Jeff Heuchert, Gazette staff
With a busy Christmas season in Stratford behind them, Richard and Ruth Kneider are once again turning their attention far away from home in hopes of delivering another happy holiday to people in need.
The Kneiders, organizers of the annual To Stratford With Love Banquet, will board a plane Jan. 16 for St. Petersburg, Russia, where they will be reconnecting with several orphanages and cancer hospice centres they’ve supported in the past.
As they’ve done almost every year since 2000, they will take kids out for a Christmas dinner or bring one to them.
Richard said the meal, albeit a simple gesture, can mean the world to a child who has spent most of their life in an institution with few caring and meaningful relationships.
“These kids just have to know that there is somebody outside of that orphanage that actually cares about them and loves them,” he said. “We want to express to them, as much as we love them, that Jesus Christ loves them more, that there’s hope in a hopeless situation.”
Joining them on the expected three-week humanitarian trip, organized through the Kneider’s charity, Simple Dreams Stratford, will be local youth Tyson Patterson and former city and now Grimsby resident Levi St. Pierre.
The teenagers felt compelled to join the Kneiders after hearing some of the presentations about their work in Russia.
Richard suggested their age would work to their benefit.
“I believe they will have more impact on the children than Ruth and myself ... maybe somehow they can relate and explain things to the children,” he added.
The latest statistics the Kneiders have show there are approximately 800,000 orphans living in Russia, many abandoned by the parents due to drug and alcohol addictions. Sadly, many of the kids end up falling into substance abuse themselves once they are forced out of the orphanages at age 16, noted Richard.
And, he added, “the cycle will repeat itself if nothing changes.”
The Kneiders also plan to travel to an orphanage in Krasnoarmeysk, where Ruth said she is excited to be reacquainted with one particular young girl she met in 2001.
“We see this little girl every year and it has not been until our visit in 2011 that she actually smiled at me and showed any emotion with me.
“I have always had her in my heart, and I believe as I see her again this year that there will be a great impact in her life,” she added.
The Kneiders and a team first visited Russia with the intent of building an aid centre and helping establish a church. But they soon came up against a
Russian government that demanded extra money and had to abandon their plans.
Instead, they visited an orphanage, where they were shocked by the unsanitary and cramped living conditions the kids had to endure.
Richard said it was an eye-opening experience for him and his wife.
“It really grabbed all of our hearts ... and for Ruth and myself, we said we had to do something for these kids.”
In addition to their regular visits, the Kneiders, with the help of donations from supporters locally and across Canada, have been able to send over money in the hope the people in charge of the orphanages will continue the holiday meals and do what they can to improve conditions.
“The whole concept,” noted Richard, “is to make sure these kids are looked after once we come home.”
The trip is likely to be the couple’s only this year, though they had wanted to visit the eastern European country Moldova, where Richard said there is a growing problem with young girls and women being taken from the streets and orphanages and sold into the sex trade.
They had hoped to work with a group called Stella’s Voice that is operating housing to keep girls and women off of the street.
Richard said he and his wife are optimistic they will get there to help. They also hope to return to Ukraine in the future to spend time with kids in orphanages there as well.