Dr. Sam Wentworth and his wife Sondra along with visiting student counselors and counselors-in-training take time to pose for the camera at Sunday's get-together at the home Janice and William Hiatt in Staunton. Pictured: (In front, laying down) Natasha Kopylova (kneeling behind her) Arturas Steponivicus, Sasha Filatov, Rinat Iskhakov, Lena Gershberg, Galina Gretskova, Misha Kornev and Sondra with her cocker spaniel, Maggie. In the back row, is Janice Hiatt, Alex Kalachkov, Anton Kurgin, William Hiatt, Andrey Babichev, Sam, Igne Brastide and Nikita Ivanikovig. Alla Kozir was unavailable for the picture.
A diagnosis of diabetes in the republics of the former U.S.S.R. often labels the person "handicapped," not allowing him or her to participate in sports, advanced schooling or receive a driver's license. Finding work is nearly impossible if a person admits his or her condition.
"We are used to being treated like handicapped people," Misha Kornev said.
He didn't used to have the self-confidence to venture out of his home, to have dinner in a restaurant without worrying about his diet or even ride a bicycle. "Here, in America, it's different. Every diabetic gets chance to live a normal life and experience all the things we cannot."
The Diabetes Youth Foundation Exchange Program is trying to change this Russian attitude toward the disease.
"Young people are stopped from reaching their potential. There was no active program in Russia for the treatment and education of patients with diabetes," Dr. Sam Wentworth said.
He founded the program in 1993 after several visits to the country to educate children with diabetes. "It was started with the hopes that at some point Russia would take it over and make the program work for themselves."
For two months this summer, 13 students ranging from 15-24-years-old from Russia and Lithuania have come to America to learn the concept of pro-active care and maintenance of diabetes, so they can be counselors at the upcoming Winter Diabetes Camp in Moscow.
"I didn't know anybody with diabetes before coming to camp," Lena Gershberg said. She looks forward to returning to her country to help others. "Camp was, and is, a very good educational experience for me."
Education is not the only thing the exchange students have the opportunity to experience while in America.
"It was awesome," the group quickly reply in unison when asked about their summer. "Everyone here is so nice."
The first thing they wanted to do was shop.
"They stock up while they're here on all types of personal items," Sondra Wenthworth said of the young exchange students who, over the years, have become a part of her family. "They are excellent shoppers, always looking for a bargain."
Clothing and electronics top the list of sought after items, with souvenirs a close second, but there were a few unique purchases as well. Anton Kurgin, who is studying to be a classical guitarist, ordered a custom guitar, Igne Brastide and Natasha Kopylova stocked up on "scrapbooking" supplies and everyone had to have a digital camera.
Being able to touch items was a unique experience for the young Russians who are used to waiting in long lines to look at something, then waiting again in a long line to purchase it before returning to the first line to get their item.
"America has great customer service. They live a much faster life and are very busy all the time." Arturas Steponivicus, of Lithuania, said. He spent a large part of the summer watching little league baseball. "I want to come back."
Being a part of the family was important for the students.
"I did a lot of family things with my host family," Sasha Filatov said. "We visited relatives, went swimming a lot and went to the cinema, but I did get to go to a rock concert and Kings Island."
That connection to family, said Alex Kalachkov, was a reason that many of the students didn't have time to feel homesick. Staying in individual homes was a treat that enabled him to dream one day of owning his own home in America.
But, the quiet rural life of the Hoosier state took some getting used to for a few of the exchange students from large cities.
"Everyone lives in an apartment in Russia, but it is very quiet here," Nikita Ivanikovig said. "I need the active and constant moving of life in the big city. There are many nice parks and basketball courts in the small towns here, but no one is there like in city. Here, the children are home playing with X-Box."
Rinat Iskhakov agreed, but added, "I don't care to see any more corn fields."
The exchange students will return home on Monday to begin preparations for their Winter Diabetes Camp later in the year.
"We want to thank all the host families for making us feel welcome and the American people for being so nice," Misha Kornev said on behalf of the group. "We also want to especially thank Sam and Sondra for this incredible opportunity to be here to learn and help others, and for having the opportunity to know the American experience."
In 12 years, Dr. Wentworth's program has been able to pay expenses for educating more than 120 exchange students to become counselors. These counselors will be able to work toward breaking the "taboo" and defeatist attitude regarding diabetes in Russia. Each year these counselors are able to reach another 150 young people, and give them hope for a future.
There are signs of the program working, but the change comes very slowly and with worries about the continuation of the program.
"Since nine-eleven it has been difficult for many not-for-profit organizations to raise necessary funding," Wenthworth said. "Because of financial support you never know where you will be, and it is not a way-of-life for Russian people to donate to charitable programs, so we rely heavily upon individual donations to continue the program."
For those interested in supporting to the program, please send your donations to the Russian Exchange Program c/o Diabetes Youth Foundation of Indiana, 1300 E. Main St., Danville, IN 46122