Well, isn't that special?
The airline industry has thrown up a new wall we can no longer negotiate…luggage restrictions. In the “old days”, we could reach mercy at the check-in counter for our overweight luggage. Apparently, those days are gone. In those “old days”, Donna and I checked in eleven bags between the two of us, on one particular trip, with no problems. Chad and Jeremy were right, “But, that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone…”

Not only are they getting tight on enforcement, they have lowered international baggage weight from 70, to 50 lbs. per checked bag, plus…PLUS!!!! Now, they weigh our carry-on. In times past, they did not weigh them. So, we lost 40 lbs. per person in the checked bags, and some in the carry-on. That will pretty much eliminate carrying of ministry supplies in the future. All purchases will have to be made there. Additionally, gift carrying to and from Russia is pretty much history.

Houston Check-In Counter
When we left for the airport, Stephanie had her bags carefully weighed, as did we, thinking we were right on the mark, maybe a tiny bit over, but surely nothing to worry about. As it was, every seat on the plane was sold, making our problem worse.

One thing we have learned over the years is the counter agent is your best friend, or worst enemy. Additionally, the agent next to yours may be the exact opposite. “Close” counts in hand grenades and horseshoes, but not in luggage. Obviously, they won’t let us carry hand grenades, and we really have no use for horseshoes, so it reverts to the luggage. We were 9.3 kg over!

That there bag ain’t gonna fly, unless we wanted to pay $127 for an additional carry-on that would have to be checked as an extra bag. We packed and weighed, repacked and reweighed, right there in front of the counter, but that bag wasn’t going to get any lighter.

The lady finally said, “If you can get it to 8kg (the allowable weight for a carry-on), I will let you check it for free.” Not possible, unless I throw underwear out on the floor. I may leave my camera behind, but I ain’t leaving underwear, not on a three week trip. I told her it simply wasn’t possible. “Then you will have to pay $127.”

In my smilingest face, and sweetest tone (yeah, right), I said, “You mean you actually want $127 for 1.3 kilo? You’ve gotta be kidding me!” As they say, the next person who speaks, loses. She stood there a minute and finally said, “Ok, I’ll let it go this time, but next time, you will have to pay.” Yeah, whatever. Smiling, I mean.

We arrived in Berlin to bitter cold, for Texans, anyway. It was -4 C. (Side note to Chris Colletti: That means it was below freezing.) Lena and Vitaly arrived from Russia 4 hours later.  The mission was off and running.

AKA: Ugly Bag

If you have traveled anywhere internationally, you have seen these bags.  Like cockroaches, they will survive the end of the world.

The big toys had been pre-ordered at Toys R Us, and were waiting for us. While Vitaly and I loaded them into the van and took them to the apartment, Donna, Stephanie, Richard, and Lena continued shopping for more. It couldn’t have been better timed. We arrived back at the downtown, multilevel shopping center, parked the van in the garage, went straight in, no idea where Toys was, related to the parking garage, and found Donna sitting right there. Stephanie was a few feet, well, meters over there, behind her, at the check-out.

I considered the results to be a matter of my perfect timing and expert pathfinding skills. Donna mentioned something about blind hogs and acorns.

Our apartment looked like a tiny Toys R Us, as we organized and packed the “ugly bags” for the train ride to Russia. Truth be told, we probably looked more like black marketeers, something we were once accused of in Russia. Do you know the story of the KGB coming to investigate us, and taking the team’s passports? Oh well, an old story published elsewhere.

Berlin - train station
After a day of sightseeing, we prepared for the train ride. The apartment checkout was at 11 a.m., an unusual time, and the train arrived at 3:00 p.m. The van, nice as it was, would only hold us and our personal luggage. Multiple trips up and down Bundesalle ( that’s a German street name for the German street we were driving on), from the station, to the apartment.

No problem, we’ve probably all played leap-frog before. That reminds me of the time when my family was at the beach… Uh, nevermind, back to Germany. So, we began our game at 9:30. I took the team and their luggage to the terminal where we had to get all the luggage to the platform on the second floor. No porters, no carts, and I could only illegally park within about fifty feet of the station door, nearest our platform.

