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3-year-old found in doghouse: Story of Olena Ivanova raising 22 kids with her husband

3-year-old found in doghouse: Story of Olena Ivanova raising 22 kids with her husband RBC-Ukraine collage
Author: Maria Kholina

Olena Ivanova, originally from the Dnipropetrovsk region, always dreamt of having a big family, despite being unmarried and childless. One day, she met her future husband who she has now been together with for 30 years. They welcomed their daughter, Sofiia, and it seemed like all their dreams had come true. However, one advertisement in the newspaper was meant to change everything drastically.

RBC-Ukraine spoke with Olena Ivanova about adopting and raising 22 children, the family's daily life, and how much dedication it requires.

How it all began

Olena and Ivan had a biological daughter, Sofiia. During that time, a local newspaper reported about a little boy left without parental care. Without much hesitation, the family took the child into their home.

"As our daughter grew up, she started asking for a sister because she said there were more boys in the family. We also wanted more children and so we adopted Dasha. As the older kids grew up, Dasha was left alone, and we decided to adopt another boy, Zhenia, along with his sister Karyna," Olena shares.

The family and children services suggested that they become a family-type children's home. A charitable organization helped them create a larger house to accommodate everyone.

"Трирічну дитину забрали з собачої будки". Історія Олени Іванової, яка з чоловіком виховує 22 дітей

Olena and Ivan raised 22 children (photo: personal archive)

So, together with adopted Serhii and biological Sofiia, the couple raised a total of 13 children. Many of them now live independently, work, and even build their own families. However, the Ivanov family still has nine children living with them: Danylo (19), Ivan (18), Anzhelika (17), Ruslana (13), Kateryna (13), Oleksii (13), Volodymyr (12), Mikhailo (12), and Artem (10).

Challenges of raising children

"Most of the children are not so easy. Currently, six of them have developmental lags.Tthey are no different from their peers in everyday life and social orientation though. It only affects their education. But all my children are wonderful. Everyone brings both joys and difficulties. But during all this time, we had two, as I jokingly call them, 'terrorist organizations,'" Olena laughs.

She refers to Vitalii, who is already building his own life, and Volodia. Sometimes, the younger one gets in a bad mood, and then he starts misbehaving and offending others.

"His mother abused alcohol, and no one knows who his father is. The child was found at the age of three at a doghouse where he hid to avoid freezing. That was when the boy got used to the idea that he had to find food himself to survive. So, he still sometimes defends himself from the 'outside world' with attacks on others," the woman shares.

She adds that many people are not interested in the children's past life stories. People see the current good picture and like to count the money the family receives for the children, without considering extra expenses.

15 liters of borshch a day

In Ukraine, the state pays about 7,300 hryvnias (about 193 US dollars) per month for the upkeep of each child in family-type children's homes, which is 2.5 times the subsistence minimum. They also receive an additional subsistence minimum for each child as a salary.

Obviously, the expenses in a family-type children's home are much higher than those of an average family.

For example, the Ivanovs' washing machine has not been working for over a year due to the heavy load. Also, two kilograms of pasta or any grain are enough for one day only.

"I cook borshch in a 15-liter pot. To make pies, you need to use three liters of milk. I bake homemade bread, eight loaves every two days. Tomorrow, I need to take the children to the New Year's tree in our district center: this means paying for transportation for ten people and for some kind of fun activities," Olena shares about their daily life.

"Трирічну дитину забрали з собачої будки". Історія Олени Іванової, яка з чоловіком виховує 22 дітей

Such a large family takes up a lot of time and requires a lot of resources (photo: personal archive)

But she and her husband have provided the children with everything they need for education: good phones, laptops, and tablets.

Emotional strain and joy of grandchildren

Of course, no one is a robot. So, the constant workload sometimes makes it difficult for the mother, when she just needs to switch off.

"I get on a motorcycle or a bicycle. We have a forest nearby, so I go there. I need to walk for at least a couple of hours, calm down. I can sing, I can cry, I collect flowers. Those are my ways to release my emotions. There are 11 people at home constantly. Sometimes it's emotionally challenging when you have to be in the whirlpool of events all the time," Olena candidly explains.

However, her voice brightens up when she talks about her grandchildren.

"Our older children bring grandkids for the entire holidays. When everyone comes for the holidays with children, wives, fiancées, there are 38 people at the table! The house is now very big. There's a place for everyone to stay overnight though, we are able to feed everyone, sp our holidays are always very joyful and fun!" she says with a smile.

"Трирічну дитину забрали з собачої будки". Історія Олени Іванової, яка з чоловіком виховує 22 дітей

The family always works and rests together (photo: personal archive)

What Olena and Ivan's kids do today

Olena and Ivan have dedicated over 30 years to raising their children, many of whom have now successfully established their own lives and are making their parents so proud.

Serhii got a raise and is now a head manager at a furniture factory in Dnipro, while Sofiia works as a critical care physician. Yura, originally a professional driver, is now serving in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Zhenia enrolled in the Metallurgical Academy in Dnipro and runs his own mobile phone store. His sister, Karyna, attends a technical college and manages her own cosmetics shop. Dasha manages a store in a well-known Ukrainian retail chain. Sasha works as a PE teacher, while another Dasha is studying to become a chef at the Petrykivka Culinary School. Nastia excels in art at the Petrykivka Art School.

The family attributes much of its success to Ivan, Olena's husband, who not only built their home but also imparts his practical skills to his sons.

"Трирічну дитину забрали з собачої будки". Історія Олени Іванової, яка з чоловіком виховує 22 дітей

Olena and her husband Ivan (photo: personal archive)

"Ivan put a lot of heart into our endeavor. Everything our sons can do with their hands, they learnt it all from him. The bicycle, motorcycle, car, little tractor – it's all thanks to dad. We have greenhouses, beehives. The farm used to be much bigger: cattle, pigs, poultry," Olena proudly recounts about her husband.

While the family has opted to reduce their livestock and other domestic animals due to the rising costs of raising them, they maintain a rule of working and resting together.

"There are days when, for example, we need to dig up potatoes. So, we get up early, all pitch in together, and get the job done in a day. In the evening, the girls peel the potatoes, Ivan fries them over the fire, we turn on the music, and we all relax together, or we can dance as well. It's been a tradition from day one: if we work, we all work, and if we rest, we all rest," emphasizes Olena.