Maria Yeliseyeva, activist

Maria Yeliseyeva, 36, had been working for years with children and the arts—she had an art studio attached to the local House of Pioneers, plus a puppet theater. But just over seven years ago, she happened to visit Orphanage #103 in Moscow’s Lefortovo district. It is an orphanage for children with special needs. She took her three children along.

“The children at the orphanage had been diagnosed as ‘incapable of attending a special school,’” Yeliseyeva explained. “These children were attracted to me, to my kids, and especially to my daughter Anya, who was only 6 months old then. They marveled at the opportunity to play with ‘normal’ children. Back then I didn’t even think of teaching them painting. I was just coming to visit these orphans. But then I thought, ‘We need to be occupied with something!’ So I taught them drawing and painting.”

From such unexpected beginnings a dream began to grow. Soon Maria and her friends were visiting the orphanage regularly, bringing the children home with them for weekends or vacations. And then there were the art classes. Art opened up a new world for these children—a placed where there was beauty and love.

Yeliseyeva set up an art studio on Moscow’s Ostozhenka street. But the site soon proved too small for the number of students she needed to accommodate—now visiting from six orphanages. So she registered a new non-profit organization, the Art Rehabilitation Center and took over a damp, dilapidated basement with a dirt floor. Together with her students and some financial help from corporate sponsors like Kodak, the basement was transformed. Roman, a student at the center, helped a great deal. “It looks cool,” he said, “instead of wallpaper, we just painted all the walls with different subjects. In one room we have a lake, in another room you feel like you are up in the sky …”

Today, some 110 children attend classes at the center, including 28 with cerebral palsy. The children have created over 50 collaborative murals and patchwork tapestries and their work is exhibited annually at Moscow’s Central House of Artists.

Meanwhile, Yeliseyeva’s family has also grown. She now has four girls, plus three children—two girls and Roman—adopted from different orphanages. She can afford to feed and clothe such a large brood because her husband, Ilya Segalovich, is himself a successful innovator: he invented Russia’s most popular web search engine: “Yandex.”

This is not to say life is easy or that the road has always been smooth. Indeed, Yeliseyeva reveals that the family only got a washing machine after their fourth child was born. And, up until recently, they lived in Moscow’s distant Kuchino region, which regularly had three-month hot water outages in summer.

The bright, lively paintings of Maria’s children belie the artist’s difficult lives or the struggles Yeliseyeva and her center have had to overcome to achieve their present success. “First of all,” Yeliseyeva says, “you have to try to teach them to become good people, to be friendly. And, most importantly, to not be just consumers. They must also learn how to take care of themselves, how to find their bearings in life. It is the hard part; it is our number one task, one perhaps even more important than drawings and art. Of course, painting is important, for, like any art, it frees one from stresses, it gives one some support in life. But the typical problem for orphans is that they get used to living at state expense and have no idea about how things work in the real world. … They take it for granted that society must take care of them because they are orphans. And they start thinking that, once they are out of the orphanage, this will continue ... No one is teaching them how to live further — without that guaranteed piece of daily bread. So, what we are doing is trying to get them do something for other people. For example we take them to the House of Children and they help take care of abandoned babies.”

A commitment to such practical idealism has yielded fruits. There was another generous grant from Kodak, plus financial assistance from a longtime friend, the American physician Patch Adams. And, this past summer, with help from sponsors, Yeliseyeva was able to bring an exhibit (plus 10 children) to the US. The show first appeared in the rotunda of the US Senate building, then moved on to the Russian Cultural Center in Washington DC, and to sites in New York, Minneapolis and Seattle.

But, of course, the best testament to Yeliseyeva’s work is the lives of the children she has taken under her wing. Roman, whose birth mother was an alcoholic, has just returned from service in the army and has joined the work of the center. When he began to visit the center as an orphan years ago, he said, “the colors of my life changed … Now we have a merrier life, a goal to attain: to help other children.”

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