We dropped Richard and the ladies, while V and I returned to the scene of the cr… I mean, the apartment. Donna, Stephanie, and Richard took their luggage upstairs, as Lena waited on the curb with hers, Vitaly's, and mine.

But, Lena, being a thinker, would use a roller suitcase to transport others on top of it. She could watch the bags, while dragging to the escalator, where Richard and Stephanie would remove the bags at the top, and move them to where Donna was sitting guard. The ever efficient bucket line, if you will. This exercise was repeated 4 times in the -4.0 C weather, as we made the trips back to the apartment.

Ok, we were all loaded up at the train station.  Things were going great. Time to return the van.  So, it seemed like an odd time to contemplate murder, huh? Yeah, well, just let me get my hands around Mr. Google's neck. Him and his bigshot mapmaker, huh!

Interesting thing, that Google map. Seems like the Berlin Street Department has misnamed several streets. I was, oh, one mile, maybe two, from the rent car return location. I had 3 hours to turn it in, and take a taxi back to the train station. Easy peasy. Just follow the yellow brick road. Whoops, they don't appear on the ground in any manner they appear on the map. In fact, some of them must have been built on, as they were not on the ground.

Upon finding some of them, they run up and down instead of back and forth. Simply put, the map was totally useless. After a couple of hours, really, I was back at the train station, still driving the van. No problem. Being an Amazing Race wannabe, I went to the taxi at the head of the line. I showed him the address I needed to get to, "Lead me there, I'll drop the van off, you bring me back here, Ok?" "OK."

Now, we're cookin'.

Mr. Taxi leads me to the busiest street in Berlin, just a few blocks from the Brandenburg Gate. Rent car return? I don't think so. He pulls up in front of a hotel, in a no parking zone. He informs me he will wait there, while I go around the block and turn in the van. So, around the corner I go. No Budget sign anywhere. Why should it be there?  I am in the middle of posh shops, as in a Ferrari dealer, diamond shops, and such shiny trinkets. Budget rent a car, NOT!

I'm running out of get to the train on time time, and I'm running out of minutes on cell phone time. I called Budget, at the airport, where we picked up the van. She assured me it was the right address.

Around the block, again. Being the friendly sort, I honked and waved, as I passed my taxi driver.

Nope, no Budget for blocks around. So, I called her again, told her of the shops, but no Budget. Aha! Just like Russia. If you don't mind asking the right question, they don't mind giving the info. But, rules are rules, you must be specific. "Where, exactly, is the location, exactly?"

"Do you see the Westin Hotel?"

"Yes, I see the Westin Hotel."

"Do you see a parking garage across the street?"

"Yes, I see the parking garage across the street."

"Turn into the parking garage, and turn in the key in front of the Westin Hotel."

Ok, so add one more name to my list.

Sure enough, if you pull into the garage, there it is on the back wall, Budget Car Rental. Now, I ask you, how could I have missed that? I'm not even going to mention the sign that said Budget vehicles go on the 6th level. The van scraped the top of the ceiling going up to the first parking level. The second would have taken out the windshield.

Oh, yeah, that three hours to turn in the van? I used about two and a half.

When I got back, I told Donna, I could just see it. I wasn't missing the train. Running out of time, running out of minutes, I was gonna have to abandon the van, get to the station, and call Budget from Moscow. "Hey, lady. You know that van you rented me? Well, good luck, it's somewhere in Berlin. Key's in it. I'm somewhere in Russia." I'm not sure if the extra insurance covered such.

Oh, well. All's well, that ends well. Or, so they say.

I thought, “Woohoo! I don’t have to move the stuff upstairs.” No good deed goes unpunished, nor does any missed work.

All the bags and stuff were neatly piled, ready for the train. Hmmm… The ticket says we are in car A257. We are sitting in Zone C. Zone A is wa-a-a-a-a-a-y down there, past Zone B. Rats! Again, I say, Rats! We need to move it all down there.

