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Photos: MoSwo PR
Despite birth defects resulting from her birth mother’s exposure to Chernobyl radiation, Oksana Masters won medals at three Paralympics in different sports: London 2012, Sochi 2014, and PyeongChang 2018.

There is so much to like in this story about a girl adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage who became a champion despite severe disabilities.

I lucked into Gary Waleik’s interview with her at WBUR radio’s Only a Game.

“Oksana Masters spent her early childhood in Ukraine. … When she was 7, Oksana stood only 36 inches tall and weighed just 35 pounds. She was malnourished, but that wasn’t the only reason she was small. Oksana was born in 1989, about 200 miles from Chernobyl, just three years after the nuclear disaster there.

” ‘I was missing the main weight-bearing bone in both legs,’ Oksana says. ‘And the left leg, I didn’t have a full knee. It was a floating knee. I had six toes. My hands were webbed, and I also have one kidney. I don’t have a full bicep on my right side. Thank God my hair didn’t get ruined. I could use a little more body, but I’m happy with it.’

“Oksana’s birth mother gave her up for adoption when she was a baby. Life was hard at the three orphanages she lived in, which were situated in the former USSR.

” ‘One of the things that I remember is, like, just that pain in your stomach from when you’re really, really hungry, and just how to ignore that feeling,’ Oksana says. ‘And sometimes you’d go to bed with no meals, or just a cup of soup, or just bread.’ …

“Thousands of miles away, a Buffalo, New York, speech pathologist saw a picture of Oksana in adoption agency literature.

“Says Gay Masters … ‘When I saw her picture, I just knew she was my daughter.’ …

“Not long after that, Oksana was shown a picture of Gay. [Then] on a freezing cold night in January, 1997, orphanage workers woke Oksana from a sound sleep. ..

” ‘I just see my mom, and she’s kneeling down on the bed next to me,’ Oksana says. ‘And I said, “I know you. You’re my Mom. I have your picture, see?” ‘ …

“Two weeks later, the new family landed in Buffalo. For the first time in Oksana’s life, there was ample food. There were toys and hugs. And there was a new language to learn. …

“Oksana did well in school. She had a restless energy that drove her to push her physical limits with the help of new prostheses. She climbed trees and jumped off steps with the neighborhood kids. …

” ‘My mom basically got me into ice skating, not necessarily to get into sports and be competitive, but have an opportunity to move and use your body and make friends,’ Oksana says. ‘And I fell in love with it.’ ”

Alas, first one and then the other malformed leg had to be amputated. Recovery after the second surgery was long and difficult.

“Then someone mentioned the Paralympics to her.

” ‘And I had no idea what the Paralympics was,’ she says. ‘When I found out about it, I went home, looked it up and then my competitive nature came out. Like, “Oh, my gosh, I can represent the United States? I can wear a flag on my back? What?” ‘ ”

Read about Oksana’s continuing quest for new sports, her triumphs and setbacks — and a moving visit to demoralized Ukrainian soldiers who had lost legs — at Only a Game, here.

And since you may be wondering what happened at the Winter Paralympics after that radio interview, Wikipedia reports that Oksana “claimed a silver medal in the women’s 6km sitting biathlon event during the 2018 Winter Paralympics.”

Oksana at the Ukrainian orphanage in 1993.

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Photo: MFA Boston
The results of a study on school field trips surprised the Brookings Institution researchers.

One of the messages I take from this Brookings report on student field trips is the importance of conducting research with both an open mind and a willingness to follow up on unexpected results. Another takeaway: researchers prefer to study things for which there are a lot of data available; worthwhile questions that don’t have a lot of data to work with often don’t get studied.

Jay P. Greene writes, “Most education research focuses on math and reading outcomes or educational attainment because those are the measures that the state collects and are readily available to us. Less is known about how students are doing in other subjects and whether their progress in those areas has important benefits for them and society. …

“A new experiment … examines long-term effects of students receiving multiple field trips to the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. The Woodruff Arts Center houses the High Art Museum, Alliance Theater, and Atlanta Symphony, all on one campus.

“We randomly assigned 4th and 5th grade school groups to get three field trips per year – one to each of Woodruff’s arts organizations – or to a control condition in which students received a single field trip. …

“The surprising result is that students who received multiple field trips experienced significantly greater gains on their standardized test scores after the first year than did the control students. …

“The reason these results are so surprising is that previous research had suggested that arts instruction tended not to ‘transfer’ into gains in other subjects. …

“When we conducted the analysis on the effects of treatment on test scores, we expected to find no statistically significant effects, just like almost all previous rigorous research. …

“We still do not believe that arts instruction and experiences have a direct effect on math or ELA ability. We think this because the bulk of prior research tells us so, and because it is simply implausible that two extra field trips to an arts organization conveyed a significant amount of math and ELA knowledge.

