I just returned from leading a team of 10 from the US (including my wife and oldest daughter!) on a fantastic mission trip to Ukraine.
What made this trip more meaningful for me as someone on the “inside” of ServeNow, was the fact that we witnessed a literal miracle revolving around the 7,000 Christmas Gifts that we were a part of giving out. Ukraine celebrates Christmas on the Orthodox calendar, which falls on January 7th. Therefore, giving out these gifts to orphans, refugee’s, soldiers, elderly people, children with disabilities, Roma families and others in need was a central aspect of this trip. These gifts are not just a few toys for fun for kids; but also have needed hygienic items, clothing, knitted hats etc.
However, not long before we were due to arrive, I got word from our Ukrainian Directors that there was a real possibility of the gifts not being able to get through customs on time, due to several issue’s outside of our control. This would have been quite devastating not only for the team coming, but for all the kids and others, many of whom either have never received a Christmas gift before, or otherwise would not apart from these gifts. Long story short, we sent out a request to some prayer warriors to pray about this situation and God answered their prayers! First, we got a meeting with the top customs official (a miracle in itself that does not happen, especially the way it did for us, and at just the right timing) and secondly, he actually gave the order to have the gifts released in time! One day later of meeting with him (he had been out of the country prior) and it would have been too late.
Anyway, our travel schedule was quite intense, from a nine hour flight, to immediately an overnight train ride, to arriving and going directly into the war-zone in Eastern Ukraine where we could hear gun-fire only a few miles away! That day was spent giving soldiers Christmas gifts and sharing the Gospel with them, visiting families still inside the war zone, where bullet holes could be seen around their property and homes/buildings where bombed out.
Our guides were quite the interesting characters who loved to laugh and joke around; but much of their humor was to keep sane in the midst of an oppressive war-zone. In fact, the day we drove in, it was very cold, and the sky was grey and dreary; a fitting scene that captured the reality of war. They themselves had seen and deal with an awful lot of stress, danger and death. But they also helped bring to safety over 1,600 people when the conflict first broke out in the area we were in. They did this by taking out 40 people at a time, in a van that could barely fit our team, with our luggage! We heard how families had about 30 minutes to gather whatever they could hold in a box from their homes and get on the van, not knowing whether they would (or will) ever be able to come back to their homes again. Many homes, in fact are already destroyed.
But one of the most touching stories of the day was a family we visited, made up of two boys and their grandparents. The grandmother was beside herself with emotion from the moment we arrived until we left. Later, we found out the reason why. The boys mother had been killed during the conflict. The boy’s father had deserted. The grandfather had had a stroke not long ago and is incapable of working. Therefore, the grandmother has been working three low-paying jobs to try to provide for the family. Not long before our visit, they finally were able to have heat turned on. The grandmother so desperately wanted to provide some type of Christmas for her grandsons, but was unable too; until ServeNow served up! The team also had a chance to pray for her and the family.
Day 2 was spent in Khearson, in village schools, where no local church exists. For many it was the first time they had ever met Americans or have had visitors from America! A couple hundred kids were given gifts and the Gospel was shared with them all through one of the team members and the program the Ukrainian volunteer’s put on for them.
In the evening a team member shared her testimony and we gave out gifts to about 100 elderly women.
We learned from some of them that they had been at this facility since they were 18 years old. Many never have any visitors, even from family. It is one of the sad aspects of Ukrainian society (really from the former Soviet Union days), especially for orphans who upon going through state-run orphanages, are on their own at the age of 18. Only 2-3% go on to live meaningful lives. The rest, 98%, end up in prostitution, alcoholism, human trafficking, hopelessness, very low-paying jobs etc. Much of this has to do with not having learned a marketable skill. This is why, later in the trip, when we visited the girls at our bakery, the significance of that became all the more special and real.
However, during our two days in Khearson, we also visited kids and teenagers, who while having physical disabilities, were a true delight to be with! My aunt had the opportunity to share about her son, my cousin, who also was born with many physical challenges that he fought through his whole life. She reminded them that they are special, bring much joy to others and God loves them. Some of the older kids were also kids that had been at our summer camps this past year! This was all the more special considering these kids never get outside their building, let alone community. The team not only gave out gifts, but also did some crafts and games with them. Also, it was exciting to see some of the new wheelchairs ServeNow has been able to provide for many of these kids. Wheelchairs are something we may take for granted, but in Ukraine they are too expensive for an average person to buy, and many of the one’s the kids did have were very old and very hard to get around on.
We also spent time visiting families in their homes, who have children with physical disabilities, and giving them Christmas gifts! One of the things we noticed was how many of the homes were in rough shape, very small and often with a strong odor. Life is not easy for many people in various parts of Ukraine, especially those who have kids with disabilities. But many of the families had an obvious deep love for their kids or siblings!
