By Guest Blogger Stefanee, a traveler on our November 2010 Moscow Lighthouse Project Trip
It just so happens that I arrived back home from Russia the week before Thanksgiving. It seems the perfect time to relay this story, which describes not only the highlight of my trip with the Lighthouse Project, but a moment I’ll remember all my life. I find myself reliving that moment in my memory time and again, smiling to myself, so grateful that I decided to make the trip, so thankful to have witnessed what I did.
Having been a wallflower so many times in my own childhood, I noticed him on the sidelines and tried to pay him particular attention. I motioned that I would like to photograph him (since my Russian language skills are presently primitive), and he obliged, but his discomfort became apparent as he offered a half-grin and quickly turned away as soon as the photo was taken.
Later, our group headed toward the Metro, which was packed so tightly with people that my sense of protectiveness became heightened. Some of the older kids were holding hands with each other, using a buddy system, but I saw that Andrei was without a partner. I approached him and offered my hand, and he took it out of politeness, but I could sense he felt a bit awkward; as soon as the group would stop moving he’d let go of my hand and look toward the ceiling. However, I continued to offer my hand, and he continued to accept it.
By “Day Three” in the Metro, it was Andrei who held out his hand to me. His smiles had become spontaneous – no coaxing required. He initiated interaction, joined in on games and activities, and began asking how to pronounce different words in English. As our group walked back to the hostel one night, he pointed to various objects along the street and learned how to say “fence,” “car,” “crane,” “street,” “door,” “coat,” “hat,” and a few others. The next night we walked down the same street and I was surprised to hear him recite all the words but one correctly, even “fence,” which the night before seemed the most difficult to remember. I, on the other hand, only remembered one!
The day we were meant to give gifts to the children, I wondered if I’d see Andrei truly light up – if I’d get a glimpse of him without that shadow of hesitation that, although fading, was still present. As he looked into his bag of offerings, he was pleasant and content, trying on his new sunglasses and sampling a piece of candy. He was pleased but mild-mannered as usual. I looked around the room, videotaping each child. When I looked again where Andrei had been sitting, his chair was empty. I inquired after him and was told he’d gone to his room to look at the rest of his gifts.
After an evening at the Nikulin Circus, we again made our way through the Metro. I held on to little Nikita with my right hand, and held Andrei’s hand with my left. We were walking quickly and I was determined to keep up with the group despite the fact we kept stopping briefly to manage little details like coat zippers needing to be undone. We heard a trumpeter inside the tunnel and as we approached, I let go of Andrei’s hand to reach into my pocket for spare change. Earlier that day, I had emptied my coat pockets of coins so various kids could make wishes with them, and had forgotten until that moment. Andrei understood my intent, but I motioned to him that I had nothing at the ready and we needed to keep going in order to not get too far behind the group. He smiled sweetly and we carried on.
A few minutes later we could hear a violinist in the distance, so this time I reached inside my coat and wrestled a small bill from my travel pouch. I put it into Andrei’s hand and motioned that he should offer it to the musician up ahead, but to wait until we got nearer. He pointed to himself, and then made a fiddling motion and pointed in the direction of the music. I nodded, and then noticed how happy and eager he was to do this.
The violinist was further ahead than I realized, and as the moments passed, Andrei kept trying to get her in his view – he was like a racehorse in the starting gate, waiting for the pop of the starter pistol. Finally I could see her, and gave Andrei the go-ahead to make his offering. He almost ran to her, mindful of the fact he had to do this quickly and get right back to me. He stood in front of her for a few moments, listening and appreciating her abundant talent, and then he looked over his shoulder and saw me nearing him again. His smile was, at last, completely uncontrolled, and my eyes began to well up at the beauty of it.
He put the bill in her violin case, and I saw him say to the violinist, “Spaciba” most genuinely. Did he understand her need to have earned it? Did he know that by thanking her, it may dignify her? Our language barrier kept me from asking, but it was not a moment for words, for as he pivoted to return to me, his smile spanned the full width of his face. He was almost literally beaming. He walked with such buoyancy and was so excited, it nearly took my breath away. I have never, never, seen a kid as happy as this child that stood before me. He grabbed my hand with so much gusto I turned to see if it was the same child I’d had to encourage to look toward the camera just two days before. His eyes were sparkling with joy and gratitude, the latter of which took me by surprise; but what I saw for the first time in his face was pride. It dawned on me that this may have been the first time he was able to give something to someone. He looked directly at me and said, “Spaciba. Spaciba. Spaciba.” I squeezed his hand and smiled, and as soon as he was looking forward again I began to cry. What a trio we were: Nikita, singing and skipping along like a mini Willy Wonka, Andrei, smiling so big I could see all of his teeth, and I, simultaneously smiling and letting about a gallon of tears soak the top of my turtleneck.
All I could think was, Here is a child who has next to nothing. Yet his joy was not found in the getting, but in the giving.
My heart swells every time I think of it. I am so thankful I was there, in that moment, with Andrei. I love that such an important reminder came to me through the actions of this beautiful boy: Joy is found in giving.
Stefanee enthusiastically traveled with our program earlier this month, and feels the trip changed her life forever. She is an editor, and lives in Minnesota with her husband and three children.