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Russian students offered American experience

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:29 PM
LAND O' LAKES -

Daniil Shcherbinin's mother wouldn't say why she was sending him to see the American doctor. "She's a therapist, that's all," she said. "She's going to ask you some questions."

And that, according to close observers of Russian culture, was that. Men may occupy the visible positions of official power, while women reserve for themselves all the decisions that don't make the headlines: the fabric of life.

Sure, go ahead and suppress Georgia, threaten to cut off natural gas to Europe and thwart the West in Syria, but you'd better put on a clean shirt. By the way, we're having dumplings and shashlyk for dinner and this weekend we're taking the train to Tula to see my parents.

Thus did Daniil, 9 years old and a promising pupil at a small public school in ancient St. Petersburg, obediently sit with the doctor, this terapeft , who seemed less interested in his state of mind than in administering a series of pop quizzes.

He emerged an hour or so later, puzzled but no worse for wear, finding his mom waiting pensively. Behind him, the doctor nodded, and his mom's face rose with joy. "My son!" She squeezed him by the shoulders. "You are going to America!"

Daniil Scherbinin, now 14 and a rising freshman at Academy at the Lakes, relates this tale of life-altering wonder plopped on the family room couch in the low-slung block house he shares with three of his countrymen, similarly screened and recruited, and their American sponsor, Eric Wilson, a former breaststroker from Indiana. Their common thread: a grateful astonishment for life's uncharted twists.

At 36, Wilson plays guardian, chauffeur and camp counselor to a Russian quartet that personifies cultural outreach. Their ambition, optimism and hunger for the rewards of self-improvement remind us of what is best about America. And each summer when the Academy shuts down, the boys carry home wondrous tales of Americans' inexhaustible capacity for generosity, opportunity, trust and fair play.

"This isn't what I had planned for my life," Wilson says. Indeed, he succumbed only after weeks of coaxing by colleagues at the Boca Raton school where the program began. Five years later and 250 miles north by northwest, only Wilson carries on, saying, "If this is all I ever do, it will not be a bad thing."

Never mind the future. On existing evidence, Wilson's conclusion is inarguable.

Consider Gleb Barkovskiy, 16, a rising senior focused on a career in international business. Once he's college-educated and established professionally, he will return to the St. Petersburg school that prepared him for his American adventure with a plan to expand opportunities for similar diamonds in the rough.

Where possible, reasons Gleb, who is nothing if not endlessly analytical, such things shouldn't be left to chance. After all, suppose his father, a former nuclear submarine captain reduced to driving a pirate taxi cab after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hadn't bragged on his son to a fare who turned out to be the recruiter-therapist mentioned earlier.

Intelligence and initiative often are not enough in Vladimir Putin's Russia, and the frustrated — Gleb's former classmates among them — swiftly surrender to vodka, drugs and despair. Breaking the cycle can't be left to proud, gabby dads in cabs, or serendipitous relatives.

Candidate-browsing in a St. Petersburg toy shop, our peripatetic doctor was overheard by a woman with 5-year-old in hand. How about this one? she asked. Too young, said the doctor. Does he have an older brother? Five years later, 6-foot-5 rising freshman Max Stepanets, 16, is the Academy's scheduled starting quarterback. Down the road, he hopes to become the first Division I quarterback who can call signals in English and Russian, while he studies to become a surgeon.

As for the little brother, Tioma Stepanets joined the group in August, wide-eyed and speaking almost no English. But whatever concerns Wilson had about Tioma acclimating vanished when, in their first trip to Walmart, the boy spotted a familiar sight in the shape of a pillow. "Angry Birds!" Tioma announced.

"What could I do?" Wilson says. "I had to buy it for him." Now Tioma's thinking he'll take it home to Misha, the last of the Stepanet brothers and the next, if all goes well, in the family pipeline.

Keeping it going involves a cast of dozens. The Academy has the boys on scholarship; a Boca Raton entrepreneur foots their airfare. Local professionals donate medical services. And, in exchange for fixing up the place, they live rent free near the school. Otherwise, they get by on Wilson's teacher's salary — including "Taco Tuesday" at the nearby Tijuana Flats — and he concedes there are months when the numbers "don't add up."

Next on his to-do list: Become the development coordinator — fundraiser — for the Renaissance Project (www.renproject.org), the foundation behind the Russian plan. You could do worse than clicking on the How to Help tab, or by giving Wilson a call at (813) 482-9093.

The inspiration that started the program is "still the shining hope," Wilson says. "We bring them here, we expose them to everything that is America, and then we send them out to be ambassadors."

They are the boys from Russia, with love for America. It's a work in progress that's working already.


tjackson@tampatrib.com (813) 371-1851 Facebook: Tom Jackson Tampa Tribune

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