Two years ago, Sergei Zholtok returned to Latvia to spend another NHL offseason in his homeland.
He visited a shelter for sexually and physically abused children one afternoon that profoundly affected how the Wild forward would view social conditions in his evolving country. The visit inspired him to train a philanthropic eye toward improving those conditions.
Under one dilapidated roof were 40 displaced kids living together and running roughshod over two overwhelmed teachers who tried their best to double as parents.
"I was like, 'Wow.' The inside was full of junk. There were co-ed showers. And these kids," Zholtok recounted, "they've already been through so much in their lives at so young an age. I know they have so many years to feel good about themselves again."
Recently, Zholtok hooked up with fellow countryman and former Carolina Hurricanes goalie Arturs Irbe to organize an on-line auction of hockey memorabilia to benefit abused children in Latvia. They collected pucks, sticks and equipment autographed by more than 115 NHL players from 18 teams, including the Wild's Marian Gaborik, for sale to the highest bidder.
The Kids First Fund, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit organization founded four years ago to improve the child welfare system in the Baltic nation, launched the auction this week in conjunction with the Wild, the NHL, the NHL Players Association and eBay. The auction closes at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Founder Jay Sorensen, a Milwaukee travel industry consultant, said his organization is manned by volunteers who raise money to build and renovate existing shelters for orphaned, disabled and abused children in Latvia. Funds also are used to subsidize salaries for social workers and psychologists, purchase athletic equipment and arrange field trips.
Moreover, they organize seminars for U.S. police officers and prosecutors, lawmakers and social workers to educate their Latvian counterparts about how to detect, legislate and treat abuse in a newly democratized country where such crimes often go unreported.
In 1997, Sorenson and his wife, Laura, adopted twin boys from Latvia. His trips to the country during the adoption process exposed him to the harsh conditions facing abused and abandoned children and encouraged him to organize projects to improve them.
It is a daunting task.
Seven decades of Soviet occupation ended in 1991, ushering in a new era of economic and social freedoms that revealed dark secrets Sorensen learned during a half-dozen trips to Latvia in the past six years.
"Child sexual abuse simply was not talked about, and even if the police did become engaged, they had no idea what to do with a child," he said. "Children who were victims of unspeakable crimes grow up into damaged adults, and the cycle often would repeat itself."
Sorensen said there remain institutional emphases on property rights over human rights, which often leaves children unprotected.
He recalled during a recent seminar how Latvian police balked at breaking down a door to thwart an abusive situation because officers feared they would have to pay for the damage to the door.
"There are fewer laws, lesser enforcement, less resources for dealing with abuse add it all up, and the children suffer pretty badly at the hands of an adult-oriented system," Sorensen said.
Underreporting is the most serious problem. About 55,000 children live in the capital city of Riga. In 2000, only 33 cases of child sexual abuse were reported. Sorensen refered to 1998 crime statistics in Wisconsin that reported more than 6,000 sexual assault cases among a child population of 1.3 million.
Applying the Wisconsin incident rate to Riga would generate about 250 cases a 700-percent increase over the actual report. And data from rural regions of the country is even less reliable.
"Latvia is no longer a developing country. It's a resource-poor country," Sorensen said. "There seem to be decent laws on the books. But awareness of the laws outside of large cities seems non-existent."
Zholtok, who grew up in Riga and spends his summers there with his wife and two sons, said the gears turn slowly when a society of 2.3 million suddenly changes from communism to a free market. Efforts to adopt a Westernized welfare system where none existed are not treated as urgently as improving wages and stemming unemployment.
"For 70 years, the government provided everything. One day, it all changed," Zholtok said. "It's tough to talk about some of these things going on in my own country, but I know it's happening, just like abuse happens here. You see some good signs, but the country is still trying to establish itself, and it has taken a toll on a lot of families.
"The government is still changing and it doesn't have time to deal with these new problems. It's a very tough and long road."
Since Kids First Fund was founded in 1999, it has raised a $200,000 to aid its programs. It hopes to generate about $20,000 through the memorabilia auction.
"We're a very modest organization," Sorensen said. "There's no overhead. Every penny we raise, we ship directly to Latvia. When you consider a psychologist there makes about $350 a month, each dollar goes a long way."
Zholtok said he plans to organize a summer tour of Latvian sports stars that would include Irbe, who is playing in the East Coast Hockey League, and Anaheim defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh to visit shelters such as the one he visited two years ago.
"I'm really excited to see some of the stuff Jay has created, getting the U.S and Latvian embassies involved. I'll do whatever," he said. "It's just a beginning. 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."
The Kids First Fund Online Auction.