Kristin in Russia 1990

“The true way and the sure way to friendship is being open to each other, accepting each other just as we are, knowing each other.” Mother Teresa

“Hi,” I said. I pulled a pack of playful stickers from my pocket.

Prevyet.” She smiled back with eyes wide as Christmas, admiring the Muppets and a yellow packet of Juicy Fruit.

Now what? My Russian was far too limited to carry on a conversation. Even with a schoolgirl. Out of nowhere I started humming Peter and the Wolf. The little girl in the red sweater beamed. She hummed a few bars, too, and we giggled, connecting over a sequence of a dozen musical notes.

Kak vas zavoot?” I butchered the words, but I tapped on my chest and added, “Kristin.”

She mimicked me and said, “Elena.”

We opened the stickers and pointed at the cartoon characters, but our words were few. In-between our pantomime games I tried to visualize more about this charming child and her home. Did Elena walk to school? Even in the sub-zero degree weather? Did she have siblings? What did her parents do for a living?

In my mind I created an entire scene around a weathered wooden table where she would sit with her mother in the afternoons and recount her day at school. Smearing black current jam on a piece of kalatch straight from the wooden bread mold, Elena would tell her mother about meeting an amerikantsy. In a well-worn stoneware crock shchi, a meat-and-cabbage stew simmered on a two-burner stove, pungent with flavors of sauerkraut, turnips, and onions.

Lost in my reverie I imagined that her parents—her father, a third generation artist and head of the Fine Arts department at the University, and her mother, a respected seamstress who let out hems in tattered pant legs and mended hand-me-down dresses for the neighborhood—hired me to live with them to teach Elena and her younger brother, Boris, English. For room and board and all the borsch I could eat, I would teach the family American English around the wobbly wooden table.

Elena tapped my shoulder, bringing me back to the classroom. A few of the other children were chasing balloons around the room and she gestured with big arms for me to join them. I pulled out a packet of balloons and began blowing until a red balloon floated towards my new friend. We volleyed the balloon like a ball back and forth, and I was astonished at the simplicity of the activity.

Sarah Making Friendship Bracelets at the YMCA of the Rockies

Twenty-five years ago, I participated in a cross-cultural exchange program in Irkutsk, Siberia. Although the Cold War was thawing, relations remained strained between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Texas-Soviet Exchange Council was created between The University of Texas and Irkutsk University to foster relationships amongst students, the next generation of leaders.

I experienced genuine hospitality and friendship during my stay in Russia. It’s hard to harbor inherited emotions towards an enemy (in this case the communists) when you’ve eaten a meal at their table and slept beneath wool blankets in their home. Thanks to Facebook, I’m still in contact with several of my comrades from the program.

In 1990 I never dreamed I would return to Russia. But, as you read this, I’m back in the former Soviet Union on a similar mission, this time with the YMCA of the Rockies. Tony and I, along with our oldest son, Will, are part of a delegation traveling to Yaroslavl on the inaugural trip for the partnership between the YMCA of the Rockies and the Y in Russia. The YMCA of Russia has just completed a Youth & Family Center – a small campground and conference center with dachas (means summer home in Russian) that will be used for summer youth programs and family camp. While these are activities and places we might take for granted here, the concept is rare in Russia. Our group is going not to teach or data dump ideas for what we think would work in their country. No, we’ll start simply – with conversations over meals. Establishing relationships is our goal.


Instead of taking 1990s red balloons and Muppet stickers, we’ve updated the gifts and have handmade friendship bracelets with us. Our three daughters – who hope to return to Russia with us one day – have worked hard all summer weaving friendship bracelets they learned to make at Day Camp at the Y.

Sometimes the world’s problems and conflicts seem so overwhelming it’s tempting to pull the covers over our heads and hide. I know I’m ill-equipped to debate hot topics that are pervasive in the news and social media. But hiding isn’t the answer either. Elena taught me a lesson twenty-five years ago – simple, little acts of kindness and hospitality matter, building bridges and making connections.

I’d love for you to join us on our travels with the Y in Russia. I’m hosting our group at a virtual table {a turquoise one, of course} where we are updating daily and sharing stories as we go. We’d love to have you along for this adventure.

While we aren’t all called to physically travel to Russia, we are all called to open our doors wide and love unconditionally. Sound overwhelming? Grab some string, tie a few knots, and give a bracelet to a neighbor, co-worker, or the person serving snacks at the neighborhood pool. Start building little bridges. Start making connections.

What if we took Desmond Tutu’s words to heart? “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

What would it look like if we overwhelmed the world? Let’s try. One friendship bracelet at a time.


Kristin Schell / Posts / Blog
Kristin Schell is on a mission to love her neighbors. She put a picnic table in her front yard, painted it turquoise, and began inviting neighbors, friends, and even strangers to hang out and do life together at The Turquoise Table. A gatherer at heart, Kristin brings people together for delicious food and stories at her table and online home
  • Avatar
    Leah Adams

    May God multiply your hospitality in Russia and bless you in a thousand ways.

    August 26th, 2015 7:38
  • Avatar

    I’ll say a loud ‘amen’ to Leah’s blessing. Lovely, K. Thanks.

    August 26th, 2015 20:11

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *