It was the Beslan school siege of 2004 that motivated Natalia Vodianova to set up the Naked Heart Foundation. Desperate to do something to help, she had a simple idea – if the young survivors could be distracted by play for at least five minutes each day, it would help them to heal. Providing them with safe outdoor play facilities would redefine their city landscape and act as a form of therapy.
Having grown up in poverty in urban Russia and become a mother herself, Natalia understood the importance of play and the devastating consequences of being deprived of such a basic necessity. In the words of American psychiatrist Stuart Brown, “play allows us to develop alternatives to violence and despair”. It is through play that children learn to engage with the world around them at a very early age and become more confident and resilient.
Natalia was not able to make contact with the Beslan authorities in the months following the tragedy, inundated as they were with offers of aid. However, in the meantime she decided that other children in Russia could benefit from her idea – especially those living in areas where the authorities did not provide playgrounds and families with children accounted for most of the poor. A childhood spent looking after a sister with cerebral palsy, with nowhere safe to take her for her essential daily walks, gave Natalia the determination to provide facilities that would cater for children of all abilities.
The Naked Heart Foundation was set up in 2004 and in 2006 we completed our first play park, five minutes from where Natalia grew up in Nizhny Novgorod. In 2009, 40 play parks and 30 Russian cities later, Natalia fulfilled her dream of giving the children of Beslan their very own Naked Heart play park. Our target is to build a total of 500 play facilities all over Russia through our Play with Purpose programme. In 2013 we opened our 100th site.
Struck by the contrast between her sister’s upbringing in a loving family home and the lives of the children she met on her visits to orphanages, children’s hospitals and rehabilitation centres, Natalia started to think about what else she could do to help. The Naked Heart Foundation team looked at the experience of countries that did not place children with disabilities in children’s homes or orphanages, and sought the advice of leading Russian specialists. Then in 2011 they launched the Every Child Deserves a Family programme.
The Foundation believes that children flourish in a caring and loving environment and aims to help children stay with their families, rather than being placed in orphanages. Since March 2011, the NHF has financed 18 projects in 7 cities across Russia. These include: a Family Support Centre in Nizhny Novgorod, which supports families raising children with a range of disorders, including autism, cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome; the first ever “Lekotek”, or play library, set up in the Tula Region; ongoing sponsorship of the publishing and legal departments of the Centre for Curative Pedagogics (CCP) in Moscow; and Summer and Autumn camps for children with special needs and their parents across Russia. In addition, the charity actively campaigns for the full implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Having started out as a one-man team, we have tried to stay true to our roots and keep costs to a minimum. The organisation now comprises ten employees in the Russian Federation and three employees working internationally on fundraising and communications. Founder Natalia Vodianova and a small team of devoted trustees are actively involved in fundraising and the day-to-day running of the organisation. We also receive pro-bono legal support from Dentons internationally, and from Clifford Chance in Moscow.