“Our best guess is that test scores may have risen because the extra arts activities increased student interest and engagement in school. … Maybe arts-focused field trips do not teach math or reading, but they do make students more interested in their school that does teach math and reading. But this is just a guess. …

“The odd thing about trying to write a paper with these results to present at conferences and submit to a journal is that there is strong pressure for us to pretend like we expected our findings all along. Discussants and reviewers generally don’t want to hear that you found something you didn’t expect and don’t really know why. They want to hear a clean story about how your results make sense and follow from your theory and literature review. In short, social science favors the false appearance of confidence.”

Ah, yes. When I was at the Fed, I often wondered about such things, but as a non-economist, I knew I was out of my depth.

Read about how the researchers intend to unpack the meaning of their unexpected results with future studies, here.

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Photo: Rhode Island Inno
Refugees learn US workplace skills thanks to a nonprofit called Beautiful Day.

For my taste, there can never be too many admiring articles about Beautiful Day (aka Providence Granola Project). I find the nonprofit’s model to be both wise and kind, and my only wish is that more markets would carry the products and more employers would hire the refugees after graduation.

I’ve known a number of immigrants who have gone through the training (including the somber Congolese girl above, who is still learning to share her radiant side more often).

Bram Berkowitz writes at Rhode Island Inno, “On many accounts, granola is considered a nutritious, lightweight and high-energy snack that has become a popular breakfast item, as well as a pick-me-up for hikers and campers.

“But at the Providence-based nonprofit Beautiful Day, the crumbled, whole-grain based food has become a path to the labor market for many refugees that come to this country lacking the skills needed to obtain a job.

“Keith Cooper, a former campus ministry veteran, founded Beautiful Day about 10 years ago as a granola business that employs refugees in order to give them hands-on experience and training they can use later on to gain permanent employment.

“As the United States prepares to take in the least amount of refugees since the 1980s, Cooper is gearing up to double growth at Beautiful Day so the organization can expand its services by taking on more refugees or train refugees for longer periods of time. …

“The organization finds refugees through various agencies, such as the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island. Cooper said typical candidates are those that have extremely high barriers to entry, whether its lacking cultural literacy or English speaking skills.

“Cooper said he chose granola because its non-perishable, healthy and a food that requires a lot of work to make, but not a lot of finesse.

“ ‘I had never run a food production company, but we have been determined to become our state’s premier granola company,’ he said, adding that the organization uses local distributors and suppliers when possible. ‘We try to use the highest quality ingredients we can to make granola people will really like.’

“Beautiful Day provides 200 hours of work to refugees in various parts of the granola business, which gives them experience for when they apply to their next job. The placement also comes with a stipend and has opportunities for refugees to interact with others in the community when the company goes to public places like farmer markets to sell the granola. … Cooper said most of the kitchen workers go onto entry level jobs such as working at a laundromat, in a warehouse, as a janitor or sometimes in food production.

“ ‘Most lack English language, but they can still learn pretty quickly how to look someone in the eyes during an interview,’ he said, adding that all of the program participants, many of whom lived for years in refugee camps, are extremely eager to work. ‘The primary skill we teach is confidence … In a lot of work settings you may not need much English, but you absolutely have to be able to communicate when you do or you don’t understand something. That takes confidence.’ …

“Cooper sees huge scalability through online subscriptions and consumer sales. He is also looking to sell directly to universities and law offices, which will also help spread Beautiful Day’s mission because subscribers receive a postcard each month with a story about a new trainee. …

“ ‘People can do something about refugee resettlement. … By making a small choice about what you eat for breakfast or for a snack, you can provide crucial on-the-job training for someone who otherwise can’t get a job.’ ”

More here.

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Photo: Storify
Mudslides in Haiti in 2011. Reforestation of the once lush island is badly needed, but how can people in poverty wait decades for results when a sapling could provide charcoal for a hungry family?

Recently, I read a book that I recommend highly. It’s Apricot Irving’s memoir The Gospel of Trees. I wrote the following about it on GoodReads.

Author Apricot Irving’s parents were missionaries in Haiti for several years starting in the 1970s, and Apricot’s memoir evokes what the experience meant for her as a child, a teenager, and an adult. The vividness of her writing benefits from the fact that both parents kept diaries. Her own journal, which she started at a very young age, also gives both happy and bitter memories remarkable immediacy.

Apricot’s counterculture parents were people used to hiking long distances and sleeping under the stars. They shunned middle-class materialism and thought nothing of raising children in a shack with an outhouse. (The family eventually included three daughters.) They got religion at a point in their marriage when Apricot’s mother was fed up with Apricot’s father and his remoteness. She was ready to split. A pamphlet left by her mother-in-law led to her epiphany.

