Becky Bavinger is a senior at Georgetown University with a strong interest in volunteerism. This summer she took classes at SPGU and held an internship with Doctors of the World.
SRAS: Becky, it’s great to finally sit down with you.
Becky: Great to see you too. Sorry it took me a while to respond to your emails, this is actually my last day in St. Petersburg so I’ve been busy this week finishing up with classes and work.
SRAS: Well, as we understand, you’ve kept very busy all summer. What have you done with your internship?
Becky: The NGO I interned with is called “Doctors of the World;” it’s an American organization that works in several of the former USSR states, such as Romania and Slovakia. I worked in the office doing translating two-three days a week, and in the drop-in-shelter every afternoon. The drop-in-shelter was set up about 3 years ago and provides medical, social, legal, and psychiatric help to homeless and neglected teenagers. I would talk to the kids, average age 12-18, about their lives, about what music they like, just try to keep them happy in conversation. We also would watch movies, play card games or chess, and we actually just got a ping-pong table so now we can play that too. At 5 every day we would serve tea, cookies, sandwiches, and I would bring some fruit or vegetable every day for them. (We also have a shower, washing machine, and hair clippers – so the kids basically use this center as their home.) I also organized a clothing drive at two universities and we were able to get a lot of clothes that actually fit the children. And on the 4th of July I threw a party for America’s Independence Day and made apple pie of course. The organization also has a project called “MAMA+” that monitors HIV-positive mothers and their children in order to prevent transmission during breast-feeding, improper treatment of the child, drug-use, etc. One day I went to one of these client’s homes with 2 American doctors and we interviewed the mother. I also was able to make copies of the press coverage this organization has had over the years, so I will be able to show it to my UNICEF chapter at university.
SRAS: Wow, that’s amazing. It’s sounds like you really went above-and-beyond the call of duty with this. How did you first get involved with activism?
I guess the “activism” side of me stems from knowledge; the more I learn about these topics the more motivated I become to help. Both of my parents are doctors so I have been brought up with in a medical-oriented environment. Perhaps that is why I want to work for a group that brings basic medical treatment to the outcasts of society. However, my family is not like me in the “activism” regard, although they do a lot of incredible charity work (ie my sister volunteers for a free clinic and my brother used to teach CCD classes at our church). They just aren’t into “saving the world” as my brother puts it.
Beyond that, I’ve always loved working with children. When I was younger, I taught CCD classes at my church, babysat, and did programs at my high school such as dance camps for little girls, or tutoring. When I started at Georgetown, I became very active in a lot of different clubs that involved working with children – tutoring, children’s theatre, and Boys & Girls Club. After that, I started working with UNICEF at Georgetown and the national office in DC.
Then, the fall semester of my junior year I studied abroad with a different educational program in St. Petersburg and fell in love with Russia. I had to keep up work with kids, so I volunteered at the orphanage/daycare/afterschool center called “Club Salut.” That work got me more interested in child welfare, child welfare in Russia especially. So when I got back to Georgetown, I continued my work with UNICEF and even started a new group on campus to raise awareness about human trafficking. I am also active with the Georgetown campaign for the Millennium Development Goals (we are hosting a conference this October) as well as Take Back the Night, AIDS Coalition, Students Taking Action Now…Darfur, and Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
SRAS: Interesting, and what was the group you started called?
Becky: The group is SSTOP – Students Stopping Trafficking of People. It’s connected to the global campaign to end human trafficking called “NOW.” You can find more about them at www.endhumantrafficking.org.
SRAS: And what was it like working with the street kids at the shelter? That must have been challenging for your Russian skills!
Becky: My language has definitely improved since living in Russia for a few months. I found it was at first difficult to work in the drop-in-shelter because there was a lot of chaos at times and I was getting addressed by many people, the doctor, nurse, client, etc. Since none of them spoke a word of English, I really had to strain at first to understand what they were saying. And it was especially difficult speaking to the teenage clients because they have absolutely NO tolerance for accents, speak very quickly and slurry themselves, and often speak with a LOT of slang words. But after we got to know each other it became easier to understand what they were saying, or when they were using words I’d rather not know ;)
SRAS: But you must have gained some great insights into Russian social problems. Why are there so many homeless kids in Russia?
