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If to compare him today and then – it’s as different as day and night

By Mykola Sukhomlyn

The story of the family of Mandziy is an example of that how a family environment can change a child and what difficulties a foster family encounters. The EU and UNICEF joint project aims to transform the boarding house system of state care for children, who are left without their family support, into such a system that ensures their upbringing in a caring family environment.

Foster parents Magdalyna and Serhiy Mandziy, who live in Khmelnitsky, already had three children of their own by that time when in 2006 ( when their youngest son was six years old) they took one more boy for upbringing — Oleksandr Kozlovsky, and later they took another one — Oleksandr Vlasyshyn. This is how three small Oleksandrs appeared in their family.

“How do you distinguish them: Oleksandr the first, Oleksandr the second?” I asked Magdalyna Gavrylivna.

“I told them so: you are Sashka; you are Sashko, and you are Sasha. But they keep forgetting. I say: “Sasha!”, and all the three run to me. “Whom did you call?” they ask.  I say: “You are the one.” Sashko Kozlovsky is very much liked by his teacher; she often says that he is “Kozlyunka” – it is almost his last name (a flattering diminutive of Kozlovsky, while the word “Kozlovsky” originates from a word “kozel” which means “a goat” – translator’s notes). But he gets offended. He says, “Mum, let me be not Kozlovsky, but rather like you – Mandziy. We will agree with you that you delivered me.”

While I made myself cosy, Magdalyna Gavrylivna gave instructions to one of Sashkos that he needed to start fastening his shirt buttons from above, so it would be convenient to fasten them right to the bottom. Having a sleepy face, the boy diligently tried to understand and remember his mother’s advice. His father, Serhiy Petrovych, joined the process. He helped the boys to put on their trousers. Calmly, without pushing anyone and without extra words the mother and the father substituted each other in their roles.

“Do you plan to adopt them?” I asked the father.

“They are registered in a database for adoption in Kyiv. If people came right now to take them for adoption, they both can be taken to any family since they are well prepared and adapted for everything. These children are like our own children. It’s true though that Sashko Kozlovsky already doesn’t have anything of his own — we registered him for our housing space since I doubt that once he reaches his lawful age, the state will provide him with housing. When he turns 18 years, we of course won’t let him go by himself in the world and tell him: this is it, go anywhere you want to.”

“Would you give him away with ease?” I asked Magdalyna Gavrylivna.

“No, we wouldn’t”, answered the two parents almost with one voice, “for us, they are our own children. And we also think that fosterers from their boarding house wouldn’t give their consent too. So much has already been given to the children. This is not a toy after all – “I took it and gave it back”. I understand that for the state, we are a preparatory stage and that we prepare children; but I can’t imagine that one can just like that transfer children from one family to another. This is a psychological trauma, first of all, for us.”

“Some parents think that if they take a child, she or he will do what they want her or him to. Such things don’t happen”, said Serhiy Petrovych. “Because a child from a boarding school comes to a family with her or his own past and with certain genetic ‘load’… We passed trainings, but theory and practice are different from each other in many respects. Despite that we are pedagogues ourselves, we were nevertheless shocked, when we started to communicate with Sashkos. We had to refer to psychologists for assistance. While it seemed that we had a considerable family experience and we already had our own children of older age, yet there were situations when we were confused. But that was at the very beginning.”

“What was the most difficult thing to overcome?” I asked Mrs. Magdalyna.

“You know”, said she and somewhat pondered, “they did not call me “mother” right away. But a child from a boarding school can call any woman “a mother” in the process of communication. However, they still don’t put that meaning into the word “mother”, which one’s own child does.  For them, any woman is a mother and any man is a father. Such phrases as “mother Tanya” or “mother Olya” often drop from their lips when they are in children’s homes. But now they gradually put a more kindred meaning into these words.”

“Do they realize that they had biological mothers?”