When the church the couple joined needed help at a medical mission in Haiti, Apricot’s father (a hard-working farmer and forest ranger) found the mission’s reforestation sideline appealing. Off they all went to save the poor people and tell them what was needed.

Over the years, the family began to see that that’s not how development is successful. They learned what Paul Farmer of Partners in Health had been preaching for decades in Haiti — namely that the local people must lead. (Oddly, the famous doctor is never mentioned, suggesting to me there’s some enmity.)

The Irving family lived through years of getting trees started in the ravaged, depleted soil, where mudslides, destruction, and death were the norm, only to see the new growth eaten by goats or cut down for charcoal — over and over and over and over.

They lived through revolutions, political upheaval (sometimes aggravated by US military action), danger, and crushing disappointment, coming back to help any way they could after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Once back there, they relived all the ironies– paying locals to plant trees, which enabled them to buy goats, which ate the trees. By this time they knew that buying imported furniture as NGOs demanded was wrong when desperate locals were struggling to keep their own furniture businesses afloat. They knew that forcing a flourishing local cooperative to meet an NGO timeline might be dooming it to failure. They agonized for the country they still loved.

The author recounts the history of the island, going back to Columbus, who discovered what was then a lush paradise, eventually ruined by clearing the land for crops grown by slaves. And she gradually peals back the stages of her personal awakening, her conflicted feelings about the country, her wish to help, her understanding that although the job is never finished, you still need to do what you can and know that others will continue the work.

I found that I liked Apricot a lot and admired her ongoing effort to find common ground with her demanding, sometimes cruel, father. I also admired her stalwart mother’s efforts to bring cheer — especially as the mission was falling apart and all the doctors and nurses and staff were feeling demoralized.

You get to see the beauty of the country in this book and the different strengths of the people. And you especially get to see why decades of do-gooder initiatives were bound to fail. Not that the medical mission did no good at all — many lives were saved, many people got jobs and other kinds of help — but the model was unsustainable.

I can think of so many people I know who would love this book — people who work with immigrants from Haiti and elsewhere, tree people trying to protect the environment, people who love beautiful, honest writing.

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Photo: Elisa Coltro/Facebook
Nonna Irma, of Noventa Vicentian, Italy, poses with some of the children in the Kenyan orphanage she supports.

News outlets around the world reposted this story about a 93-year-old’s outreach work as described by her granddaughter on Facebook. But I found that BrightSide dug for additional details.

The website reports, “This charming woman from Noventa Vicentina, Italy is Irma, and she is 93 years old. Despite her age, she’s full of energy and desire to change the world for the better. She decided to fly to Kenya to help children in the orphanage there. Her granddaughter shared her grandma’s photos on her Facebook page, which took over the Internet. …

” ‘Irma has always loved life and was never stopped by life’s obstacles,’ her granddaughter [Elisa Coltro] wrote. She knows what difficulties are like and has always tried to help others. Irma lost her husband at 26 and later one of her three children. Her life has not been easy, and she has always relied on her own strength to make it through.

“Many years ago she met Father Remigio, a [missionary] who has spent his life helping the people of Kenya. Irma has supported him for many years. Once she heard that Father Remigio was hospitalized, she made a decision to visit him and all the places he had built during his lifetime, such as hospitals, orphanages and kindergartens.

“Now being in Kenya, Irma helps children as much as she can. She teaches English and Math in the school of Malindi. … Her age never stops her from taking motorcycle rides. Despite all the difficulties she’s faced, she continues to enjoy life. Irma plans to stay in Africa for a few weeks, but there is a possibility that she will want to stay there for good.

“She has always taught her children and grandchildren to help others. Her granddaughter Elisa did volunteer work in refugee camps in Greece in 2016 and 2017.” More here.

One of the things I like best about the story is the sense of a network of fellow travelers. Irma’s daughter went to Kenya with her. Her granddaughter volunteers. And zillions of people loved what Irma is doing enough to share the news on social media. One and one and 50 …

Photo: Elisa Coltro / facebook   

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Photos: Shannon Young/The Republican
A model of the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum, which will have 2,000 precision scale model trains that move throughout the exhibit.

I know a model train aficionado who is going to love the newest Frank Gehry museum — at least as much as my grandchildren will. Imagine having such a high-profile architect for model trains! No more making do with rented mall space for a couple weeks at Christmas.

Shira Schoenberg writes at MassLive (by way of the Republican), “Picture the World Trade Center near the Empire State Building near Fenway Park near London’s Tate Modern. Now picture trains zipping past the architectural icons.

“That is the vision world-famous architect Frank Gehry and museum developer Thomas Krens are trying to bring to North Adams, in the form of the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture Museum. …

“The museum will feature 164 buildings, by 71 international architects, that showcase contemporary architecture. These will include iconic structures like the Seagram Building in Manhattan or the Brooklyn Bridge. These buildings will be surrounded by more than 1,000 commonplace buildings such as houses. They will all be built at a scale of 1:48. The tallest building, One World Trade Center, will be 40 feet tall.

