Alla Kulbeda is the director of the Krasnaya Rechka (Red River) Special Boarding School in northern Kyrgyzstan. The boarding school raises and educates orphans with "oligophrenia" - a disease that impairs a person's ability to think.
When Kyrgyzstan was a part of the Soviet Union, the government subsidized the farm on which the Krasnaya Rechka School grew fresh fruits and vegetables for the students. However, political and economic changes a decade ago resulted in substantial cuts in funding and the loss of the farm.
It was the students who suffered the most from the changes, as state funding could only cover the salaries of the school's personnel and administration costs
"In former times I was able to use state funds to pay workers for repairing our facilities, service the subsidiary farm, and to purchase inputs for sewing workshops - now we manage almost all ourselves," Alla says.
With no resources to grow or purchase food, many children suffered from chronic hunger. Children with oligophrenia are especially at risk, needing a high-calorie, balanced diet.
As part of its countywide humanitarian assistance program, Mercy Corps provided rice and vegetable oil to the school in 1995, enabling the staff to save money to purchase a greater variety of foods.
To improve food supply, the boarding school converted its sports ground into a vegetable garden in 1998, which later inspired Alla to cultivate the previous farmland, which was covered in weeds after years of neglect.
Based on its previous success, Krasnaya Rechka Boarding School received a 146 thousand som (about $3,000) grant from Mercy Corps last year. With the enthusiastic help of the students, the school used the funds to plant two hectares of sugar beets, two hectares of potatoes and four hectares of corn, which now serve as a primary source of food for the children.
The experience of growing food with their own hands has also given the children of Krasnaya Rechka a sense of pride. Two students of the school, Andrei and Sasha Palin are serious about agricultural careers. The Palin brothers have not only nurtured crops, but have developed dreams.
Of course, ten hectares of crops will not solve all the school's problems, but as Alla says, "I believe that the main 'harvest' of this year is the experience acquired by all of us and the belief in our own abilities."