Debbie Deegan: ‘You get involved in the lives of children who need you’

Debbie Deegan: ‘You get involved in the lives of children who need you’

THERE are some people in this life who are remarkable. They see a problem that needs to be fixed and think, yes, I can do that, I can make that better.

In 1995 Dubliner Debbie Deegan volunteered to have a child chosen by the Chernobyl Children’s Project stay with her family as part of a holiday programme. That child was Zina, a girl who lived almost all of her seven years in Hortlova orphanage in the Bryansk region of Russia.

When Zina’s two weeks in Ireland came to an end Debbie couldn’t let her go and put plans in place to adopt her. That meant visiting Hortlova in Russia and as soon as she was there Debbie knew that holidays in Ireland and a suitcase full of clothes and toys would not even begin to make a difference to the children who lived there. When she returned home, Debbie set up To Russia With Love (now called To Children With Love) and began a 25-year relationship with the children of Hortlova orphanage.

Now Debbie has made the difficult decision to close the charity that has been part of her life for so long.

“Yes, it really has been a huge decision. I have immersed myself in it 24/7 for the last 24 years, and I never switched off. Realistically, I suppose we might have had a three-year plan but the exit strategy was totally ignored. I mean, 24 years, gone into our 25th year, we’re still there. You get hook, line, and sinker sucked in, in a good way, because you get involved in the lives of children who need you.

“We really were an unusual organisation – even though we ran it as a proper registered charity, it was a very personal one where we got to know the children really well. So, yes, 25 years on, I’m closing the charity, but the thing is, I’m never going to leave it. I won’t ever leave the kids because they’ve known me for so long. I genuinely do believe that they were abandoned once, and I’m not going to be the person to do that twice. I made a commitment to them all.”

Shocking living conditions

What Debbie saw when she started visiting Russia in the ‘90s shocked her. At the time the country had some 900,000 orphans living in shocking conditions in institutions, they now have about 60,000 and have made huge improvements to the system which is one of the reasons Debbie feels ready to step back.

“Alcohol was the main problem. Forty per cent of our children had parents, but we never saw them. They had a system in Russia that if you had two alcoholic parents at home, the police would come to your house and take the child away and put them in an institution. The parents lose their parental rights, and the kids don’t ever see them again. The kids are longing for their mothers and their dads.

Debbie’s work in Hortlova was groundbreaking. At the time children in orphanages in Russia were allowed just two trades – the boys could be bricklayers and the girls plasterers. It fed workers back into a system that needed people to do repairs and build more institutions. To Russia with Love changed that so that children could become anything they wanted.

Debbie also gave them the ultimate gift. A birthday.

“We gave them all their own birth dates, none of them knew when they were born, so we found that and gave everybody individual birthdays.

“Then we decided to find all the brothers and sisters they’d been separated from. That took us five years. Next, we started trying to trace the parents. The prison system was very harsh in Russia, so we were in prisons looking for daddies, and trying to get letters to mammies and bring food to them. We were trying to piece it together.”

HAPPY MEMORIES: Orphans from Klintsy Children’s Home in Bryansk, Russia, waiting to meet the Irish team from To Children With Love in 2018.

An ordinary Irish mammy

Throughout our conversation, Debbie says that she’s just an ordinary woman. An Irish mam who got on with things. Her legacy points to something extraordinary though, changing the lives of hundreds of children.

“I’m an extremely ordinary Irish mammy. For me, to see kids growing up at an institution when you know that nobody loves them is the fuel that lit my fire for the last quarter of a century, and to be honest, continues to do so.

“I just loved every single second of it. Now, some of it was tragic, and very bleak, and very sad, and we would have bawled our eyes out more times than you’ve ever had hot dinners, but at the same time, it was an amazing journey. When I started out, I was in my early 30s, I was a mam and I had an ordinary husband, an ordinary household.”

But she had extraordinary support. “I had a mother who was literally Mrs Doubtfire. The minute I stepped out, mammy would just step in. My house never felt me missing, never ever felt me gone.”

Her husband, she says, is “extremely” laid back. “It didn’t bother him that there wasn’t a wife making an apple tart in the kitchen. He never had expectations that his marriage was that in the first place. He was very happy to go along with it because he also saw the difference in the children as he’d travelled to Russia and knew them very well and knew the stories from me.”

Being in the spotlight

Running the charity meant fundraising and publicity and with that came awards which, in typical Debbie style, she is very self-deprecating about.

“I went from being a mum to suddenly being the latest trendy charity because they come along all the time, and everybody loves the new ones,” she laughs.

Above all else though, Debbie speaks about the volunteers she worked so closely with for so long. It’s clear how close they all were and how indebted she is to them.

“We had volunteers on the ground for about 14 years and they made a massive difference to the children because they just went out to sit down and hold their hand, and colour in, and knit, and be with them. The volunteers were just an amazing band of angels that went out and lived in shitty, shitty accommodation while they were out there. They were amazing people.

“Most of the children would have memories of Sheila and Eileen and they’d remember all the names because they were the first people that really took time to sit down with them and really care for them.”

Time out

Now that Debbie has an end date in sight I wonder if she’s going to take some time off. Last year, she wrote a children’s book, The Tree by The Sea, which sold well with the funds raised going to the charity. After the success of Cut Through the Noise, her 2020 TedX talk, she gives corporate talks and she will continue to be involved in The Rising Tide, the Irish school-based charity she founded.

Debbie laughs when I suggest she take some time to rest. I suspect it’s not in her nature. She says her son doesn’t believe that she’s going to take a break from anything. But she does plan on being home for a while with husband Mick, daughters Sophi

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