With her career as a professional discus thrower behind her, Antonina Patoka was in search of a new line of work. Her search ended with a newspaper ad that seeking women wiling to be trained as mothers for orphaned children. Thirteen years later, Patoka, now age 49, has raised five children and is currently mothering five more in the S.O.S. Children's Village in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The S.O.S Children’s Villages (est.1949) is an international non-profitable organization with a mission to provide orphaned children around the world comfortable homes and a stable family environment, led by trained surrogate mothers. According to the organization’s mission statement, the S.O.S. Children’s Village is based on four principles: "every child needs a mother, should grow up naturally with brothers and sisters, and in their own home within a supportive village environment.”
I met Antonina and her five children in July of 2013 when I was granted permission to photograph the Pushkin S.O.S. village in St. Petersburg, Russia. Pushkin, a municipal town in Pushkinsky District of St. Petersburg is located just 15 miles from the city center, providing an ideal suburban landscape for young children.
During my visit, I was surprised to discover the literal manifestation of the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child.” At Pushkin Children’s Village, twelve unique cottages are each inhabited by a single S.O.S. mother and her five to six children. In the wake of a recent controversy over the banning of American adoptions in Russia, I began to wonder why I had never heard of such an orphanage model in the United States.
Of the 133 countries where S.O.S. is active, the United States only has three villages: one in Broward County, Florida and two in the state of Illinois. I hope to continue visiting these villages in other parts of the world, including the U.S. to learn more about the plight of these children and the women who commit their entire lives to them.