Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend
No place like home? Midlothian native has 2
Charbonneau returns to Richmond from Kazakhstan, where she helps build lives
Her occasional trips home from her other home halfway around the world are always whirlwind events: reunions with family and friends, meetings with supporters and, often, medical visits.
Victoria Charbonneau’s 2021 return to Richmond included a stop at Hanger Clinic in North Chesterfield this week to pick up a new prosthetic leg for the 16-year-old girl she met in an orphanage in Kazakhstan years ago and has become like a daughter to her.
Charbonneau, who grew up in Midlothian before starting to build a new life helping others in Kazakhstan more than 20 years ago, arrived back in town with Saule Sadykova, the teen who was born with a number
of disabilities, including a club foot that was later amputated, but also an abundance of resourcefulness.
As a little girl living in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, Saule climbed into Charbonneau’s lap and pointedly asked when she would find her a family and medical care.
Charbonneau has brought her to the United States for treatment that included the Hanger Clinic donating a prosthetic leg in 2015. As she’s gotten older, Saule has outgrown the prosthetic, leading to a bad fit and leg soreness. Eventually, she had to remove the prosthetic and go back to crutches.
Upon Saule’s return to Richmond in April, Hanger clinicians fitted Saule for a new prosthetic and modified the old prosthetic with a running blade.
“They’ve been very kind and very generous,” Charbonneau said.
Charbonneau, who will be 60 in June, first visited Kazakhstan as part of a church delegation in 2000. She fell in love with the place and later, along with an American friend she met there, she founded Caring Heart, a Kazakh public fund in Taraz, a city of more than 350,000, aimed at helping orphans who have aged out of the system, single mothers, children with disabilities and other marginalized citizens. The affiliated U.S. nonprofit is J127 Ranch, which supports the work of Caring Heart.
In 2019, Charbonneau was temporarily deported from Kazakhstan over what turned out to be a bureaucratic misunderstanding, but that situation was resolved, and wound up helping her organization, which is serving more people than ever.
“It raised awareness in a very positive way,” she said. “We have more support from Kazakhstani citizens now as far as donating money and supplies.”
Caring Heart currently provides training and employment for 58 mothers at its family and development center, Charbonneau said. Almost 100 children attend day programs, including 28 who live at the center. The organization distributes clothing and shoes and feeds more than 170 every day.
“Our grocery bill is crazy,” said Charbonneau, who lives at the center.
Caring Heart has grown to have 65 employees and an annual budget close to $500,000. It offers sponsorships for children in which the children correspond with their sponsors, and it is raising money to acquire another house to expand its residential program.
Financial support is “all through individuals around the world, which is pretty amazing,” said Charbonneau, who is scheduled to return to Kazakhstan next week.
Saule, who comes to the center daily but lives with a foster family, is “doing really well,” Charbonneau, and is looking to a future of good work herself. Her education thwarted by her disability, Saule might pursue a high school equivalency diploma so that she can enter a college program and work toward her goal of learning how to make prosthetic limbs and serve those in need in Kazakhstan.
Saule has “navigated all kinds of situations with a grace and a strength that comes from inside of her,” said Charbonneau, who would like to adopt Saule but cannot legally do so because of Kazakhstani law.
“I think that I’ve proven my devotion and dedication to her,” Charbonneau said, but any decision is up to the Kazakhstani government. “I would like that to happen. We’ll see.”
Meantime, even without the legal paperwork, they consider each other family, as evident by what Saule calls Charbonneau: