The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. -Jesus, John 10:10
I just returned from a fantastic trip with a small team from the US to Ukraine on behalf of ServeNow, the mission organization I lead as President. I thought I would share a few personal highlights of this trip as a means of conveying the needs we saw, but especially the ways God is working in transforming real people’s lives and hearts in Ukraine.
The first story I will share has been quite a remarkable journey. A few years ago, our Ukrainian Directors had it on their hearts to provide a skill training program around baking for young girls in vulnerable situations. The young girl behind the inspiration for the bakery training was an orphan named Anita. We met Anita on this trip as she was home for Easter (pictured below on the very right next to me). Anita is now serving in the war-zone, having felt called by God there despite the constant danger to her life!
But years ago, she told Tanya, our Ukraine Director, that at a very young age she saw friends of hers being raped, caught up in prostitution, and swept into human trafficking; and so to protect herself she began to dress like a boy, talk like a boy and act like a boy for a time. This is a vicious cycle for a high percentage of orphan girls in Ukraine.
When Tanya heard this she felt ServeNow had to do something to protect girls like this by giving them a practical life skill. At the same time, the wife and husband who adopted Anita and other orphan girls (the wife is pictured on very left of above picture with me and Tanya and Anita), had been praying for their girls to have the ability to learn baking skills. Over these last few years, we have been offering a bakery skill training program in answer to those prayers, and on this trip met the 3 newest graduates (pictured below with a bakery graduation gift)!
But the remarkable part of this trip in connection with this project, was how it seems God is bringing together the collective dreams of multiple parties towards a full cafe/bakery training program. Over the last few years, we have been looking for and discussing our own building/cafe. However, nothing was coming together or working out despite our efforts and prayers. This was also causing discouragement on the part of our bakery teacher and her husband who have this dream on their hearts; along with the rest of us.
But during lunch with the pastor of a local church (where we have held some of our bakery training classes in the past), we learned of their new church building plans that would include a cafe which we could operate and be able to provide training from if we are able to work out a partnership agreement! This would benefit the local church (which is our goal in every project) as a way of serving the community and creating a bridge with the local church, while costing us less than purchasing/owning our own building.
The remarkable thing is that our new teacher’s father, who is on our board in Ukraine, shared with our team through tears in his eyes how he had told his daughter he had had a dream where the bakery would be inside a church and that she was not to worry about trying to figure out a location for all this, as it would happen in God’s timing! It certainly left us excited that perhaps this could be God’s solution…
The next story I would like to share happened while we were at our directors local church for Orthodox Easter where I preached, and then spoke the next day at their church charity picnic. The church was having this special picnic to help raise money to pay for the train tickets of some of the kids ServeNow brings to a summer camp each year. We met a couple of those kids at the church and even got to hear some of them recite some verses of the bible and hear one of them (Liza) sing which was extremely special. Ever since the camp, she has been taking the bus often by herself, to come to church in the next village (since her village doesn’t have a church). She loves to sing and has an amazing voice. I told her she is famous in America because I have shown video of her singing to many people!
But what really touched my heart was how her and a friend had their own table at the church charity picnic where they were selling items they had made so other kids could go to camp this year! I bought a picture from one of them to help support their efforts! Ukraine is a very poor country, and this is not something typical for churches to do. So, it was a very special event and moving to see them raise enough funds for 16 train tickets!
During that same picnic event I also had a conversation with a couple who has it on their heart to start a literacy program with nearby Roma/Gypsy people. This is something we have been talking about for the past several years as a huge need within this community. The cool part would be that the wife is one of our cosmetology graduates! She has started her own business out of her home, being she has six kids of her own.
Speaking of our cosmetology training…
That same day, I have to admit I had a brand-new experience that I was a bit nervous about. I had my first manicure and pedicure!
