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Ashley Lowery, Deseret News
Russian teacher Svetlana Ozerova and students Julia Rshanenkova, Alina Sharovatova, Svetlana Kozretskaya and Oksana Ulezkaete tour the Capitol. They are from an orphanage in Sovetsk, Russia.

Thousands of miles from their hometown, five orphans and two of their teachers oohed and ahhed at the architecture in Utah's Capitol.

They had never seen anything like it.

The tour was part of the Russian group's first trip to America, made possible by donations provided at the death of one of Utah's prominent education-advocacy attorneys.

At the time of his death, Doug Bates' family asked for donations to charity instead of flowers. The money was then used to start the Tilsit Orphan Education Fund, which has since provided much-needed support to an orphanage in Sovetsk, a city in Russia near the Baltic Sea, which is the birthplace of Bates' wife, Eva.

"When we started working with these kids, it was like opening a door that had been closed there for many, many years," she said. They hope to help several of the children at the orphanage pay for school at a college or university in Russia. It takes only $80 a month, roughly, which covers room and board, because higher education is subsidized by the government there.

"We really hope to make a difference in the lives of these girls," Eva Bates said. Many of the children in orphanages are turned away at age 16, left to fend for themselves. Instilling an idea of what the world is like outside of Russia will hopefully give them something more to aspire to.

"It's such a great country," said Svetlana Kozeretskaya, the girls' English teacher and translator for the trip. She said the experience has taught them all a lot.

The experience, she said, is "a privilege" and almost too much to take in.

"America is so rich for its people," she said. "Families have traditions. They are very helpful to not only their own children but to all our children. This country is great for that."

Before coming to Utah, the group spent two weeks in California shopping, seeing the sights and experiencing all kinds of new things. In Utah, in addition to visiting the Capitol, they spent a day at Lagoon, time at a mall, then visited various locations while staying in Utah County. They'll be seeing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and touring Temple Square.

They're enjoying foods different from the meager staples they eat at the orphanage and eating a lion's share of fresh fruit each day while staying at the Bates' home in Salt Lake City.

"It's something they don't get at home," Eva Bates said. "And we're happy to provide ... as long as there is money."

In the past, small amounts of the money have helped renovate an old bathroom at the worn-down facility in Russia. Eva Bates and various travel companions, including her son and granddaughter, Martin and Katie Bates, have updated the kitchen area, and this year, a similar group visiting Russia will help rebuild a room where the children shower.

"There is just so much need," Eva Bates said. "We just keep chipping away at the fund we've built up."

The girls who came to America range in age from 14 to 16 and will soon be deciding whether to pursue higher education. Martin Bates said he hopes that giving them an opportunity to see how other people live and what a benefit an education would be to them will help make the decision easier.

"We hope to broaden their view of the world," he said. "I hope this gets them talking and thinking about how the rest of the world works, rather than believing everything they see on TV."

Additional donations are needed to accomplish all the Bates family wants to accomplish, but they have been overwhelmed by the generosity of donors so far. Orphanages, which for the most part are nonexistent in the United States, are not well-funded in any society, Martin Bates said. "There are not a lot of resources to help.

"It's very fulfilling to see them enjoy something so much," he said. The girls were expected to return to their home on Monday, along with all the gifts and trinkets they've purchased on their voyage to America to share with the 175 additional orphans back home.

For more information about the Tilsit Orphan Education Fund, to make donations or see photos of current and past projects there, visit tilsit.homestead.com.


E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com