We purchased our tickets for the old train station because we were told it was the beginning of the route. Uh...they lied, it was a pass through.  The train is scheduled to be in the station for 15 minutes, which is 10-12 minutes longer than most stops.  We had a lot of stuff to load around passengers getting off and others getting on. “Let’s move it.” Never question my wisdom.

One good thing is the signs on the platforms show you a complete train layout, car numbers and all. Yep, it shows our car to be the second one in Zone A. So, we moved down to between B and A. I was still a little bit concerned about how far we are from A. As a couple of cops walk by, I asked one if the diagram is correct about where the train will stop. He said the train will stop with our car down in A. We need to move, again. Never question my wisdom.

By the time we get it moved again, Vitaly and I are without coats, sweating in -4C. Smile, it’s the Lord’s work. But, we are ready for the door to open on A257.

Well, it seemed like a good idea. We even had expert advice from the police. I guess they should have been at the donut shop. Oh goody! Finally! Here come da train, here come da train, here…there go da train, there go da train.

I guess, by now, it would be silly to ask if you have any idea where the door of A257 came to a stop, and opened, huh?

We all picked up luggage and ran to Zone C, right where it all originally sat. Vitaly, Lena, and I had 15 minutes to move and load 7 large pieces of luggage, 6 carry-ons, 10 huge ugly bags of toys and hoodies, a large children’s playhouse, in pieces, taken out of the box, as it was too big to negotiate train corridors, a large child’s kitchen, 3 duffels of food for the train, 2 duffels of more toys, puppet theater, and doll buggy. Problem? No problem. Just move it all again, this time loading it on the train.

Donna, Stephanie, and Richard got on and moved our luggage to our compartments. “Stay outta the way! We got stuff to load!”

V and I threw the luggage into the train door, to Lena, who was waiting to cram it into one of our 4 cabins. It helps to have a young, pretty (and strong) woman with you (don’t worry, Donna and Stephanie will never see this part), when you need extra help. The conductor took note of her, and helped her lift the large bags onto the train. We made it! We even had a few minutes to spare.

Our worries are over, right?  I mean, what else do we have to do?  We be loaded. Right? Uh…three borders to cross, each with their rules and limits (and no way to know any of them ahead of time.) We are at the mercy of each customs and immigration officer. You know, kinda like the airline counter agents, each with their own idea of the rules.

Border 1 - Poland
As Americans, we only need visas for Russia and Belarus. Russians need visas for everything except those two. Fortunately, Vitaly and Lena’s visas to Germany were acceptable to Poland, as they were only transiting through. However, they could only be in Poland a maximum of 24 hours. Additionally, the German visas expired midnight, Dec 23rd, but we would still be in Poland until 3:30 am, the 24th. The Polish embassy in Moscow said that would be no problem, as they were in direct route out of the country.

Keep in mind, the embassy is in Moscow, the immigration officers are on the border, in Poland. Remember that right hand, left hand thing? (By the way, never mention that to an IRS agent. BTDT. Lost my t-shirt.)

I watched Vitaly and the Polish immigration officer go back and forth. He was telling V, he and Lena had no visas and could be arrested, fined, or both. He wanted money, more than we could afford. Well, more than we were willing to pay for V. We would pay anything to keep Lena.

Wait, they wanted our luggage room. The customs officer wanted to put passengers (most likely his friends) in it. We knew this was a possibility when we purchased the tickets, as any empty seat can be resold, even if paid for. But, we trusted God to protect us. We had purchased tickets for 11 adults and 1 child, we had paid for those seats/beds.

Oh, did I mention I gave the conductor 50 Euro ($75), for helping us (ok, Lena) load the stuff? Again, he stepped in. He told the guard, “No way, I have 30 beds, and I have 30 tickets. This compartment is not available, and you cannot have it.” While all this was going on, they “forgot” about the fine for Vitaly and Lena! The train was moving and we were thanking God. But, all good things come to an end…about 100 yards down the track.

