CHICAGO ― Adopted as an infant, Karen Mead says she has a special kinship with all the children she has encountered in Russian orphanages over the last decade ― dozens of them.
“There’s something inside an orphan that’s broken that only God can fix,” Mead said. “There’s a feeling that no one can love you ― that there’s something wrong with me. I get these kids.”
As she prepared to leave for yet another extended trip to Russia to work with children, Mead said she did not know where she was going to stay for the next five months but was not worried. After years of trying to help orphans in that country, she has learned to trust her faith that things will work out, she said.
And now Mead has something more challenging in mind. As part of a ministry aimed at working with at-risk children, she and her husband, Tim, plan to spend 10 months out of the year in Ivanovo, Russia ― about 150 miles northwest of Moscow.
Tim Mead is staying behind for this solo New Year’s trip by his wife. When she returns in June, they will spend summer in Illinois before taking the deeper plunge and moving to Russia with student visas next fall.
Karen Mead holds a teddy bear at her parents’ home in Barrington, Illinois, Dec. 13, 2010. (Chicago Tribune/MCT)
They call their ministry Seeds for the Harvest, and spread the Gospel through their works. It is a vocation, they say, not easily understood by others.
“I know that this is where I am supposed to be,” said Karen Mead, who has struggled to explain to family and friends why she feels compelled to move so far away.
One explanation, she said, is that both she and her husband were adopted and feel a bond with the Russian orphans.
While in Russia, Mead will deliver basic necessities, such as flour and oil. But she will also get to know each child by playing games with them, teaching them English and taking them to church, if they are interested, Tim Mead said.
The children move out of the orphanage at age 16, and can wind up on the streets if they have nowhere to go, he said. By building early relationships, “they know when they age out (of the system) that there is someone they can turn to,” he said.
Mead, 47, was a travel agent living in Cary, Illinois, with her husband and their two young children when the inspiration first arrived through a Christian radio program in 1997. She was moved by an appeal for help to donate three teddy bears to a Russian orphanage.
Since then, the Meads have traveled more than a dozen times to the country, emptying their savings account. Over the years, the couple also adopted two teenage sisters from Shuya, Russia, and donated thousands of dollars in medical supplies and humanitarian aid to needy children.
The couple’s mission work began with the teddy bears. Mead had delivered the three stuffed bears to Russian orphanages through a Chicago radio station that worked with the Texas-based Josh McDowell Ministries.
In 1998, she was ready to donate 12 bears to the orphans, but discovered the radio station no longer served as a liaison to the program. So the family of four traveled to Lancaster, Pa., where the McDowell ministry operates a warehouse and stores humanitarian items, including the stuffed bears that are shipped to Russia. They had only $75 on hand, and ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every night, she said.
“That’s all we had. We were poor,” said Mead, whose family returned annually through 2002.
She and her husband took their first trip to Russia in 2000 as volunteers with the McDowell ministry, visiting orphanages in Ivanovo. They used $12,000 of their own money, raising the rest of the $25,000 needed through donations.
“I knew instantly I was supposed to go,” Mead said. “I don’t know how to explain it, other than God has changed my heart.”
They met their future daughter, Nadya, in 2000, giving her a teddy bear that was hand-picked by their biological daughter, Alicia. A year later, they adopted Nadya, who was 13, and her sister, Anya, 15, who was living at a boarding house while learning to become a seamstress. The sisters, now married and living in the Chicago area, had spent six years at the orphanage.
In 2002, the Meads founded their nonprofit organization from their savings. Donations financed the couple’s trips to and from Russia. Together, they delivered medical equipment, school supplies, food and clothing to the orphanages, homes and a hospital, Mead said.
The next year, she said, she asked for Cary dentists to donate toothbrushes to the ministry but received little response. But she had counted on divine intervention, and it appeared in the form of a single person who donated 600 toothbrushes to the cause, she said.
By Carolyn Rusin and Lisa Black
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)