The only reason I did this is because of who it was done by. Several years ago, our Ukraine Directors shared with me the story of Luda, a refugee from Crimea (pictured above about to do my nails!). Because of the invasion of Crimea by Russia, Luda and her husband were forced to relocate. However, she had a specialized job that did not carry over when she was forced to flee. After trying several jobs, she decided to take cosmetology lessons. She then had a dream to train other refugees and women in need of a skill, so they too could generate needed income. We helped her to do just that and have had several classes go through the training already. As a result she opened her own beauty salon, called Dream in Style, hiring some of the graduates!
It was quite amazing for me personally to see the salon and meet some of the women we helped provide training for! It struck me that just a couple of years ago this was just a one-page piece of paper on my desk and a dream in the heart of a refugee! But to hear how this has completely changed the lives of women, and to hear some of their stories was touching. We were also able to welcome the two newest students who have just begun their training and hear their stories.
One of them grew up in an orphanage. While in school, she fell in love and got married. However, her husband was an alcoholic and abusive and so she has been living alone in what you can barely call a one-room “apartment” with her two daughters. But, a couple summers ago, her two daughters were at one of our summer camps and have been going to a local church ever since and now her mom is able to go through our cosmetology training!
The other woman lost her husband and was pregnant at the time with their third baby who also tragically died. She is also a refugee from the war zone. Before they shared their stories with our team, I had shared with them the story of Ruth and Naomi which seemed to resonate with them. Later, one of them posted the following: The Lord gives us only good people! I meet the wonderful Americans yesterday who believe that dreams come true. These wonderful believers help me to gain a new profession! I am grateful to every good person who is now in my life and help in such a way so I do not fall into depression! You are my incentive to life! Thank you for my new life and new awesome friends! I believe that now I will be fine and my dream will come true!
The last thing I will focus on is the medical equipment and wheelchairs we help provide to hospitals and disabled people throughout Ukraine. Many hospitals lack even enough beds or the beds they have are absolutely horrible for patients. We saw medical equipment and furniture dating back 30-40 years/to Soviet Union Days!
While hospitals have wonderfully dedicated staff, doctors and nurses, they do not receive the medical equipment, medicine, or funding they need to adequately function. Attempted reforms have been put forward in recent years, but state funding only provides a bare minimum that hardly even covers the cost of electricity and very low salaries. Some hospitals don’t even have hot water!
Additionally, disabled people cannot afford to buy a wheelchair. Some try to make their own kind of wooden slab devices with wheels (if lucky) to at least get around some in the house, while most are not able to leave their room/house at all!
Larisa for example, one of the women we visited, was not able to leave her room for 8 years because of not being able to walk! This was devastating to her because she loves being outside. It was as if she became a prisoner in her own room. However, this all changed for her recently, when we were able to provide her with her own wheelchair! She was so excited to tell us that now she can go outside again.
Peter was another elderly man we met who is disabled. When he was very young he stepped on a landmine left over from World War 2 times, right near his home where we were. It was only recently through ServeNow that he received his first wheelchair for outside use. His sister, who helps take care of him, made sure to tell us that now he can help her as she has helped him all these years! As we were leaving, a team member said they would be in our prayers, but they said they would be praying for us so we can help more people! That made us more excited about another 100 wheelchairs that will be released from customs soon for others like Peter in Ukraine!
While there is much more that could be shared from this trip those are a few of my personal highlights. It was a reminder to me of something I felt personally called to: “Make the God given dreams of others a reality.” While that is not something I can do, God is doing it through all involved in ServeNow, whether through giving, praying or serving. He is a God who answers prayer, cares especially for the most vulnerable, gives us the desire of our hearts as we delight in him, and brings to pass every promise he makes to us, providing all we need to do whatever he calls us to do through his grace!
To God be the glory, great things He has done!
***The team that went with me is wanting to raise funding for another “container” of medical equipment for hospitals and wheelchairs for disabled people. You can help bring hope to a world in need with them here: Help Change the Lives of the Most Vulnerable in Ukraine.