“We never concealed this because we knew that we wouldn’t evade this question: “Why did my mother leave me, but you didn’t leave your children?” We explain that possibly it was difficult for his mother. They distinguish physical and psychological ‘difficulties’. Actually, they see that having five men in the house is, first of all, difficult for the mother in terms of physical aspects. It was really hard to explain them why some parents act so in regard to their children and at the same time not to offend their parents. One can’t tell a child that her or his mother and father are bad because they left her or him alone with their own fate. In fact, we don’t know what circumstances forced their parents to take this very path…I know that Sasha Kozlovsky’s mother finished secondary school with a gold medal (honours), but what happened then…”

“How did the idea to take a first child originate?”

“I grew up in a family with many children in Zakarpattia region,” said Magdalyna Gavrylivna.  “My family always had many children…Even though this was my initiative, it would have been worthless without the support of my husband and my own children. We suspected that it was a very hard work. Also our parents supported us. There is no such a division: this is our grandson and this one is not. If other people support you and they don’t look for some pitfalls here and for reasons that suggest there is some gain in this purpose  — for the sake of money, an apartment, a car etc. — then it is easier. Thank God, five years have passed and we, as before, live in our apartment. 

We live at the expense of only our own funds. We don’t have sponsors. We are like an ordinary family.”

Serhiy Mandziy has a very big experience as a football referee. At some point in the past he twice became the youth football champion of Ukraine. Of course, that happened when he used to play the sport. Later he switched to refereeing. As of today, he has already worked for more than 15 years as a referee in football matches of the Youth Football Championship of Ukraine. Two years ago he got involved in hockey.

“What was your reaction to your wife’s initiative?” I asked Serhiy Petrovych.

“Our older boys were learning at one school at that time and there was a children’s home near their school. When we walked by the children’s home, we always looked at those children. From time to time we brought them biscuits and sweets, and the idea itself originated spontaneously. There was a psychologist in our school and he said that there were some courses and he was giving lectures for parents at these courses. After finishing those courses we received a certificate and then the process took off: we contacted a corresponding state service and they started to look for a child for us. And we referred to a children’s home.”

“Were you looking for a child according to special criteria?”

“Yes, because parents of such a child had to be deprived of their parental rights, that is, such a child had to have an orphan status. In terms of age, a child could be younger or older. At that time two boys came our way: Sasha Kozlovsky and one more boy who was younger than him. The older boy attracted more of our attention. And we started to work with him: for about two months we used to come to him and establish contact with him. Since if a child is not willing to establish contact, then there is no sense to take this child and work with her or him and bring her or him up…”

“What was the most difficult thing for you?” I continued to ask further.

“I don’t want to offend anyone at children’s homes and boarding schools, but children stay there within a certain limited territory and they can’t go anywhere; they have to walk only in groups of 10-15 persons. The surrounding space opened up for Sashkos in our family. If you plant any plant and then contain it within some limited space, it will become thin and deformed. This was a different world for Sashko. We used to take him shopping with us; he rode with us in our car to many places. Within a very short period of time he saw very many things. This overwhelmed him. So, it was somewhat difficult for him. He used to get overtired. When we took him for upbringing, we were shocked. He walked like a kid who had rickets: his stomach bulged forward and his hands were stretched too far to different sides. And we constantly told him: “Straighten up, stand normally.” And he straightened up gradually. Our son Zhenya was involved in dancing and we decided that our first foster child, Sashko, would attend those dance classes too. It was all the more so because he needed physical activity. It appeared that he had a wonderful ear for music and he moved dexterously… If to compare him today and then – it’s as different as day and night. Everyone gets surprised how such changes could happen within such a short period of time.”
“What did your neighbours and acquaintances say about your initiative?”

“There were different opinions. For example, we were told the following at the children’s home:  Oh, they take the children in order to get an apartment, a car, and other things. Usually, I am not too soft with those people who say so. So, I responded quickly: Why don’t you take a child? Housing will be given to you too. Take a child; no one is preventing you from that. However, in fact they had nothing to say, except for those words. Some other people were more moderate in their opinions and some people expressed some scepticism. However, later all negative opinions disappeared and, on the contrary, my neighbours have been saying lately: “These people are great; they give children proper attention.” Our children don’t misbehave. Of course, there were problems too. But there were no serious ones.”

