Christina was a young girl returning home from the first grade when she found a note from her mother. "I can't take care of you anymore. All the best," read the note.
Suddenly alone, Christina fended for herself until age 16 when she was found wandering the streets of Kazan, Russia, and placed in an orphanage.
Her plight, as well as the plight of thousands of other social orphans, haunted several returned missionaries who recently served in Russia. Now home and students in college, four of them have reunited and marshaled their love for the Russian people to create a non-profit organization called "To Russia With Love." Their aim is to improve the lives of orphans.
"We love the country, but we see so much turmoil," said Tyson Bauer, founder and president of the organization. "Their hope as a country lies in their children. Yet, love is hard to find for orphans in Russia. Children in orphanages need more than the occasional love they receive."
Tyson attended Utah State University after returning from the Russia Samara Mission. He joined the Russian Club and in May 2000 participated in a fund-raising project. As a representative of the club, he returned to Russia with a cousin, Wendel Schultz of the Russia St. Petersburg Mission, to distribute the donations. They met with orphanage directors in the morning, then bought supplies from open air markets in the afternoon.
"It was amazing to see the changes in demeanor and disposition caused by acts of kindness," Tyson said.
The long flight home was a somber time of soul searching for Tyson. While basking in the good feelings that come from helping others, he also pined over the suffering he had seen. His emotions churned until he felt a desire to help on a larger scale. Soon the idea of a non-profit charity crystallized.
After returning home he called a mission friend, Brad Kramer, who once expressed his concern for the country and asked if he "was still serious" about helping. Tyson transferred to BYU where the two joined forces. Their first objective was to rally support. They invested in a video camera and computer to create a promotional video. Most nights for three weeks, after studying, they'd work until 4 a.m. editing the segments, then collapsed on the sofa until time to go to morning classes.
Challenges were many. Some thought they were in over their heads dealing with bureaucratic red tape. But they felt their strength was being too naive to not know any better and forged ahead. With some financial backing from an uncle's business, the two returned to Russia during the Christmas break between semesters in the year 2000 to interview a variety of directors to learn firsthand the needs of the orphanages.
They drew two conclusions: many orphanages needed temporal supplies like food, medicine and clothing; and, orphans needed training in technical skills and moral values.
"Statistics show that nearly 85 percent of children in orphanages are never able to hold a normal job or receive higher education," said Brad. "When they are dismissed from orphanages at age 18, many turn to drugs, crime and suicide."
"To Russia With Love" is now directed by four friends, including Brady Tanner and Carrie Lewis. The group sponsors two yearly trips to Russia to take supplies and render service. Bylaws require that 100 percent of the donations be used to buy supplies. Travel costs are paid either out of pocket by participants or subsidized by business donations.
A major contribution of the organization was the renovation of a building near an orphanage where trade skills are taught. When "To Russia With Love" learned of the orphanage director's desire to renovate the building, they raised funds for the repair and hired a member of the Church in the area to supervise the renovation.
The orphanage director was leery at first, questioning the motives of the group as religious propaganda. But over time she learned of the group's sincerity, which led to her baptism into the Church.
After all they have done, the group knows that it's never enough. "I was literally holding three children. I couldn't hug them enough," said Carrie, who told how television news crews greeted her at the train station when she arrived at 6 a.m. in Penza where the orphanage is located.
"I had never been to Russia, but on the evening of my first day there, my picture was on local television as a Santa from America."
"We hope that as they grow, these children will be healthy and better prepared for life. Maybe they will remember the genuine care they received and ask about the Church," said Brad.