In the beginning of 2016, Maria* knocked at the door of the SOS Family Strengthening Program in the village and quietly said: ‘I am ashamed to ask for help but we won’t survive without you.’ At that time, Maria had a three-year-old son, and was pregnant with her second child. ‘We have been a happy family for eight years. But everything has now changed. Maxim*, my husband lost his job and we can hardly make ends meet. I have tried to find a job but have gotten turned down everywhere because of my pregnancy. Maxim has started drinking a lot and this has made things even worse – we always fight in front of our son. I have been blaming myself for what is happening in my family’. Maria’s family didn’t have money to pay their household bills and to buy food. ‘Social services warned me that if the situation didn’t improve they would take our son away. It broke my heart. Maxim was struggling with alcohol in a rehabilitation center and could not help us. I felt as though I was sinking deeper and deeper into depression… I was all alone … no one cared.’
“Hope is what we needed”
Maria’s story is the story of many families in Kandalaksha who fail to adequately care for their children due to loss of income, difficult life situations or unstable relationships. We offer such families a helping hand through our SOS family strengthening program. First of all, Maria got financial support to pay off her housing debts, to buy food and to cover her son’s kindergarten costs. She then joined the pregnancy support group for young mothers run by SOS. During the whole time with the family strengthening program, Maria and her husband were getting counseling on legal and family issues. ‘It took me a year to recover and get back to normal life … well, all of us really’ – says Maria today. ‘I visited Maxim in the rehabilitation center; he has quit drinking so one day we could go back home together. We don’t quarrel anymore. Maxim goes to work every day and I care for our children. Not long ago, I gave birth to a lovely girl – our daughter. We called her Nadezhda (which means ‘Hope’ in Russian) because that is what we needed so much. We are a happy family again.’
Maria thought about giving up her daughter
I heard Maria’s story a few weeks ago during my first visit to the SOS Family Strengthening Program. I had just gone there to say hello but ended up sitting in Aksana Ivanova’s office – she is the project coordinator. Over a cup of tea we talked about the role of the family strengthening program in the lives of the local community. ‘We started in 2008. At the moment we support more than 50 local families with around 90 children living in them’ – reveals Aksana. ‘Apart from families, we also help care-leavers, unemployed or young parents, single mothers, as well as pregnant women.’
All the people who turn to the family strengthening program are facing some sort of hardships which they cannot handle on their own. ‘If you get sick you need to take a pill to feel better, right? Roughly speaking we do exactly the same in the family strengthening program; here we give a ‘prescription’ for how to deal with a problem BUT unlike medicine it depends largely on a person if ‘the treatment’ will be successful’ – says Aksana. ‘We can’t give you a magic pill that solves all your problems at once but we can give you knowledge, strength and inspiration to cope with the problem yourself.’ Continuing with this analogy, it is really important to timely ‘diagnose’ a problem and ask for help. ‘In a difficult situation people tend to focus on the bad more than on the good. You feel anxious, scared and hopeless. All this can eventually lead to worse consequences’ – says Aksana adding that at some point Maria thought about giving up her daughter right after birth because she was afraid the family couldn’t afford to have another child.
Asking for help can be the hardest step
It may sound easy ‘to come and ask for help’ but in fact this first important step can be the hardest one. Sometimes you need a lot of courage to admit to yourself that something is going wrong in your life. Sometimes it’s not easy to tell someone about your problems. ‘Often, people who come to us just need to talk to somebody and let out their feelings. We do not judge… we do not blame… we just listen.
It’s amazing how just talking to someone outside of the situation you are dealing with may help you to find a solution to the problem.’ In the family strengthening program, a person can get a listening ear and a kind word from people who do care. Then, depending on the situation, trained experts draw up a plan for how to get through a hard time. ‘We believe that everyone has inner resources for dealing with any problem in their life. There is a way out of any situation’ – says Aksana. ‘Through counselling, psychological and legal support and various trainings, we just help a person to identify options they hadn’t thought of before and build up the skills needed to overcome hardship.’
I personally think that difficulties in life even help you. The world we live in focuses on success as good and treats challenges as something bad. But going through hardships can slow you down, and make you evaluate your life, your feelings and the people around you. It can help you keep track of your relationships and dreams. In other words, facing a problem DOESN’T mean you are not coping with a situation. Rather, it helps you come to terms with that situation and move on from it. It is an important stage that can help you adapt, accept, focus, persevere and finally grow into a better person.