November 10, 1998 was a regular Tuesday evening
for Terry Tuszynki, putting the finishing touches on dinner and watching the evening news.
She was only partially paying attention to what was being said on TV when the handsome
anchorman introduced a news correspondent who began to speak. Something caught her
attention and she watched and listened intently to a news story about a Russian orphanage
250 miles northeast of Moscow.
The ground was already covered with a foot of snow although it was
still only early November. Childrens faces filled the TV screen. Someone was opening
a large door that revealed steps leading underground. It was an old fashioned root cellar
where all the food stores for more than 50 children were kept. Except for a few old
potatoes, the cellar was empty. It had been a poor harvest, the reporter explained. There
was no money. Her television flickered with images from a foreign, frozen place half a
world away as the story poured out. The food was gone and winter was fast approaching. The
children were existing on a little bread, potato soup and tea. Many had no shoes.
More words and pictures rushed by. 100 year old building
and dozens of childrens faces. Some sad, some
smiling, all so young. "For NBC news, this is Dana Lewis," said the
|The orphanage is housed in this
crumbling 100 year old building.
Three, maybe four minutes. It was over. She had seen similar
stories before originating from different parts of the world -- Somalia, Ethiopia, the
Balkan states. Her husband came home, dinner was eaten, dishes cleaned up, five year old
son washed, teeth brushed, stories read, snuggled into bed. But the images wouldnt
the childrens faces, the empty root cellar, the snow
the fear and
Terry looked out the window into the backyard of her West Seattle
home. There was a beautiful, state-of-the-art, $4,000 jungle gym that she and her
physician-husband had recently bought for their son. He had squealed with joy and
excitement when it was installed, then had played on it only twice.
"I wish I had that money back," she thought, "and I
could send it to those Russian orphans."
Terry didnt sleep well that night, but as the morning came and
the daily routine flew by, she still had not mentioned the news story to her husband, Tom.
As she finished with lunch the feelings grew stronger and stronger. "Ive got to
Ive got to do something."
Finally she picked up the phone and called KING-TV in downtown
Seattle, the channel she had been watching when the "orphan story" had come on.
"That was a national news story, maam," said the
news room. "Youll have to call the NBC offices in New York
youll hold, Ill give you that number." She quickly jotted down the number
and dialed again.
"Dana Lewis, please," Terry said when someone in the big,
New York newsroom answered.
"Just a moment, Ill transfer you," was the reply.
Tuszynski looked at her watch wondering what time it was in New York
and if she would still catch the busy, high-profile correspondent in his office that was
probably somewhere down the hall from the newsroom. She heard the connection ring
a groggy voice answered, "Hello, Dana Lewis speaking." Tuszynski had no way of
knowing that Lewis office wasnt in New York at all, but rather, in Moscow,
Russia, where he was NBCs network field correspondent.
Quickly Terry introduced herself and explained how deeply she had
been touched by his news story about the Russian orphans and, she added, I really want
to do something to help those children. As she held her breath waiting for the
half-expected brush-off from an international news correspondent, she was completely
surprised by his response.
"Im so glad that you enjoyed the story," Lewis
answered, 7,500 miles away, "and Id like to help you. But
paused (here comes the brush off, Tuszynski thought)
its 2 a.m. here in
Moscow and you woke me up . If you wouldnt mind calling me back when I get to the
office, Id be glad to help." Confused and a little stunned that her phone call
had been transfered to Moscow!, she had her pen ready and wrote down the number.
Later that Seattle night she called Lewis back in his Moscow office
where, in Russia, it had become mid-morning the following day. He began to give her names,
phone numbers and contacts that would later become vital to the success of her, as yet
"NBC has been so incredibly helpful in so many ways, "
Terri explains. "There are some really tremendous people there. We never would have
been able to even find the orphanage, let alone gain access, without (their help)."
