Santa Clara University

Embracing Differences

An SCU student spends a summer helping children in Moscow orphanages

SCU senior Aaron Uchikura knew he could only do so much for the Russian youngsters with whom he interacted in Moscow orphanages. So he did as much as he could. From fixing fences outside the facilities to bouncing kids on his knee to re-filling sand boxes, every little bit helped.

At one orphanage, there were only 10 caregivers for more than 100 children. “It was hard to witness,” Aaron says. “We all need affection.”

Thanks in part to a Jean Donovan Summer Fellowship, Aaron worked in Moscow orphanages during the summer after his freshman year. The SCU fellowship, funded through a Jesuit endowment and administered through SCU’s Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Center for Community-Based Learning, awards grants of up to $1,000 to students who want to deepen their understanding of social justice through a summer community-based learning experience. Aaron chose to go to Moscow because he knew help was needed there: Aaron’s mother had volunteered in the orphanages while her husband was on assignment in Russia for Chevron/Texaco.

An SCU fellowship enabled Aaron Uchikura to work with Russian orphans who basked in his attention

Most children in the facilities Aaron visited were younger than 8, though some were in their teens. Many were abandoned because of their mental or physical disabilities. “Most kids in the United States have access to some sort of help,” says Aaron. “In Russia, the disabled are usually put in orphanages and then on the street at age 18. The marginalized become more marginalized.”

While he had visited an orphanage before, Aaron says it was intimidating at first trying to interact with people he couldn’t verbally communicate with. “I wanted to not be afraid,” he says. “No one should be afraid to love someone or help them out.” 

Initially the children were scared to engage with but they eventually played with him. Aaron recalls one shy young boy who, after a couple hours of playing, “ran after us screaming and crying. Leaving was one of the most challenging things I did. A lot of the kids just wanted some interaction.”

Many of the children in orphanages tried their best to appeal to the visitors by smiling, hoping that they would get considered for adoption. “A lot of the kids tried to prove themselves to us. It was sort of like ‘pick me, pick me!’” Aaron explains. It was frustrating knowing that at this point in my life, I can’t financially do that for one of them.”

In the end, says Aaron, “it was tough to leave. I’d tell myself ‘you can only do so much.’”

Traveling to Russia taught Aaron about “acceptance of life outside my world in California and the United States,” he says. “I learned to be open and not judgmental.”

And he says he has a better understanding that everyone he meets comes from a different culture or has a special story to tell. “The ultimate lesson is that I’m more sensitive to the fact that we’re all different,” he explains. “And that we should embrace those differences.”

“I didn’t realize I’d have an opportunity to do something of this magnitude in college,” Aaron says. “When people return from one of these experiences they bring a whole new life back to campus. These experiences can open people’s minds and give them a chance to step out of their shell and try something new.”

—Adam Breen is editor of Santa Clara Magazine.
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