After a very long (17 hour!) train ride to Lviv, we spent the first part of the day doing a little sightseeing of this historical and cultural city. Later, we celebrated Ukrainian Christmas with other believers at a church, where I also had the opportunity to preach. Afterwards, we visited a facility for elderly people. We broke up into small groups and went around visiting with some of the people and giving them Christmas gifts. We heard many sad stories that day, especially of how for some, no family members come to visit. (read more here from my dad’s article: From the Eyes of a Team Member).
That night, we drove to Uzghorod, where the next day we got to meet our bakery students! Some of the girls from the first group where also there to meet and “show off” their very, very tasty treats they prepared for us!! Being it was Sunday morning, I preached again at a church that morning, that is connected to the Bakery space we rent out from the church.
The next day, we were able to spend the morning with the bakery students. One of our team members, Rebecca, taught them how to bake white-chocolate chip cookies! The girls also baked on their own (without help from their teacher!) more treats for our team. During this time, we also had an opportunity to interview some of the girls and hear their stories, which were incredibly precious and beautiful.
For example, one girl, Laura, told us how she grew up going from orphanage to orphanage. When she was 17 however, a woman that God has raised up in Ukraine with a big heart for girls who have no place to go after orphanages, took her in, along with the other girls she takes care of in similar situations. For years, these girls had been praying to be able to open a bakery where they could learn to bake and then sell their baked goods to produce an income. Laura told us, that even from a young age, this was actually her dream. A year and a half ago, God used ServeNow to answer the prayers of these girls hearts! And each of them clearly see this as God’s love for them and answer to the desires of their heart!
That afternoon/evening we spent giving gifts out within a Roma village. The Roma people are gypsies people who have migrated from Northern India. They have been looked down upon by Ukrainian society and live in very, very poor, slum-like conditions. We also were shocked and saddened to find out for ourselves, as we visited from house to house, how many relatively young mothers, of many children, had been raped repeatedly, from within the community. There is absolutely no future hope for the young girls in this type of environment if they are not able to be taken out and provided a skill. That is another reason, besides orphan girls, our bakery is so vital and making such a big difference in the live of young girls. Several Roma girls are a part of the bakery program!
After another long train ride, we ended our trip in Irpin, a city just outside of Kiev. In just the last couple of years, Irpin has seen a dramatic change in it’s population. Before the conflict with Russia, it was a population of 40,000 people. Today it is 100,000 people; 60,000 being refugee families! Therefore, our team spent the afternoon giving out gifts to refugee families.
One of the other special things about this day was the fact that we were able to give another unique gift to many of these kids. A group of people had made it possible through their financial gifts, for us to take 25 stuffed animals with us, that aren’t just regular stuffed animals. These have within the stomach pouch, a solar-powered audio device that contains the Bible in Russian, and stories from the Bible in kid-friendly format! We pray that these Bibles, along with some of the other 20,000 Ukrainian New Testaments that we were able to ship in prior to visit and gave a portion out to people, will bear much lasting fruit in the years to come.
I want to end this blog article with a few notes. First of all, as with all ServeNow trips, we are just a small part of a much bigger process and story. The people we visited and gave gifts too were not just visited this one time and then forgotten about. In fact, for some, we have already been working with them over a period of time in different ways. For all, there will be follow-up through our staff, volunteer’s and local pastors/churches.
One of those ways, could be one of several summer camps we hope to host this year. Last year we hosted three camps. The year before we hosted two. This year, we hope to perhaps even host four. One couple that went on the trip has promised us that if we can find funding for the first three camps ($70,000) they will sponsor an entire fourth camp! However, we will need a lot of help to reach that goal of $70,000 to serve over 200 kids at three camps. That number may seem overwhelming, but it basically costs $300 to sponsor one kid. Maybe you, your church, home group, youth group, Sunday School class, or other group could sponsor a child or several children? (donate here). We also take teams from the US/UK to be a part of these camps. One team is already filled! But there is room for more! (read more here).
Secondly, we need a bigger space for our bakery. The contract for our rental is up in April. The space we currently have can only fit three girls at a time. Therefore, our class is made up of only 6 girls (taking shifts) at a time. However, our dream is to be able to purchase a building space where up to 20 girls at a time could be trained, a cafe could be opened for the girls to sell from, and bread could be baked and sent to serve refugee’s and people caught in the war-zone! Please pray for this need to be met!
We are humbled to realize that we can be the hands and feet of Jesus in the country of Ukraine, bringing His message of hope, peace, joy and eternal life to thousands of people! I invite you to join us in seeing and being a part of what God is doing all around the world, where the need is greatest (www.weservenow.org).