Thursday, May 31, 2007


The last day of May - we've just come back from the Ukrainian School. Today is "Last Bell". We arrived at 8 a.m. The student body and teachers had gathered around the school ground, dressed in their finery for this exciting event - the"final bell" for the graduating class and the "last bell" of the school year. There was pomp and circum-
stance, music and dance, laughter and tears. A first grade student on the shoulders of a graduate circled the school ground ringing a brass bell.

Graduating girls dressed in similar fashion to what they had worn at FIRST BELL eleven years ago when they entered first grade. This is Ukraine tradition.

The Mennonite Centre awarded prizes to 19 students who had distinguished themselves in various fields of study - some even receiving state recognition.

Tomorrow, June 1 - our LAST BELL! In the morning of our final day in Ukraine we will go to the Palace of Culture, the former Mennonite Zentralschule, and attend the closing concert of the Molochansk Music School. The band will play, children will dance and sing. The day will end with at trip to the former Mennonite villages of Ruecknau and Ohrloff. Farmer Grigory has received his tractor at last and Farmer Ury his baler and sprayer and as a gesture of gratitude we have been invited for "Shashlik" which we will enjoy in the field by the river. We can't think of a more fitting way to say "Good-bye". We predict more laughter and tears; bringing an end to a fascinating, enriching and many times heartbreaking chapter of our lives.

P.S. Al & Peggy Hiebert are continuing the work at the Mennonite Centre. You can follow their experiences in their blog at

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Bearing Loads

Over the past three months it has been our privilege to enter into the life of small-town eastern Ukraine. In diverse ways we've shared journeys of those around us. We've experienced joys and sorrows and have been amazed at the resilience of many who are carrying heavy burdens. Thanks to the generosity of our donors we've been able to engage in many projects, giving aid to those in need - to individuals as well as institutions.

The Orange Revolutions which had promised hope to many has been a huge disappointment as leaders continue their power struggle. Youth movements are meeting to foster closer ties with the West. The elderly, however look back to communist times as the good old days, when they didn't have much, but it was enough. What will happen at the Sept.30 election is anyone's guess.

One can notice increasing prosperity in the cities and even Molochansk is now boasting billboards as we enter town, one of them advertizing our former Zentralschule. There are more cars on the roads and many scooters. We are told that about 10% of the people in our town live comfortably. For the remainder, life is a hard struggle and it is this group we are trying to help.

The healthcare system is woefully inadequate, so we pay doctors to hold clinics at the Centre where people come for free consultations and medication. We're continuing with medical emergency funds in seven outlying areas. The respite room at the local hospital, which we have renovated and staffed, allows people to recuperate in comfort. We are introducing a pilot project in which an eye doctor will come to the Centre periodically so that our seniors can have their eyes tested. Glasses are inexpensive and would give many a new lease on life. We help to support a small nursing home where seniors are lovingly cared for. Hospitals don't want to admit elderly. Death is considered a blot on their record.
Other than salaries, hospitals and schools receive very little state support. Most capital acquisitions and any repairs come from the pockets of staff and parents. We have funded numerous projects, including restoring the steps to the entrance of the Molochansk Russian School. These were crumbling, in dangerous disrepair, rebar sticking out in many directions. The new steps include a ramp allowing access to disabled children.
We continue to provide scholarships to a number of promising students - two in medical school, a journalism student, several prospective teachers and social workers. Where we can, we support the arts.
For the first time we are offering low interest loans to two farmers in the Molotchna district. They are farming the rich, black loam that brought prosperity to many of our Mennonite ancestors. Farmer Grigory is buying a second-hand tractor, replacing the one he built from scrap metal many years ago. Farmer Ury is buying a baler and sprayer. Both men will engage others in their farming operations and both have a history of helping babushkas with their small plots . Their smiles of gratitude stretched from ear to ear.
By God's grace it has been our joy to bring help and hope through our work at the Mennonite Centre; not only responding to requests for aid, but also finding ways to encourage and enable people to help themselves thus lightening their loads.

Monday, May 21, 2007


What a wonderful afternoon - officially, Senior's Day. Blue, cloudless skies, temperature in the low thirties, glorious chestnut trees in full leaf showing off their blossoms. Benches and chairs set up on our shaded front yard. Seniors coming from all directions, some hobbling painfully, none wanting to miss the event to come. Children from the Molochansk Music School have prepared a concert in their honor to be given outdoors.

In Ukraine school begins at 8 a.m. and runs until 12:30. Children then have the option of attending music or sports schools in the afternoon. These are still a legacy of the communist past and at that time were financed by the state. Now these receive minimal support. Parents pay a little and teachers receive a small salary. In winter children come bundled up, because they can't afford to heat the building. Last year there was a threat to close this school, but so far it has survived. Thus, children can take piano lessons, dance classes or band instruction and have the opportunity for constructive afternoon activities.