“How do you manage to combine upbringing with your work?”

“Even those funds, which the state provides for them (about one thousand hryvnia per month), are peanuts. Moreover, our boys are involved in dancing and they constantly travel around due to this activity. Both meals and transportation expenses are covered by us, Magdalyna and me. And you understand yourself that a pedagogue doesn’t have such a big salary. Additionally, I have my refereeing. We are constantly in a whirl in order to make some additional funds. We were impacted by the crisis since food products became significantly more expensive.”

“How did you make up your mind to take the second child?”

“Once Magda told me, “Maybe let’s take one more child?” Employees of the state service said that we couldn’t take a girl because we had a men’s ‘group’ and a girl needed separate space. We found Sashko at the very same children’s home. People there already knew us. And this time there were no insults. He also started to establish contact with us very quickly. This was two years ago. He is a smart boy, but he has problems with speech – he confuses letters. We were explained that when they took Sashko from his family, he did not speak for about half a year at all. This seriously impacted his condition and development.”

“We have a normal family, where we have our own principles”, added Magdalyna Gavrylivna. “Our children always adhere to family requirements. First of all, we taught our own children too that they should never deceive anyone. If a child does something like that, it is better for him to come and say that such a thing happened. Secondly, one shouldn’t offend anyone. In our family, you will never hear a dirty word. If there are some issues, then one can sit down and calmly resolve them simply by talking things over. Of course, there are cases when our children put us out of temper, but that is rare. Thirdly, we teach them to handle money in an honest way. Some money always lies on some place in sight. And they never disappear. Someone needs money? Then he can come up and ask us: may I take it for this or that thing? We often send them shopping by themselves; we teach them so that they would be able to use money and understand, for what purposes they exist. Because once they grow up, we will not go with them all the time and pay for them… We teach them, so they would know what food products, for example, they need to buy and where and why to look for their expiry date; so they would know taste differences of products etc. and they would think what things they need to buy and what not. Now they know that besides one’s wish there is also a necessity. It is necessary to teach children to live according to the standard of living of their family. It is necessary to control one’s financial expenses and not to buy a toy for 500 or more hryvnias and then be left without any money…”

“Do the children have access to a computer, Internet?” I asked the parents.

“We were not able to buy a computer right away,” answered Magdalyna Gavrylivna. “But that was because of the funds. Together with a computer we also bought a printer and other office equipment, necessary for work. We arranged an Internet connection. They develop, play games and master useful computer programs. There is even a struggle for the equipment sometimes: there are three of them and sometimes we ourselves need to work on the computer.”

“Are you satisfied with your ‘work’?”

“We have managed to achieve certain success. Now, when I compare, I look at these children and notice a very big difference in their external look alone: in their clothes, behaviour, and manner of walking. These differences strike one’s eye. Sashko Vlasyshyn takes more interest in mathematics. Sashko Kozlovsky takes less interest in it. It was difficult for him to learn from the first grade since he wasn’t given sufficient preparation in terms of education. But now, if compared with those children who learn with him in the same grade, he has grades that are somewhat higher that the average ones.”

The “trio of Sashkos” dances in the same group — in the dance ensemble of Khmelnitsky School # 24. They already went abroad – to Bulgaria and Belarus – and they travelled around the cities of Ukraine. They recently returned from Dnipropetrovsk. They bring honorary certificates of merit and statuettes from each dance contest. Dancing did well to them. Dancing is also a sport that requires great physical activity. Thanks to local bodies of the state authority, every summer the children go free of charge to a recreation resort, in order to relax, gain strength and get new impressions.

“What would you advise those people who have decided to take a child into their family now?” I asked Serhiy and Magdalyna.

“It is necessary for them to have not only their desire, but responsibility too”, they said. “Working with children is the most difficult profession. This is not a physical work: once you have done it, you will instantly see the concrete result. Therefore, before making such a decision, consider all “pros” and “cons”.”



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