#2 Border - Belarus
Now the fun begins, for real this time. The woman Belarusian immigrations officer got on the train, I mean, the woman Belarusian immigrations officer, with an attitude, got on the train. Her main objective, supposedly, is to be sure there are no stowaways. She looks in each cabin, under every seat, etc., making sure no one is hiding.

The first cabin was the toy room. She told Vitaly, “Take everything out! How do I know you are not hiding someone behind all the luggage?” The playhouse roof is all you could see, as it was the last thing placed in the room, a red wall blocking all the other stuff from spilling out. “Beside a person hiding in the room, this is not a freight train. You can only have 35 kg per person.” Our personal luggage weighed more than 35 kg.

As she talked and threatened, V just stood there like an idiot, looking back and forth between her and the stuff. Well, that was his description. “I was act like I didn’t know what she mean. So, I just stand there, do nothing, look stupid,” he said, laughing.

The solution, she threatened, was for us to get off the train with all the baggage, weigh it, and take the next train tomorrow. Remember, this is about 3:30 a.m., below freezing weather. She did not say what would happen to the overweight baggage.

While Vitaly talked, I watched, and Lena was translating to Donna. Donna went to Stephanie’s cabin, where they prayed for the immigration officer’s heart to soften and God’s protection. We have seen God change hearts time and again.

Stephanie went to the lady to ask for mercy since we had a child with us, explaining our circumstances, and that the things were for Russian orphans. “Will you give my 2 y.o. son a toy?” Normally, our policy is to work around bribes, somehow, and not pay them. However, this time, a toy was our best remedy.

“Certainly,” said Stephanie, as she rummaged for a particular toy. “Blessing children is our business,” she said, handing her the toy. With that, the woman turned and left the train. Problem? No problem.

We-e-e-e’r-e off to see the Wiza… Uh, oh, yeah… onward, to Moscow.

A few hours later, well, 8:30 the next evening (Did I tell you the train ride was 28 hours? The train ride was 28 hours.), Max, our good friend, was there to meet the train and help with the tons of luggage. My photographer friend, Arthur, was waiting, also, to go photograph the Moscow nightlight sites, while everyone else was off to the hotel. (Ok, it’s not so much that I wanted to take pictures of Moscow, at night, in below freezing weather, but, I’m old, I have a bad back, I have a bad attitude, I just didn’t want to move all that stuff, again.)

Christmas morning, we started off to IKEA. Man, you oughta see the Moscow Ikea. It makes the Houston store look like, well, a little store. Anywho, I digress… We shopped for pillows, duvet stuffing, sheets, towels, pots, pans, dishes, tea kettles, knives, spatulas, and all the other things to make a home for the 10 bed dorm at the women’s shelter. We saved the best for last… McDonald’s! Obviously, only in Russia would a sane man (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know) put the words “best” and “McDonald’s” in the same sentence. Vladimir or bust!


Thank God for friends, really. Uri, Lena’s husband, met us at the Hotel Vladimir to unload the bus. Wait, could I have been wrong? Hmmm… I guess it is possible he was there to get his beautiful wife we had stolen from him 5 days earlier. Nah! He came to help. Whatta guy! Anyway, we could use the help moving the playroom, dorm supplies, kitchen, Barskoe, and the Children’s hospital stuff to the 4th floor.

Hey, this hotel actually has an elevator. And, AND!!! Unlike typical Russian elevators, in older hotels, this one is full size! Many have two-passenger elevators. One passenger, if you have a suitcase. Really. If two of you get in facing the back, you will be facing the back when the door opens on, or near, your floor. Really.

Again, we were joined by more of our friends, another Lena and her daughter, Nadia. Nadia was a little girl when we first met her. Now, she is a stunningly beautiful college student. This Lena went with Donna and me on our first home visit in, ‘99.

We presented the hospital with the third IV pump for the premature babies, and are purchasing a fourth for the kids on chemo. We, also, brought in a suitcase full of tubing and Albuterol. Can you imagine how we felt, when the new director told us they pray for Treasures throughout the year?  See how easy it is to be humbled.

