Russian children welcomed “Uncle Ted” with traditional bread and salt, music, and handmade greetings cards as Ted N.C. Wilson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist world church, toured their groundbreaking special needs school in southern Russia.
Wilson, visibly impressed, thanked the Rostok (Tender Plant) School and its 65-year-old founder and director, Lyudmila Verlan, for reaching out to more than 300 children with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and other conditions in Krasnodar city over the past five years.
“This is one of the most unique projects that I have visited in a long time, and my heart is touched,” he said.
The Rostok School, which initially opened with a small classroom and five students, now has two locations and 47 children, including 40 with special needs. Church leaders have invited Verlan to open a third school in a community center that is expected to open later in 2018.
Verlan, widow of a former conference president, established Rostok School after the birth of a granddaughter with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects movement and motor skills. HerChrist-centered curriculum is the only one of its kind in Russia, where special needs children can face neglect at home and minimal assistance from the state.
Verlan, smiling broadly, spoke about the joy of seeing children — and their parents — grow in Jesus.
“Many parents are angry when they first bring their children here,” she said. “But when they see that we love the children, this softens their hearts. Many now say, ‘Praise God that we have the Adventist Church in our town!”
Verlan, accompanied by several children and staff members, greeted Wilson on Sept. 2 outside the main Rostok School with a small bowl of white salt and an enormous, oven-browned loaf of bread ornately decorated with brown leaves and flowers. Wilson, following Russian custom, tore off a piece of bread, dipped it in the salt, and ate it.
A small boy, who thrust his nose close to the loaf and sniffed eagerly, immediately begged for a crust to eat as well. Verlan said the boy had only recently started to speak after arriving at the school, angry and withdrawn, five months earlier.
Inside the school, Verlan led Wilson and other church leaders on a tour of classrooms, a sports hall, and a waiting room where parents can read Adventist literature before picking up their children.
One mother took some literature home and stayed up all night to read it, returning it in the morning, Verlan said.
“She said, ‘Sorry that I took it,’” Verlan said.‘I said, ‘Keep it!’”
In a large room, children sang a song, played the violin and hand bells, and presented Wilson with a greeting card addressed to “Uncle Ted.”
“God bless you, dear Uncle Ted,” the card read in English. It was signed, “Children of Rostok.”
Wilson said he was honored to be called “Uncle Ted” and welcomed into their family.
Turning to Verlan and the teachers, he added, “Every soul is important. God has led you to go the extra kilometer and to uncover the talents and the mind of the special child. You are doing a wonderful work. It is extremely close to the heart of God.”
Verlan’s schools are privately owned and operated, and its monthly expenses are primarily covered by a single donor.
Several special needs children receive instruction in Adventist schools in the Russian cities of Ryazan and Tula. But the church does not have any special needs schools among its 45 schools on the territory of the Euro-Asia Division, which includes Russia and many of the other former Soviet republics, said division president Mikhail Kaminskiy.
“The church would like to make use of Lyudmila Verlan’s experience,” said Kaminskiy, who accompanied Wilson on the tour. “She is very successful.”
Vladimir Krupskyi, president of the Caucasus Union Mission, whose territory includes Krasnodar, also marveled at Verlan’s results.
“She has taken children who even the government has struggled to help and has had amazing results,” he said.
Andrew Kachalaba, president of the local Kubano-Chernomorskaya Conference, guided Wilson and other church leaders through the future community center where Verlan has been invited to open a third school.
“One third of this future center of influence will be given to Lyudmila Verlanfor a learning center,” Kachalaba said.
The large basement space, purchased a few weeks ago, is located under a beauty salon and billiards room and still needs to be fitted out with walls, floors, and equipment. The community center also will have health food store, a massage center, and a beauty salon.
Wilson — who is on a weeklong pastoral visit to southern Russia to encourage pastors and other church members at a Bible conference and other events — upheld the Rostok School as an example to all Adventists. Speaking in a Sept. 2 evening sermon to a packed Seventh-day Adventist church in Krasnodar, he said, “That is the ministry of Jesus — helping children come to the foot of the cross, especially children who many are confused about how to help.”