“The buildings will be surrounded by video-projected landscaping, featuring mountains or a city, which can change with the season.

“The buildings also will be surrounded by model trains: 107 operating steam and diesel locomotives, with more than 2,000 passenger and freight cars. There will be 12 rail lines, including two high-speed lines. The trains and buildings will be located in a single 670-foot-long gallery – the size of 2.5 football fields. …

“The for-profit museum is expected to cost around $65 million and open by 2021.”

More here.

The ambitious museum is part of an ongoing effort to make North Adams a tourist destination after its loss of manufacturing. That effort got its first big boost in 1999 when the modern art museum MassMoCA opened in an old factory. My husband and I spent a Thanksgiving holiday in the town with Suzanne and Erik some years ago — before grandchildren. Might be time to go back soon.

Below, a handsome model train sits on a map in the Extreme Model Railroad and Contemporary Architecture developers’ office.

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Photo: AP
Before the Australian men’s soccer team’s first World Cup appearance in 1974 (pictured above), the team competed in war-torn Saigon.

Young, ambitious Australians, playing for their country for free in 1967, didn’t know any better when they accepted an invitation to a soccer tournament — in Saigon. I heard this story on WBUR radio’s Only a Game. It is beyond amazing.

James Parkinson reported, ” ‘It was one of these stories that you heard at a bar with colleagues and ex-players, and you thought, “Is this really true? Could this really be a thing? Surely this didn’t actually happen,” ‘ sports journalist Davidde Corran says. ‘Except that it really did actually happen. It really was the way that they told it.’

“It was November 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, when an international football tournament was held in Saigon. Eight nations would compete: New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, then South Vietnam and Australia. …

” ‘We were the pawns in the game to win over the South Vietnamese people, so it was a PR exercise,’ says Ray Baartz, a former Australian national team player, from 1967 to 1974. …

“There was little time for the players to think about the potential dangers of sending civilians into a war zone.

” ‘I think it was about a matter of weeks. We’re on the plane off to Vietnam. We didn’t have too many discussions about it,’ says Stan Ackerley, who represented Australia from 1965 to 1969. ‘These days, you would think twice about going.’ …

” ‘Well, the first, biggest shock we got was the amount of armed people we saw — soldiers, sentry points all over the place,”‘ Stan says.

“Bombers here, and fighter planes here, there and everywhere,” Ray says. “You thought, ‘Hello, we are in the middle of a war zone,’ you know? And we got through the airport, and then into the bus to take us to the hotel and had a police escort all the way.” …

” ‘They went to this briefing at the embassy, and one of the things they were told was, “Be careful of people riding on bikes because it might be someone who’s a threat, and they could mistake you for an American or a soldier and attack you and shoot you,” ‘ Davidde says. ‘[These] players, in this completely new surrounding, walk out of the Australian Embassy, and what do they see? Just a city filled with people riding around on bikes.’ …

“The players discovered the proprietor of their hotel had stolen their food vouchers, leaving them with nothing but substitute ham. And Stan received an electric shock, thanks to exposed wires in his room. Even the training pitch was questionable.

” ‘The training field was a real quagmire at the best of times, so you couldn’t train there all the time because of the conditions and that,’ Ray says. ‘It was really a cow paddock. You know, quite often we’d train on the roof of the hotel, just to keep the body moving a little bit. We weren’t allowed to train on the main stadium.’

” ‘There would have been this surreal sight during this short period of the Vietnam War, where footballs were just falling off the top of this building, this hotel, every day during training,’ Davidde says. …

“The tournament began with a group stage. Australia was drawn into Group A alongside New Zealand, Singapore and hosts South Vietnam.

” ‘The army was going around the stadium with mine detectors and so forth, and then you think, “Oh, hello,” ‘ Ray says. …

” ‘You gotta bear in mind that these players — a lot of these players were playing for the national team unpaid,’ Davidde says. ‘You’re taking annual leave to go and play for the national team — you’re sacrificing to play for the national team.’ …

“The Australian team’s PR mission had, in some ways, managed to work. The Vietnamese people had just seen their own team eliminated in the other semifinal. They also loathed the South Korean soldiers. So they began cheering for the Australians. …

” ‘To be part of the first tournament that we ever won was fantastic,’ Ray says. ‘You know, we were all so thrilled and so proud to be a part of it.’

“The magnitude of Australia’s performance in the Friendship Tournament cannot be overstated. Not only did they perform on the pitch, but they did it in remarkable circumstances, and all for the honor of representing their country.

” ‘To play for your country, you have to sacrifice a lot,’ Stan says. ‘So we sacrificed a lot, you know?’ ”

Wow. More at Only a Game, here.

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