Becky: Hmm that is definitely a hard question. A lot of the problem I saw was that the kids I worked with were runaways from terrible households, or were orphans. Their parents are either drug or alcohol addicts, perhaps have HIV/AIDS, and the kids would rather live on the streets than in that type of environment. I think a lot of the problem is alcoholism. Unfortunately, Russians are accustomed to drinking, a lot. Beer is the least expensive drink you can get, either at a restaurant or at a kiosk, less than water or juice even. And beyond that, there is now a huge problem with drugs. There is apparently a new drug – buterbifinol? – that is really cheap and can be purchased at any pharmacy over the counter. Since syringes can also be purchased without a prescription at the pharmacy, it costs a person about $1.50 to get a dose of this narcotic drug and needle.
I think another reason for the problem is lack of jobs. After the collapse of the USSR, many people profited with privatization, but many more suffered. They haven’t quite adjusted to capitalism in my opinion – people don’t save their money (they are used to state socialism taking care of their future) and are used to always having employment from the government. Now that the state does not provide everyone with a job, a house, medical coverage, etc. people are learning the hard way what it means to manage expenses, which a lot of times means they can’t even afford housing. This is just my observation and I don’t mean to imply that Russians are lazy, stupid, and can’t grasp the principles of capitalism. I just think that it was such a shock and a huge change that the state was no longer going to take care of everyone, so there is almost a gap generation where the people are jobless.
SRAS: Looking at these pictures, it seems some of these kids are really bad-off. They are so skinny.
Becky: Yeah, the kids are REALLY skinny – we would refer to all of them as “Khudinka” (skinny girl, or skinny-small-person) and I finally bought some belts to hold up their pants.
SRAS: Ha ha. Well its great that you were able to work so much good in Russia and take classes while doing it. What kind of program did you take?
Becky: I took 12 credit hours a week – I went to the university 3 days a week for half a day. I took a variety of classes, ranging from grammar and phonetics to Russian film and literature. I liked my classes a lot because I was in a group of all international students, so Russian was our common language. Previously I had studied with all Americans, which makes it easier to fall back on English. But in this situation we had to talk Russian all the time.
I also want to mention that the faculty at the university LOVED all of the SRAS kids. I definitely felt that we got special treatment from the administrators – they would organize excursions for us and as soon as one of them found out we were with SRAS they would give us their personal cards, make sure we were getting all the classes we wanted, and just in general would be extremely kind to us.
SRAS: We do have a very good relationship with SPGU. It’s great to hear that you had such a great experience.
Becky: I absolutely loved the program. It gave me a lot of freedom to choose my own class and internship schedule, my home-stay, and the dates. I would strongly recommend the program to anyone interested in improving their language, learning about Russian culture, and making some great friends. I remember emailing Renee SO many times with all of my questions and she was always so patient with me, even when my father called her incessantly about my passport and visa application. I also would like to mention that the woman SRAS has in Petersburg, Svetlana, is very sweet and helpful. She included me on some cultural events, like a concert and tour of the Hermitage.
SRAS: Stop it already, we’re blushing. Ha ha. So how will all of this fit in with your current education at Georgetown?
Becky: I am a rising senior at Georgetown University. When I was a freshman I started taking Russian language courses, and have done so up until now. I am a major in Russian Language and Government, partaking in the Government Honors Program in which I will write a thesis – probably about Russian child welfare. Also, being a government major has allowed me to take many courses in the politics of this part of the world. In my experience, I have learned how important the political structure and level of corruption are in the system of child welfare.
SRAS: And what sort of work do you hope to find?
Becky: I still have one year left at Georgetown and then, with any luck, will find a job working with international childcare in Russia or former USSR states. Eventually, I hope to work for an international NGO or group like UNICEF, USAID concerning child welfare in Russia and Eurasian countries. It will, therefore, be important to have a strong background in the Russian language. I may also apply for the Peace Corps, or perhaps for a job with Doctors of the World. It will depend on job openings I suppose…
Well, although I could go on and on about this organization and the kids they help, I must go finish packing! Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project. I had such a great time, learned so much (not just in terms of improving my language but about Russian culture and life in general).
SRAS: Yes, by all means, do. We wish you all the luck in your future plans. Have a good trip home!