When neighborhood resident Kathleen Morris first went to in 1998 as part of a speech and language conference, she toured some orphanages and was heartbroken at what she saw.


          “They’re so crowded and understaffed, and the facilities are so poor,” she says. “You’ll have two caregivers and 40-50 children in each room, and you’ll have 40-50 cribs lined up side by side. Here in the , cribs will have a mobile, bumper guards, play centers. These cribs had nothing, and they’re in a room with poor lighting. They [the caregivers] even apologize for the stench and smell, because they don’t have enough people and they can’t change them in the night. They sit in wet, dirty diapers all night.”


Morris, who owns Lakewood Pediatric Therapy, a speech, physical and occupational therapies clinic, is known as a specialist in the field of sensory integration dysfunction and therapy. This means she helps people, mostly children, who have trouble processing everyday occurrences.


          “It’s when the body takes in information through the senses, but doesn’t know how to use some of that information,” she says. “And that affects balance, coordination, visual perception, motor skills.”


          In the , Morris says, increasingly inactive lifestyles and the advent of computer technology have made sensory integration therapy more and more necessary. But in Russian and Romanian orphanages, she says, the effects are “pronounced” because of the poor conditions.


 “Babies aren’t rocked, sung to or talked to, so they don’t get that one-on-one attention,” she says. “There are a lot of little empty eyes. There’s just nothing there.”


But Morris is quick to add that the fault doesn’t lie with the orphanages’ employees.


“I just fell in love with the caregivers. These people work for very little pay, and when the pay runs out, and they can’t afford to give them any money, they still show up every day,” she says. “That really had an impact on me, that they love their children that much.”


So, when Morris returned to Russia and a town in Romania, Targu Mures, in May of last year, she was determined to help both the orphans and their caregivers. She visited seven or eight orphanages, and taught the staff some basic things they could do to improve the children’s lives, starting with getting the babies out of their cribs and getting the older children outdoors as much as possible.


She also helped them set up motor labs, which she says is done “in the roughest sense of the term.”


“It means utilizing whatever they have available,” she says. “The purpose is to improve gross motor skills and get the children moving, instead of just sitting or walking around aimlessly.”


Morris found different pieces of equipment that were under-utilized.


“At one particular orphanage I found a beautiful, very expensive ball pool sent over by an English family who had adopted two children,” she says. “The problem was they had put it in the ‘baby house’ down the hill, where it was not available to children who could use it. So I had them move it up to the older children’s area.”


She also found an old, abandoned trampoline in “a dark hall” and another beautiful piece of multi-level equipment in another corner of the building.


“When I asked how they used it, they said when they bring the children in the room they just sit on the floor next to it and often cry.”


The problem, Morris says, is the children are so desensitized, they often don’t even know how to play. She moved the three pieces of equipment into one area and showed the children how to move through it.


“It worked beautifully,” she says. “Not only did the children love it, but the caregivers had something new and interesting to do with a purpose.”


In March and April, Morris returned to Russia with her daughter, a recent graduate of Lake Highlands High School, to visit eight orphanages and a children’s hospital in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. While there, she spoke at a conference on “Innovative Intervention for Abandoned and Orphaned Children,” sponsored by Buckner International and the Russian Ministry of Education, and attended a gala event that will include the attendance of 150 children from area orphanages and former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. She hopes the events will raise awareness of problems in the orphanages and improve conditions for the children there.


She pays for the trips, which typically cost between $3,000-$3,500, out of her own pocket. The money, she says, is well spent.


“They [the orphans] run up, and you have one child on each of your digits, 10 kids on each of your fingers,” she says of arriving at the orphanages. “You’re something new. Your clothes are more colorful, and you’re just different. And when you leave, they just cry. The caregivers have to peel them off of you.”


Though she admits the experiences are “extremely difficult emotionally,” she doesn’t envision a time when she’ll stop going.


“It’s wonderful. I believe this is where the Lord wanted me,” she says. “I think it’s a personal calling.”


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