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From Russia with questions: Group touring Bemidji to learn more about social services in America

Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Six Russian visitors, part of the Open World Leadership Center program, are in Bemidji this week observing a variety of social services facilities. One of their stops on Monday was at the Village of Hope, a homeless shelter for families. Pictured above, Village of Hope executive director Sandy Hennum, center, describes the shelter to Anna Vladimirovna Silayeva, left, and Svetlana Aleksandrovna Mareva.

BEMIDJI — Homelessness here in America is the same as homelessness in Russia.

“Poverty and the homelessness problems are all the same,” said Yekaterina Sergeyevna Tolstoles, speaking through a translator. “They are just as topical (in Russia) as they are here.”

Tolstoles is a member of a Russian delegation spending time in Bemidji this week through the Open World Leadership Center. This year, the Russian delegation consists of six social services professionals, some who are faculty members at Siberian Medical University in Tomsk, Siberia, and others who work with other facets of Russian social services.

They arrived Friday and spent time this past weekend with their host families before beginning their professional development on Monday, when they addressed the Bemidji Rotary Club and toured the Village of Hope, where they met and discussed homelessness with executive director Sandy Hennum.

Following the tour and conversation, Tolstoles said the group has taken notice of the role of that non-governmental organizations play in serving those in need.

“What we see here, (based on) first impressions, is the role of NGOs,” she said. “(It’s) not just government sources and funding, but some form of sponsor help.”

In Russia, they said, there are three types of shelters: those that serve individuals who live on the streets, those that serve women fleeing domestic abuse and those that serve families.

“But there is more financial target aid for families and it’s done on the governmental side,” said Tolstoles and Yevgeniya Alekseyevna Paramonova, speaking as their Russian facilitator, Yaroslav Anatolyevich Pisarev, translated on their behalf.

Charity also is not widespread in Russia, they noted.

The goal of their Bemidji experience, they said, is not just to learn the American way of delivering social services, but to identify methods that could perhaps be duplicated in their country.

“We’d like to apply this experience in our settings, under our laws,” Tolstoles said.

“I hope that we manage to find a project … which will be successful on the level of our (own) entities, our (individual) enterprises, so that later it could be copied on a larger scale in Russia,” said Anna Vladimirovna Silayeva.

The delegation will be in Bemidji through Saturday, staying with host families during the evenings and spending their days embarking on professional development and experiences.

“(Our host families) are doing everything possible to make our stay a comfortable one and we’re really grateful to them for all their efforts,” Paramonova said, echoing similar sentiments from her peers.

The remainder of their trip includes tours of an assisted-care facility and discussion on eldercare services and discussions on financial options to support community services and youth and family services, and more.

But most of them agreed that what they are most looking forward to is the forthcoming interaction and discussion with students and faculty at Bemidji State University.

“Most of us are working with these categories of people so we would very much like to meet these people,” said Svetlana Aleksandrovna Mareva.

“I’m interested in meeting both the students and the social services providers,” Paramonova said, “because these two aspects is what I’m doing back home.”