WEST HAVEN >> Mice scurried through the beat down apartment in Tambov, an industrial city near Moscow in Russia. A few floor boards were missing. They had been removed and burned for heat during the bitter winter months.
Alex Mathews, a rising sophomore soccer player at Notre Dame-West Haven, his younger brother, Ruslan, and sister, Vera, had to sleep on the floor, using whatever clothes and blankets they could find to keep warm.
Their parents, both alcoholics in a country where domestic vodka is cheaper than bottled water, would leave them alone for days at a time. Mathews wandered the streets in search of the next meal for him and his siblings. He was just 3 years old at the time. They usually shared bread and water, and went without a full meal most days.
“I had to take care of them,” he said.
At age 5, Mathews, along with his brother and sister, were picked up off the streets by the state and taken to an orphanage. Their parents never came for them.
The Russian orphanage system is a major problem in the country. It is overpopulated (there are 300,000 children in state residential homes, according to the BBC). Most are malnourished and uneducated. Mathews was one of the countless victims.
But after nearly four years in the orphanage, Mathews’ life would change forever.
And for the better.
Kenneth Mathews, now the math supervisor for New Haven Public Schools, took part in a Russian teacher exchange program years ago. He became fascinated with the country and its culture during his stay. So when he and his wife, Kathy, were considering adoption they looked to Russian orphanages. The plan was to get one child, but they chose to take three: Mathews, his brother and sister.
Kathy remembers leaving the orphanage. The three children were in front of them. They had new coats and backpacks on. They never looked back.
“They had a very forward, very focused attitude,” their mother said. “They viewed it as an adventure and maybe some security.”
Sure, Mathews, along with his siblings, was scared at first. Perhaps a bit skeptical and confused. But the family bond soon became quick and seamless. They would all squeeze together on two cushions of the couch when watching television. They went to the beach and played at the park together. Kenneth remembers their unbridled energy and endless appetite.
The children were underfed and extremely thin when they arrived in the United States. Mathews tells the story of how, when he first arrived, he ate 10 bananas in a half-hour. He had never eaten fruit before.
“I had to call the pediatrician to make sure he didn’t overdose on potassium,” his father recalls.
Education has been the most difficult part of the transition. Mathews had never been read to, didn’t know English and could not write. Their parents hired a tutor so they could learn Russian and communicate.
Mathews learned English in just four months. He started in April. By August his accent was gone.
“Sheer determination, just like he has on the soccer field,” his father said.
The children picked up the language through television and had some additional home schooling as well.
But education will always be a struggle. Mathews and his brother and sister will have to work that much harder to keep pace. As their father puts it, they are still learning to read in many ways, while other students are reading to learn.
Nevertheless, they each have come a long way and share a remarkable story.
Sports have been an outlet for them. Ruslan played freshman football for Notre Dame and will try out for the hockey team this winter. Vera runs track for the New Haven Age Group program. As for Mathews, he’s a talented striker with a ton of untapped potential. He’s had a breakthrough season, earning All-SCC Quinnipiac Division honors. Mathews and the Green Knights will open Class L state tournament play today at Farmington at 6 p.m.
“He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached,” Notre Dame coach Rudy Raffone said. “His work rate for 80 minutes in a game in unbelievable. He moves, moves, moves. He chases everything down. He’s everywhere. I look at him and I’m amazed at how far he’s come.”
“He had a rough early life,” teammate Nick Fratarcangeli said. “For him to come along this far, he inspires me and motivates me to work harder.”
When he came to the United States, Mathews’ uncle gave him a soccer ball. He didn’t’ know what it was at first. He’d never seen one before. Once he figured it out, it took off from there.
It is one of many opportunities in which he is thankful.
“On my birthdays, sometimes I just sit in my room and listen to music and think about what happened and how I got to this point,” Mathews said. “The worst has happened. That’s in the past.”
And now he can look forward to a bright future.