Onward and upward (as in stairs), as we donned our stylish blue footies, and headed for the wards of sick kids. We stopped at each nurses’ station, were we opened our “ugly bags” full of toys. Each ambulatory child came to make their very own selection. Typically, they aren’t going to get toys, much less be allowed to make their own choice. Illustrated children’s Bibles for the kids, and full versions for the parent, were handed out.

We visited each room with a gift and candy for those children confined to their bed. We prayed for them in groups and at bedsides, as parents joined in. There will always be one or two faces we cannot forget. The tiny baby with the feeding tube, and her smiling mom, touched our hearts.

Once again, we received much more than we gave. Our Russian friends made contact with moms, and we pray relationships will develop. The staff was so happy to help us move from floor to floor, as they grabbed bags and headed up and down the stairs.

Sidebar: How do you tell the difference in Russians and Americans, other than we stand out like Martians with antennae growing out of our heads? The people walking (multiple) flights of stairs are Russians. The people on the elevator (going up or down one flight) are Americans.

Click here to view the slide show of our hospital visit.

Can you say stunned? The director at the shelter showed us into the room where all the dorm furnishings and kitchen cabinets were stacked and waiting to be assembled. Irina had no idea what we still had in the van and trailer.

As we carried the next mammoth load into the room, she was like a kid. The supplies we carried from Berlin, through Poland and Belarus, caused her to hit sensory overload. She was speechless. No, as precious as she is, you can never really say that about this lady. I think she has gills, as she never draws a breath, but speaks nonstop. Lena has to interrupt her to translate.  After translating the main points, Lena just looks at us and smiles as she says, “…and a bunch of other stuff.”

Richard, Nadia, and I put the colorful playhouse together, while Vitaly and Max assembled toys and shelves. Stephanie and Donna entertained Irina, trying to keep her from playing with the toys, as she donned the Punch and Judy puppets and peeked through the puppet theater. I believe she touched every toy. She has plans to use all these toys to help the children heal from the trauma of broken homes. From her own past, Irina knew, from early childhood, she wanted to help children in need. 

UPDATE:  We have already received word the playroom is paying dividends.  Irina sent word one of the kids needing therapy would not cooperate.  After allowing her to play in the playroom for an hour, she complied and went to therapy.

This center is a revolutionary concept for Russians. This type of shelter just doesn’t exist there. Irina has studied all forms of child therapy. It is surprising to see the concepts she has already employed, as they are some of the same techniques we have seen used in Tanya Goldbeck’s clinic, in Beaumont.

Irina took us into the adjacent building where they have begun remodeling. We were amazed at the work they were doing, rooms with one way mirrors to observe the kids as they play, therapy rooms, rooms to aid in breathing, physical therapy rooms, and others.

We cannot express our feelings, what excitement this brings. In the past, these children, the true misfits of society, along with the physically handicapped, were warehoused, literally, never to be seen in public, again. How encouraging.

Click to view slide show of our visit to the shelter.

Barskoe Orphanage Suzdal
We have been waiting for several years to start a computer lab in Barskoe, but there never seemed to be a competent teacher. When we asked if they had a teacher, yet, the director responded, “Yes, I am a computer teacher.” Woohoo! We had 3 super computers (not supercomputers) built with all the bells and whistles, and 3 great Acer monitors. Actually, I’ve never figured out the use of bells and whistles on a computer, but hey, I ain’t no rocket surgeon.

Each child got a new Old Navy hoodie, fruit, Coke, and a great goodie bag with candy and cookies and a sled.

If you want more than a dozen, or so, Cokes, you have to go to a couple of stores, maybe more. So, we went to the Coke distributor to buy several cases. When V told them the Cokes were for an orphan Christmas, they gave us 100 talking (push one paw to record, the other to play back), Coke Santa polar bears. Lagniappe (nah, didn’t even try to explain that one to them) for the kids. They loved them.

We were given extra money to do something new and exciting for the kids, so, pizza and fireworks! A traditional Russian Christmas meal, don’tcha know? We photographed the kids and printed photos for them to remember the party. We ended the party with a “Happy Birthday, Jesus” cake. And, fireworks.

