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Russians Tour Reston

Looking to strengthen democracy in Russia, group of Russian women leaders tour Reston.

Known for its multicultural flair and its international flavor, Reston is suddenly attracting interest from curious onlookers abroad. Looking to replicate some of Reston's planned charm back home, an all-male South Korean contingent toured the community earlier this month. Last week, it was the Russians turn. In an effort to strengthen democratic ties in the former Soviet Union, a group of 15 Russian women toured some of Reston's most prominent community and civic organizations last Friday.

"Many of the women are principals, social service workers or NGOs [Non Governmental Agencies] directors back home in Russia," said Lycia Coble Sibilla, who organized the visit. "For most of the women, it is their first trip to the states."

From Moscow and St. Petersburg in the east to Khakassia and Buriatia in west, the list of participants included women from a variety of organizations that span nearly the entire county of Russia. The backgrounds of the participants were as varied as their experiences, Sibilla said. Aleksandra Gvozdyuk heads a foundation that tries to protect Russian youth in Kaliningrad from drugs and alcohol. Gvozdyuk says she came to Washington in hopes of learning more about "overcoming the glass ceiling" in Russian political and private sectors. While Yelena Chuprova, an attorney from Nizhniy Novgorod, chairs an organization that provides legal aid to citizens and organizations.

DURING THEIR STAY in Washington, participants have focused on increasing their effectiveness in public policy and advocacy by talking with fellow practitioners, policy makers, government officials and U.S. women working to strengthen democracy, peace and human rights.

"Coming to Reston just makes sense. It is small and manageable, and yet it has all the different interests represented. Besides they don't really have planned communities like this in Russia, it is just so typically American."

During their whirlwind trip through Reston which coincided with their last full day in the United States, the group visited Armstrong Elementary School, paying attention to the school's strategies for providing special education opportunities within the environment of a regular education setting. The group also met with officials from the Reston YMCA, Reston Interfaith and the Embry Rucker Community Shelter.

Sponsored by a group called Vital Voices Global Partnership, the Nov. 21 visit was part of a 10-day training program in Washington, D.C. for Russian women, many of whom represent social service organizations across the Russian continent. Vital Voices supports women's progress in building democracies and strong economies around the world. By focusing on issues like expanding female entrepreneurial opportunities and fighting humans rights abuses, the Vital Voices program is a partnership with the Open World Leadership Center, which was created by the Library of Congress in an attempt to facilitate cross-cultural dialogue between Russian and American citizens, Sibilla said.

BY VENTURING OUTSIDE of the Beltway and into the Northern Virginia suburbs, Sibilla, who lives in Reston, says her Russian visitors can see how nonprofit groups and government agencies, like Reston Interfaith and the Embry Rucker Shelter, operate at the community level.

Kerrie Wilson, executive director of Reston Interfaith, and Joe Meyer, assistant director of the Embry Rucker shelter, spoke to the women about the challenges and successes of their operations. "As you have seen on your tour, we live in an area that is very affluent," Wilson said. "What you might not realize, however, is that we have so many people in need here ... What I love about this community is that Reston embraced this shelter and built it right in its own backyard."

Several women expressed interest in how the shelter is funded. Wilson explained that 60 percent of the budget is financed by government funding, while the remainder comes from the private sector.

Meyer led the group on a tour of his 60-bed facility, explaining that Embry Rucker is the only one of the four Fairfax County shelters that serves families, as well as individuals. One of the visitors asked Meyer if the shelter ever turned clients away. "The 'turn-away' rate is something we don't like to talk about, but it is a reality that we can't escape," he said. "Unfortunately, about 15-18 individuals are turned away each day."

"Do clients who leave here ever come back," asked Lyudmila Malinina of Moscow.

Meyer said it was not uncommon for clients, especially individuals, to find their way back to the shelter, adding that the shelter and the county has more resources to help families with the transition.

Another participant wondered why they had seen people sleeping on park benches and bus stops during their stay. Wilson said that there are an estimated 20,000 homeless people in and around Washington, D.C., including roughly 2,500 in Fairfax County alone. Then Wilson applauded the county's "investment in human services," but acknowledged that there are still many needs that go unmet.

"In addition, there are some individuals who just don't want help," Meyer added. "That's their way of life and they don't want to change."

Most of the women seemed pleased with their tour. "We also have institutions like these," said Yelena Toropova, president of a family protection foundation in Perm City, through an interpreter. "Some of ours are better, many are worse. This one was very nice. The people here are very noble."

"But the real goal, for all of us, is that we should have no need such facilities," fellow participant Yelena Ilina said, through an interpreter, after the shelter tour. "That is something that all of us can agree on."