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Visit by Russian social service delegates deemed success by all involved

May 31, 2011
For more information, contact Bob Luder at 816.501.2434.

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KANSAS CITY, Mo - -By all accounts, the recent week-long visit by a delegation of Russian social service professionals to Avila University was a smashing success … except for having to dodge a tornado or two. Not only did the Russian delegates learn how American social systems operate, but the visit also gave a class of Avila students the opportunity to learn how social services half a world away compare to those here.

Six Russian delegates arrived in Kansas City May 20, and from the time their feet hit the ground, they've moved through a myriad of activities, from touring the Steamboat Arabia Museum in the city's River Market district, to visiting public and private schools in the area, to presenting Russian programs to the Avila students, to eating Kansas City barbeque. It's all been about an exchange of information that both the Russians and students say has been both illuminating and beneficial.

"The thing that sticks in our memory is the visits to the schools," said Russian delegate Natalya Vladimirovna Gogol, through interpretation of translator Sergei Vladov. The delegation visited and studied public school special education programs at Boone Elementary in Kansas City, Mo. as well as services at a private learning center, Horizon Academy, in Roeland Park, Kan.

"It was very good we saw both public and private schools," Gogol said. "Also, seeing the (non-profit organizations) working with people of special needs."

While the needs and goals are the same, the Russians said social service systems in their country differed greatly from those in the U.S.

"Our systems are very different in structure, though all the issues are the same and the level of practical work is similar," said delegate Yelena Aleksandrovna Zotkina. "Here, there is much more de-centralization. Everything is done at the state level. In Russia, it's all very centralized.

"And, in our situation, the percentage of charitable donations is low. We operate pretty much by what we get from our government. There's much more comprehensive government support."

Delegate Yelena Yuryevna Golovinskaya said her country is in the initial stages of transitioning to more of a U.S. model when it comes to fundraising.

"Our country has passed legislation that has made donations tax exempt and has added other incentives," she said.

Having the opportunity to spend a week with and learn from the Russian contingent was an invaluable learning tool for the Avila students, all members of Professor Elaine Wright's SW 290 social work class.

"We learned the similarities and differences of two countries," said Julie Bernhardt, a recent graduate in Avila's social work program. "It was great to learn from each other."

Student Dereik Domerese said, "It's been very valuable making connections, getting questions answered. There's been a lot of interaction, a lot of learning from a global context.

"It's been really valuable making connections, not just with information, but with people."

The Russian delegation also made plenty of time for fun on their trip. They enjoyed eating American cuisine, seeing sights and especially interacting with their host families.

"Our level of English is roughly that of newborn kids here," Golovinskaya said, jokingly. "Our families felt they were parents of young kids again."

The crazy weather in the central part of the U.S. during the week also introduced the Russians to a phenomenon completely foreign to them – tornadoes.

"Certainly, yesterday's experience where we were led to a tunnel with schoolchildren was interesting," Gogol said. "We were expecting lots of things, but not tornadoes."

Gogol said she and her fellow delegates would like to continue the conversation with the Avila students soon, only in their hometown of Samara.

"Next year, we're celebrating the 60th anniversary of where I work, and I would like to extend an invitation to anyone to join us and get a first-hand look at how we do things."

Judging by the responses of the students in Elaine Wright's class SW 290, some might just accept that offer.



Avila University is a private, co-educational, values-based liberal arts institution founded by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, offering undergraduate, graduate, and adult degree programs. Avila University is located at 119th and Wornall Rd in southwest suburban Kansas City, Mo.