Project Hope: Aiding Disabled Children in Russia

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Olya, age 15, is fitted for her prosthesis. Photos courtesy of Project Hope
Olya, age 15, is fitted for her prosthesis. Photos courtesy of Project Hope

Suppose you are a child with a physical disability and you have no family. You live in a country with limited medical facilities and resources. Your home is an orphanage in a remote rural village. Without help, you have little hope of having meaningful work, the ability to support yourself and perhaps a family, and a quality of life that many persons take for granted. What hope for the future could you have?

Entering into this bleak picture is Dean Hesselgrave, CPO, and his wife Cindy, Greenville, South Carolina. The Hesselgraves provide leadership for Project Hope, an initiative of the International Guardian Angels Outreach (IGAO), a not-for-profit child-placing agency, which attempts to meet humanitarian needs of orphans around the world.

The Hesselgraves adopted two infants from a Russian orphanage in December. The children were "preemies," which was why their mothers placed them in the orphanage. "Life in Russia is harsh, and it's hard to cope and survive with a weak child," Hesselgrave said. "The children are much healthier now," he added.

While the Hesselgraves were in Russia, they were asked to visit an orphanage for disabled children to see if there was anything Dean could do to help them. "What we saw was very sad," Hesselgrave said. "Conditions are terrible. Kids aren't well cared for or fed well. In an orphanage with 82 kids ranging in age from about six to 16, we saw children with missing and distorted limbs, as well as other deformities. We saw no wheelchairs and only a few crutches; many children were crawling around on the floor." They saw only one prosthesis, which was old, poorly fitting, and outgrown.

Valeria, age six, plays with a stuffed toy while he awaits prosthetic care.
Valeria, age six, plays with a stuffed toy while he awaits prosthetic care.

"They don't do surgery for these kids," he said. "The kids are just put in an institution until they are about 16--then they go to another institution." There is almost no public access for persons with disabilities. "They don't even shovel snow off the sidewalks in front of the stores--people walk over uneven ice," Hesselgrave commented.

The plight of the disabled children touched the heart of the Hesselgraves. "In America even the most disadvantaged family can get help for their children with orthopedic disorders," Hesselgrave noted. "For example, there are 22 Shriners Hospitals in North America that provide orthopedic care free of charge." Hesselgrave works for the Greenville Shriners Hospital.

With the desire to bring at least some youngsters to the US for prosthetic care, Hesselgrave evaluated about 40 of the 82 children in the orphanage. He found that the vast majority needed surgery before they could use a prosthesis. However, there were four who would be able to use a prosthesis without surgery.

Through Project Hope, the Hesselgraves were able to bring the four children to Greenville. Many large-hearted individuals and organizations pitched in to help provide prosthetic components, fabrication, physical and occupational therapy, plus housing and transportation for the youngsters. One individual even treated the children to an outing to a local theater to see Beauty and the Beast; a local limousine company provided a stretch limousine to transport the children, the chaperons and translator who accompanied them from Russia, and others, about 14 in all.

The children received evaluations and care from a multidisciplinary team, including a physiatrist, orthopedic surgeon, and a general practitioner, as well as therapists. The children also visited an eye care center, where an optometrist prescribed glasses for two of them.

Back row, from left Vadim, the translator; Natalia and Elena, orphanage workers and chaperons; and Olya, age 15. In the front row, from left, Roman, age 9; Kostya, 14; and Valeria, age 6.
Back row, from left Vadim, the translator; Natalia and Elena, orphanage workers and chaperons; and Olya, age 15. In the front row, from left, Roman, age 9; Kostya, 14; and Valeria, age 6.

Several prosthetists volunteered their time to make prostheses, including Calvin Hoyle; Allison Boynton, CP; and Joel Vanderwood, CPO. Fillauer Inc., Chattanooga, Tennessee, and several other companies provided prosthetic components, and Orthopedic Services, Greenville, South Carolina, made its lab available.

Kostya, age 14, is a bilateral above-knee amputee; Roman, age 9, has congenital limb deficiency in all four extremities. Olya, age 15, is a below-knee amputee, and Valeria, age 6, is a bilateral below-elbow amputee. Roman, with quadrilateral limb deficiency, was fitted with a below-elbow and below-knee prosthesis on one side; on his other side he has a partial hand and partial foot. He just turned nine and, with his new prosthesis, walked for the first time in his life. "Imagine not walking until you are nine years old!" exclaimed Hesselgrave.

One of the children is being adopted, but he wants to return to Russia to say good-bye to friends and show off his new prostheses. A surgeon and his wife have invited one of the other children to come back to study in the States. All the youngsters will be receiving follow-up care next year, as they start to outgrow their prostheses. For these four youngsters, hope for a better tomorrow has indeed entered their lives.

More About IGAO

An orphan herself, Alexandra Goode, principal founder and president of IGAO, is a 73-year-old Nazi concentration camp survivor. Her father and brother did not survive. Alexandra came to America, where she later married George Goode, an engineer and entrepreneur. He now serves as chairman of the IGAO governing board. The Goodes have been married for 50 years and have three adult children and 18 grandchildren.

For more information about IGAO and its initiatives, visit www.igao.org.