Thursday, March 20, 2008

Russian Affair, Part 14

(Diana Kanciene and two of her daughters)

Even before my "breakup" with Russia, I admit to "seeing" other countries on the side. My work for the newspaper and also as a volunteer for Books for the World took me to other places in the former Soviet Bloc. In Ukraine and Poland and Lithuania, I met people every bit as warm and hospitable as the Russians. I could go on for many more chapters telling their personal stories, but all tales need to come to a conclusion.
I need to tell you about Diana, however. We hear so much about greedy oligarchs, Kremlin bullies, criminals, xenophobes and communist backsliders in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, and so rarely hear about the good and the unselfish.

You'd think with six children of her own, Diana Kanciene would have enough to do at home. But she and her husband, who have two other adopted children, are raising a village. Diana operates Arteities Vardan (For the Future), a community organization dedicated to improving family life and the welfare of children in Obelei, Lithuania, an impoverished town racked by alcoholism, where the unemployment rate is typically 60 percent. The heart of the organization is a safe house for abused and neglected kids. At any given time, between 20 and 24 kids come to the house for meals or to spend the night, whenever necessary, to do their homework after school, or to participate in games and other activities impossible for them in their own homes.

Diana's thin and frail appearance is deceiving; she is a woman of great strength and energy. A devout Catholic, she is as much concerned with children's spiritual health as she is with their physical safety.

Even while she strives to rescue kids from the dangerous environment of their homes, she also has launched innovative programs to form better relationships between parents and their children: a sewing club for mothers and their daughters; a workshop where fathers can teach their sons things like carpentry and bicycle repair.

Diana is tireless and is bothersome to many villagers. Still, her boundless love of kids has won her respect and a nickname: Saint Diana. It's a name that causes this shy and diminutive woman to blush with embarrassment. She likes to give credit to the teenagers and young adults that have come up through Arteities Vardan and now volunteer their time with the younger kids. They'll grow up to be good parents, and that's a future worth working for, she says.

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