Vitaly, the Russian Fireball, manned the firework show. He did not understand the concept of “bottle” rockets. I explained to him to put the stick deep enough into the snow to keep from falling over, but don’t push it into the dirt. Oh, by the way, these “bottle” rockets were four feet long.

We watched from up on the hillside (I mean I am not as stupid as I look, really.), as Vitaly lit the fuse and ran. Turns out, just like I warned, if you push the stick into the ground, its beautiful display of sound and color has a blast radius greater than a Russian can run in a timely fashion.  See Vitaly Run. Run, Vitaly, run. See Vitaly glow. Glow, Vitaly, glow.

It is amazing how fast you can watch fireworks, when the temperature is well below freezing, before considering the chill factor.

This was the first time for most of the kids to see fireworks. They said they never dreamed they were so loud. It was a great day for all, though Vitaly said the kids would probably remember these fireworks, so no need to repeat next year.

Click here to view the slide show from our party.

Wait upon the Lord

Our goal was to bring the kids at Barskoe Gorodische to a reasonable standard of living, but never to become a maintenance program. The conditions for kids with less than "normal" abilities are now equal to a super boarding school. So much so, even local families have tried to place their children in the school, as it is better than the local schools.

We believe God has ordained each step we have taken, along with you as our partners. When we first arrived at Barskoe, they were only warehoused until their 16th birthday. At 16 + 1 day, the streets became their home, and a life of crime to survive.

A long time dream was to give them a carpentry workshop to learn a trade. Finally, the dream has been realized, as they now have a shop fully equipped with commercial grade tools.  We were encouraged to find the government is sending the teacher to training so he can be licensed. The kids will now be kept until they are 17, and will receive a certificate of trade when they complete the course.

Additionally, we have provided the means to a future by giving them more options to learn other trades, sewing, cooking, farming, and computer skills. Now, instead of a dead-end future, they have opportunities to prepare them for when their time at Barskoe has passed.

As it turns out, we are silent partners with the Russian government. To be recognized, all organizations have to be registered with the government. However, we have never done that. They have a habit of making life impossible for some organizations.

The bureaucracy breeds obstacles, bribes, political correctness, and such things. Interestingly enough, no one “pays attention” to this group of Christians from America. The local governments know we are operating. They just act like we aren’t there. They take what we do, then, sometimes, build upon it, sometimes literally, sometimes supplementing it.

We have made improvements, only to actually walk up and find government mouthpieces being interviewed by local TV, showing how “we are taking care of our children.” We don’t care. We aren’t there for glory. We just have a job to do.

After nine years (can you believe it) at Barskoe, we have made pretty much all the improvements to the physical plant that were needed.  We have many projects flourishing and providing a future for the orphans. Now we wait upon the Lord for directions. We are now seeking His plan for Barskoe.

At this point, we have accomplished:  View some of the finished projects
• Warm, clean bedrooms
• New beds and linens
• Little kid playrooms
• Big kid rec rooms
• TV’s, DVD players, CD players, movies
• Toilets
• Re-piped the water supply
• New water heaters
• Roofed the kitchen and dining room
• Raised and stabilized the sinking kitchen floor and wall
• Restaurant grade kitchen equipment
• Tiled dining room floor
• Entry hall is updated with new drywall, lighting, and tile
• Fully remodeled the shower and laundry rooms
• Commercial washer and dryer
• New electrical service for the laundry room
• Apple orchard and bee hives
• New windows and outside doors in all the buildings
• Sewing rooms
• Complete working/teaching woodshop
• Tractor
• Covered the food storage rooms and bins with metal to keep rats out
• Computer lab
• 20+ bicycles
• Playground equipment
• Livestock
• In memory of Erma Wilson, a children's library was started. Her heart’s desire was the kids having a library.
• The list goes on and on

Once again, we saw God move ahead of us in so many ways, from saving our huge cargo from customs, to providing tiny talking polar bears.  We pray we never lose the sensitivity to see His provisions, great and small.

God is good, all the time.

Praise the name of Jesus!

Stephanie, Donna, Richard, and Howard