all three are mothers of incredible children. And, as if that’s not enough, all three are remarkable craftswomen. They allowed me into their lives. Into their homes. Into their private thoughts. I was a stranger with a camera. Yet they chose to trust completely. All because of the woman I was standing beside. Debbie Deegan.
That night we went for pizzas with many of the young adults who were transitioning towards the responsibilities of leaving the security of the orphanage. Tears of laughter and sadness. There was pain and there was joy. Some were finding it very difficult.
Others were flying. Some were having children of their own. Some were barely out of childhood themselves. It’s never going to be easy for these kids. But it’s also clear that as long as ‘To Children With Love’ is around, they are never going to be forgotten, either.
I like people but, frankly, I’m also not easily impressed. I was homeless as a teenager. I lived alone in a derelict building. So I know what it is to think that nobody gives a damn if you live or die.
I worked in a psychiatric hospital. I know what it is to think there is no hope for people locked in institutions. I was a founder member of the Home Sweet Home movement to house our homeless. I know what it is to take impossible action.
I have made three films. I know what it is to lead large groups of people. I have taught in multiple universities. I know what it is to try to ignite a culture. But none of those things prepared me for the profound emotional and, dare I say it, spiritual power of being allowed into these people’s lives.
I have been in the company of so-called powerful people. Celebrities, too. Hollywood types. But I have never seen anyone with the ability to cut through all the noise the way Debbie Deegan does. She has a way with people I have never witnessed in anybody.
What she and everyone else behind To Children With Love are achieving is impossible to exaggerate.
How a modest housewife from Dublin and her army of incredible people changed the lives of tens of thousands of children is impossible to comprehend. Yet it happened. And it continues to happen. Every day.
There are countless more stories from that short trip. Many seeds were sown that could prove incredible in their fruition. Many of the stories are beautiful. Too many of them are heartbreaking. For those, I put the camera away. Until they are ready, people deserve their privacy. But everyone agreed to speak. To open up. To let us in. When the time is right.
And that time is now.
Terry McMahon is a filmmaker and can be found on Twitter @terrymcmahon69
Previously: Terry McMahon on Broadsheet
Pics by Terry