Terry began to brainstorm with her husband, Tom, a thoracic
surgeon, about what they could do to help those children nearly 8,000 miles away who
needed food and shoes for the Russian winter that was already setting in. Through
conversations with Lewis in Moscow and the Russian Red Cross, they decided there was only
one way to ensure that their donations would get to the orphanage and into the tummies and
onto the feet of the orphans. Giving themselves about six short weeks to make all the
necessary preparations, Terry would travel to the Russian orphanage in person and do
everything possible to help.
But Tuszynski had other challenges that would complicate her
It now strikes one in every eight women in America and somehow
breast cancer had found its way into her body. Terry was still in the process of
recovering from a recent stem cell transplant and surgery. After a week of thinking,
initial planning, and considering her own state of recovery,Tuszynski came to a difficult
conclusion: she was not yet healthy enough to make the trip even though the Russian
orphans needed help now.
She shared her feelings with husband Tom, who paused for a moment
and asked, "Do you want me to go?" She answered, "Yes," not
knowing for sure what her husband would say. When he responded, "Then, I will!"
plans began in earnest.
Tom would have to take time away from his busy Seattle medical
practice and as he did so, his colleagues were curious about his spur-of-the-moment trip
in the middle of winter to an orphanage so far north and so very far away. One day as he
stepped into his office he noticed an envelope on his desk and, as he opened it, he saw a
stack of green bills. He hadnt asked for any contributions from the staff but, day
after day, more and more envelopes appeared on his office desk. By the time he was ready
to leave for Russia, Dr. Tom Tuszynskis friends and co-workers had, without so much
as being asked, added $8,000 to the Russian Orphan fund. Along with their own contribution
they now had $12,000 to make a dent in the Russian winter for 53 Russian children.
|"When we first arrived
it was hard to tell the boys from the girls, because many had their hair cut very short
because of lice." This is Sergei, age 10.
In January, 1999 Tom along with Cyndy Sullivan, Terrys
sister and an award-winning photojournalist, flew to Moscow and, accompanied by an
English-speaking Russian driver who frequently worked for NBC News, made the dirt road
drive 250 miles northeast to the orphanage that only a few weeks before had appeared on
Terrys television. What they found stunned them and changed their lives forever.
The most basic needs of the orphanage were so huge as to be nearly
overwhelming: a crumbling, 100 year old building that had been inherited from the Russian
army; almost no food, none of it fresh; no coal for an antiquated, broken down coal
furnace; virtually no hot water; old beds with huge holes in the bottoms covered with
rotting, bug-infested mattresses and bedding; no food refrigeration; and a decrepit
electric stove that shocked Lubov, the orphanages cook, each time she touched a pan
to it. Orphanage staff members were bringing food from their own meager tables to help
feed the children, although the staff members themselves had not received any pay from the
Russian government in years
surviving themselves on food from their simple gardens
|The beds were falling apart
and were replaced along with the mattresses and bedding.
Fortunately, the American dollar stretches a long way in the
poor Russian economy. In a matter of days Tuszynski returned from the nearest town with 60
new mattresses and comforters. He brought fresh vegetables and the first bananas that the
children had ever seen. Coal was delivered and the furnace coaxed into working order.
Shoes and other vital items of clothing arrived for children that hadnt seen new
clothing in years
and for others who had perhaps never worn new clothes. Rice,
potatoes, flour, and sugar filled the storeroom--enough to see them through the long
Russian winter. Tuszynski had brought some items from the U.S. that he could not find
locally including good vitamins, band-aids, and the childrens favorite, Reeses
Peanut Butter Cups.
|Within a day or
two of arriving Tom went to town and bought 60 mattresses for $8 a piece, plus new
blankets, comforters, and fresh food.
And toys! When Terry Tuszynski first saw the Russian children
on TV, they had been playing with their one and only toy, a battered volleyball being used
as a soccer ball, a large hole torn in the leather cover and the rubber air bladder poking
out. Tom brought that ball back to Seattle with him with the childrens names signed
and covering its worn out cover
a compelling reminder of what had been a very bleak
existence for 53 children and of a new promise to make things better. If the Tuszynskis
had anything to do with it, the Russian orphans future looked brighter indeed.