The band begins to play. Recently they competed in Zaporozhye and received second place honors. They told us that this award was made possible because they now have four good trumpets, thanks to donations from Mennonite Educational Institute and King's Music in Abbotsford, B.C. Dancers appear in their bright, colorful garb. From time to time FOMCU has donated funds for fabric so that costumes can be sown. It is a delight to help this organization survive and succeed. Children are given skills that enhance their lives and the lives of others. Seniors are given great joy.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007


As we visit children in schools and
kindergartens we see many delightful little ones appearing happy and carefree. However, over the past months, we've also become aware of a dark side; children living in very vulnerable circumstances. Two heartrending examples.

The director of a school, grades one to eight, in the former Mennonite village of Schoenau, told us this story. Recently one of her pupils stole a cell phone belonging to a staff member. Everyone knew he was the culprit, but he would not own up to the theft, even when interviewed by police. Several days later this young boy was found dead; he had hung himself - a horrendous shock to the school and community. The director went on to tell us that cell phones are a bane in her classrooms. Almost every child has one and subtley plays games during class hours. As yet she hasn't been successful in controlling this problem. Obviously there is tremendous peer pressure to owning a cell phone. Since the parents of the deceased child are alcoholics, he had had no hope of acquiring his own. Unlikely as it may appear, cell phones are not considered a luxury, but a seeming necessity. To give some perspective to this issue, it is necessary to understand how much parents are willing to sacrifice to give their children cell phones. This same school director told us that her husband had recently purchased three phones - one for each family member, and had paid almost as much as they had paid to buy their property several years ago. No wonder many men leave their families to earn money in Russia, where they can find better jobs.

The second story. Sasha is a 12 year old who lives with his mother and four siblings. His mother drinks. There are days in which there is no food in the house. Recently Sasha was complaining of hunger and was told to get out and find himself something to eat. Sasha, his younger brother and friend Pavel went in search of metal to sell. It is common to see electrical transformers along the roadsides and they came across one that had been left unlocked. Using both hands, Sasha tried to pull out a metal plate. 6000 volts of electricity shot through his arms and left a 10 cm. wound on his right leg. Pavel ran in fright; the little brother dragged Sasha's unconscious body home. He was taken to the local hospital and not until the next day transferred to the Zaporozhye burn unit. By that time it was too late - both arms were amputated at the shoulder and it is not yet certain whether his leg can be saved. Sasha has already had six surgeries.

Yesterday there was a picnic in the back yard of the Mennonite Centre. Sasha was there wistfully watching the children at play. He has become a very quiet, introspective boy. He attends Larissa and Frieda's children's club and comes to church on Sunday. He wants to live and is asking in-depth questions. We are also deliberating how we can be of help.

It is painfully evident that many children are living at risk and our hearts ache. There are no easy answers. We try to respond at levels possible for us. The bigger picture requires systemic change.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Ukrainian Culture

Recently we heard a lament expressed that contemporary Ukraine has no cultural identification. This is not to say that there are no artists, that there is no literature, no music or dance. But it is a sad fact that the Ukrainian state does very little to promote or encourage cultural expression.

Several examples from recent experiences. Earlier this month we met with the friend of a recently deceased Ukrainian painter, who showed us a portfolio of this artist's work and told us a little about his life. This man was born in Molochansk. His mother died in childbirth; his father was recruited into the war where he met his death. He was raised by his grandparents. Later he moved to Melitopol where he received an education and became known as a painter, eventually becoming a member of the European Union of Artists. Twenty years ago he fell ill. Due to poverty and poor medical care a leg was amputated. A subsequent broken marriage led to depression and alcoholism. An artist friend supported him through this low period and helped him regain a measure of health. They married and he continued to paint. He had exhibitions in Poland, Belgium, Netherlands and America. Two months ago he died; had he been able to afford medication this needn't have happened. Friends are now hoping to commemorate this artist by publishing a book of his collected works. The question: "Would we be willing to help?" He had lived in poverty and there is no money from the State. We visited his little home and saw a number of his canvases. There is a wonderful vibrancy about his work. Sadly he is better known outside the country than in Ukraine.

Perhaps it will be Ukrainian children who will eventually lead the way and Ukraine does love its children. Last week 30 little kindergartners visited the Mennonite Centre to perform for seniors coming for lunch. What a delightful energetic concert! They sang and danced without inhibition; the seniors love it.

A day later we accompanied a group of 18 young people from the Tokmak Music School to a state dance competition in Dnepropetrovsk. This meant a 3 hr. drive by marshrutka and an overnight stay in an internat. We watched 100 performances, 30 of which were chosen for the Gala Concert the next day. The weekend was a visual extravaganza.

The older group of 6 girls from Tokmak distinguished themselves by winning two awards. We were struck by the high calibre of dancing and choreography. FOMCU had made it possible for this group to compete and we were thanked over and over for providing assistance. Not only did the group work very hard to make it happen; it was also a great learning opportunity for dancers and their teachers as well. No doubt, Ukraine has a culture and needs to learn how to be proud of it.