Lost Latvian souls
Sergei Zholtok's job is to light the lamp behind NHL goalies, but his passion is back home, trying to provide a light at the end of the tunnel for a generation of forgotten children
 
Mark Spector
National Post
CREDIT: Jim Mone, The Associated Press
 
Minnesota Wild forward Sergei Zholtok is one of a handful of Latvian NHLers trying to raise money for thousands of orphans back home. "For them, 80, 90% are going to jail," he says. "Education is not there."
 

EDMONTON - Sergei Zholtok's teammates had all showered, but he was still half-dressed in his equipment after the Minnesota Wild's morning skate in Edmonton, talking about the lost children of Latvia.

He extended his arm, raising his hand just above eye level. Then Zholtok gazed through the back of his hand as he described what he and a few Latvian National Hockey League players are trying to accomplish back home.

"Any positives you can find for the children. Any light. So they can look -- for something," he said. "Instead of just stealing, and the next thing you know, it's jail. For them, 80, 90% are going to jail. It's not like there are many jobs you can take. Education is not there."

A year ago, Arturs Irbe, the patriarch of a group of Latvian NHLers that can be counted on one hand, was speaking to Edmonton Journal writer Jim Matheson about those same children:

"These kids ... they have lost souls. These kids have no voice. They're too small, too far down. And they need somebody to speak for them."

In a game that increasingly spawns stories about contracts, bargaining agreements and seven-figure revenue streams, this is a story about a few good men and the thousands of faceless orphans they aim to help.

Led by Milwaukee travel industry consultant Jay Sorensen, who in 1997 went to Latvia with his wife to adopt twin boys, Zholtok, Anaheim's Sandis Ozolinsh and Colorado's Karlis Skrastins have joined Irbe -- who is earning NHL money while playing on Carolina's East Coast League team in Johnstown -- and founded the Kids First Fund.

In an eBay online auction that closed Sunday, they raised US$8,000 to be put toward shelters for orphans in Riga, Latvia's capital.

"We don't have a lot of guys," Zholtok said. "Ozolinsh and me are the next seniors, if you want to say [after Irbe]. We're both 31, in the same age group.

"And [fundraising] has been done so many times here in North America. We served food for the people at a Morton's Steakhouse. I think we raised US$40,000 in one evening, for the 10,000 Rinks Foundation back in Minnesota."

The money rolls in a tad more slowly when you're auctioning off signed sticks and pucks on eBay under the crimson and white-striped Latvian flag, though 115 players from 18 NHL clubs each contributed to the auction.

"We're a very modest organization," Sorensen recently told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "There's no overhead. Every penny we raise, we ship directly to Latvia. When you consider a psychologist there makes about US$350 a month, each dollar goes a long way."

Since 1999,the fund has raised about US$200,000, money not being spent on hockey equipment or Christmas gifts. Because there is no romance in a young Latvian boy sleeping in his No. 33 Sergei Zholtok jersey, when his bed is a doorway in downtown Riga.

"Clothes and toys you can get used, from the Salvation Army and places like this. You must spend the money wisely," Zholtok said. "If you buy a new mattress, that's going to go a long way."

As one of the three Baltic states under Communist Russia control, Latvia's economy fell apart in 1991 with the fall of the old U.S.S.R.

"For 70 years, the government provided everything. One day, it all changed," Zholtok said. "When Latvia separated, it created an economic chaos."

There was no money for social programs that were overloaded due to widespread unemployment and skyrocketing alcoholism among Latvians who could not make the rent or feed their families due to wild inflation.

Zholtok's awakening came two summers ago when he returned to Latvia and visited a shelter for sexually and physically abused children. There he found 40 children living together under one roof in the care of two overwhelmed teachers.

"These kids, their parents maybe die, maybe have a problem with drinking, so the government takes their kids away from them. Or abused kids. Kids who have a tough life. Not like us," he said. "If your mom has, like, 12 hours of work, and dad isn't at home at all, it happens a lot that families just separate. So mom has no control for the kid. He is living on the street and coming home for a sleep. And next thing you know he is not coming home at all. He becomes one of those guys who is living on the street, doing cheap drugs, a little stealing here and there."

John Blue, the former NHL defenceman turned minister, and Adam Burt recently visited Latvia to help in the cause. Zholtok hopes now to include other Latvian athletes and branch out to include visits where they can talk to the children. Maybe give them that light at the end of the tunnel.

"It's just a beginning," he says. "If it's soccer or hockey or basketball players coming in and talking to these kids about their life experiences, or just getting them a new mattress or getting somebody they can talk to about what's happened.

"If I can just help a little bit, that's the goal."

mspector@nationalpost.com

 Copyright  2003 National Post