Cyndy Sullivans remarkable eye and photographic skill
collected unforgettable and amazing image after image that would serve both as a means to
measure future improvements and also capture the hearts of the Seattle Times and its
readers. When Cyndy returned she contacted the Times, the areas biggest newspaper,
and shared the photographs that vividly told this story of both incredible needs and
incredible generosity. In October of 1999 the striking photograph of a young Russian
orphan on the front page of the Times appeared shortly before Terry would join Tom on a
second trip to the orphanage. That photograph and the accompanying story and photos opened
up the hearts of people in the Seattle area and contributions for the orphan children
began to grow. KING-TV, Seattles NBC affiliate, picked up the story that soon became
a national news story when NBC sent a TV crew along with the Tuszynskis to document their
return trip to the orphanage. In October of 1999 they started the Foundation for Russian
|The children had a hard time
peeling the bananas because they had never seen one before, but they loved the taste. This
is Maxim(behind), and Natasha, (foreground).
The Tuszynskis have now taken four trips to visit and care for
the Russian orphans, the most recent in September of 2000. On two of their four visits,
they were able to pay each orphanage staff member $50 dollars - an amount approximately
equal to what many of them would normally earn in a year. Tom and Terry always have and
will continue to pay for all the costs of their own travel, food, and accommodations
ensuring that every cent donated to the orphanage goes directly to the orphanage--to the
lives of the children and the maintenance and repair of the building.
And there is still much to do.
This orphanage serves children from age 5 - 17. When they
reach their 18th birthday, they are essentially given the clothes on their
back, a sack lunch, and sent out into the world in order to make room for the continuing
influx of young children. With little or no vocational skills, virtually no experience
dealing with the world outside the orphanage, and no support system, few are able to
survive for very long before succumbing to some combination of alcoholism, prostitution,
violence and crime, prison, and for far too many, an young, tragic death.
"Something has to be done to change this," Terry declares,
and as you might suspect, she and Tom have some exciting ideas and plans to make changes
But helping to make these kinds of wonderful, powerful changes in
the lives of the Russian orphans does not come immediately or without cost. If you would
like to join Terry and Tom Tuszynski in making a difference in the lives of these kids,
they need and welcome your help and support. Churches, neighborhoods, classrooms, and
families, as well as individuals have all made important contributions. The volume of
email they have received has become more than they can handle, so you can snail mail your
much needed donation and/or contact the Tuszynskis at:
Foundation for Russian Orphans
4128 1/2 California Avenue, #101
Seattle, WA 98116
* We encourage you to visit the Foundation for
Russian Orphans website at: http://www.RussianOrphans.org
Author's PostScript: Terry Tuszynski sat at my kitchen table
and we talked for two hours on November 10, 2000 --exactly 2 years to the day after
she had first watched Dana Lewis news story about the Russian orphans. The table was
covered with dozens of photographs and a worn out volleyball with names written all over
it and my head was swimming with all that we had talked about. From the evening a year ago
when I first saw Terry on the news to this very moment, I knew without a doubt that
this was an incredible woman who had reached from the depths her heart to accomplish truly
life-changing things for those children. I had spent nearly the entire year trying to
figure out how to find her in order to write this story. Now the interview was
but what did it all mean?
As she gathered up her pictures and put on her coat to leave,
I asked Terry, "If our readers come away with just one thing from reading this
one message that really hangs on
what would you like that to be?"
She paused thoughtfully for a moment and then answered, "If you
have something to do that at first seems impossible, but you feel it deeply enough, you can
get it done. Make a plan, pick up the phone, get started. I saw a story on national TV
about children who needed help on a different continent. At the time, I didnt know
for sure how, but I knew I had to do something. Even if you are just one or
two people, you can make a difference!"
Mark Reiman is the co-founder and
editor-in-chief of Incredible People. He welcomes your comments and feedback email at: mark@IncrediblePeople.com