AL HAMNIK: To Russia with love and kisses again

2014-02-08T20:00:00Z 2014-03-14T14:44:08Z AL HAMNIK: To Russia with love and kisses againAl Hamnik Times Columnist nwitimes.com
February 08, 2014 8:00 pm  • 

Dark, dreary, dirty, dog packs everywhere.

Welcome to Russia, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

We've all watched the nightly news, seen film of the deplorable conditions in and outside Olympic Village and shook our heads in disbelief.

It's like stepping back in time, maybe Knighthood.

Tom Haluska actually likes Russia, particularly Moscow, and says the people are friendly once you get to know them. The Morton girls basketball coach has had plenty of time to cultivate those relationships.

Nearly 12 years ago, Haluska and wife Linda adopted three siblings from three orphanages in Kazakhstan, located about 1,200 miles east of Moscow.

Denis and Natasha were originally on the Haluskas' radar until learning of older sister Elmira. So three weeks of endless red tape and $40,000 later, the couple returned to the United States with their new family.

"I'm going back to Kazakhstan in April during spring break," Tom said. "I'm going to visit my son's orphanage to give some basketball camps, maybe coach a bit."

Tom Haluska is a hoops junkie. If he weren't married, the 1983 Whiting grad would probably sleep in the gym. He has coached prep and college ball throughout the area and is passionate when it comes to analyzing and breaking down the game.

The orphans in Russia are a receptive audience.

"They stopped adoptions in Kazakhstan two or three years ago," Tom said. "The first two years you had the child, they wanted you to send photos, progress reports, but no one was doing that consistently.

"So nobody's adopted now."

Instead, children eventually leave on their own when they finish high school and can live with foster families who receive government stipends until the kids complete college and/or find jobs.

Elmira, now 21, is married and lives in Chicago. Denis, 19, and 16-year-old Natasha attend Highland High.

Life in Russia continues to be hard for all.

"In cities like Moscow, it's changing," Tom said. "They have some new construction. But go out to the villages and it's basically the same. Homes look like old garages.

"In this country, if it's in bad shape, they tear it down and rebuild. In Russia, it's just fix and paint over."

Many orphanages still have dreary classrooms and tiny gyms with exposed radiator pipes covering the walls. Everything is painted over, even the gym floors.

Yet, basketball is gaining in popularity among kids and who knows? Maybe Tom Haluska helped plant the seed.

He has made many friends and contacts among coaches and administrators in Kazakhstan. They look forward to his visits and any equipment he might bring. Some email him regularly.

"It's a different world," he said.

Go to Yahoo! and do a search for "Life In Russia By Petrosian | English Russia." You will see dozens of amazing photos that tug at your every emotion.

This strikes me as a very sad, depressed country.

"That's their culture. They do not smile a lot in pictures," Tom Haluska said. "They just look at you."

Perhaps they got the bill for these Olympics.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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