Imagine a place where children with disabilities are abandoned by their families and sent to government-run orphanages where they do not get an get an education or learn to interact with others.
Welcome to Russia, where 100,000 children are abandoned each year, according to Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based human rights organization. The group estimates that 95 percent of the abandoned children still have a living parent.
When the institutionalized children reach the age of 18, they are turned out on the street to try and survive on their own.
Enter Deedee Vaughters and Susan Callahan. Ms. Vaughters is a veteran international traveler, and Ms. Callahan has never owned a passport.
They will go to the Russian city of St. Petersburg in September as part of St. John United Methodist Church's international missionary work.
They plan to visit several orphanages and introduce neglected children to the word of God through crafts, sports, games, skits, songs and customs such as Christmas and Easter.
The church sent a team to Honduras in March and has trips to Kenya and Paraguay in the works.
"I think it's a great challenge," Ms. Vaughters said, "to travel and to be doing it for God's work."
The trip comes at a time when the Russian government is trying to expand the reach of the Russian Orthodox Church, pressuring other Christians in the country to convert to that church.
Ms. Callahan, the mother of two boys, said she committed to the trip when she heard how Russian children with disabilities are often abandoned at age 4, after doctors examine them before they start school.
"Having my two children, I can't even imagine abandoning them," Ms. Callahan said.
Ms. Vaughters, also a mother, worries that she will miss some milestone moments in her children's lives.
"I'm worried the youngest will start walking while I'm away," she said. "They'll be back in school when I come home."
The 10-day trip, Sept. 5-14, will be the longest Ms. Callahan has ever been away from her children. Her son Ashby, 7, said he might eat ice cream for every meal while his mother is away in Russia.
A Russian interpreter will guide them through St. Petersburg. Because of prostitution in hotels, Ms. Vaughters said, the volunteers will stay in hostels and apartments around the city.
Ms. Vaughters and Ms. Callahan are the only two going on the trip from St. John.
An additional 15 to 20 people from Lifeline Missions International in Ohio and a church in Kennesaw, Ga., will join them on the trip.
Because of Russia's strict requirements for people entering the country, the deadline to sign up for the trip is today. The cost is about $3,000 per person.
Anyone who is interested in going on the trip or would like to help pay for someone else to go can call Ms. Vaughters at (803) 439-5701.