Tuesday, April 27, 2010


It continues to be a joy to be able to help young people struggling with disabilities and seeing the difference even a little aid can make to their lives. The same holds true as we become aware of the needs of institutions and organizations. Sadly, in this country so many of these are underfunded. Several examples.

Meet Oleg Bondaryenko,the bandmaster of Molochansk Music School. Each weekday afternoon he instructs young people in the intricacies of playing brass, woodwind and percussion instruments as well as working with the band. Not so long ago this group was struggling along, playing on a few battered instruments dating back to communist times. Currently the only funding provided by government is small teacher salaries. In 2006 the government put this school on the closure list. Due in large part to lobbying by Canadian musicians the school was allowed to remain open. In addition to the band, well qualified teachers continue to offer instruction in piano, strings, voice and dance.

Over the years, thanks to donations by individual supporters, we have brought 12 instruments from Canada. These have enabled the band to enter national competitions. Last year they placed second in Zaporozhye and one of the trumpeters won first place in the solo class. It has now become possible to purchase fairly acceptable band instruments in Ukraine. Several days ago it was our joy to meet with Oleg and give him the good news that our board of directors approved purchase of ten more instruments. It is difficult to describe the look on his face when he received this information - almost disbelief. More instruments will enable more young people to participate and will complete the instruments required for a full band. He told us that band alumni are now playing in six major orchestras in Ukraine.

Alexander Petrovich, a member of Kutuzovka Mennonite church, has devoted his life to working with young people. For the past 30 years, he together with an assistant, have run a sports school for street children and at-risk youth in Tokmak. Through the generosity of a German donor he has access to the use of a large building which over time has been converted to a gym with a basketball court, a weight-training space and tumbling areas. There is also a large trampoline and an outdoor recreation area. Currently 173 children are registered and enjoy the facility at no cost. Alexander knows each child personally. When recently hospitalized dozens of young people came to see him, bringing food and blankets. Hospital staff were astounded. What would draw all these children to come and visit this elderly man? Alexander Petrovich has no family and has devoted his life to this ministry. Before retirement he received a small salary from the state which he used to support the work and continues to do so now with his pension. FOMCU has contributed to this project by providing sports equipment, tumbling mats and balls.

In Ukraine the school day runs from 8:30 - 12:30. This leaves a half day for many children to fend for themselves. In communist times the afternoon options were music schools, sports schools and craft schools. These still exist, but because government funding is minimal, students are required to pay a small amount, eliminating this possibility for families living in poverty.

The care of orphans is a monumental problem in Ukraine. Statistics tell us that there are more than 100,000 orphans most of them living in state-run orphanages. When they are 17 they are forced to leave and have no one to care for them; no one to turn to for help. 10% of these are true orphans without parents who receive a small government stipend. The rest, 90%, are social orphans who are homeless due to abandonment, alcoholism or imprisonment of parents. These are left to fend on their own and are often ill-prepared to do so. Statistically within a year 10% of males commit suicide, 70% turn to crime, 60% of girls turn to prostitution. In Zaporozhye alone there are 9 orphanages and 43 in the region. There is a great need for transitioning, teaching these orphans life skills and providing vocational training. FOMCU is in conversation with others exploring potenial ways of dealing with this issue.

Friday, April 23, 2010


Bright red tulips everywhere we look, blossoming trees, buzzing bees, singing birds, serenading dogs - spring has arrived! In the space of a few days the face of earth has been transformed. Spring, the season of new life and new growth sends our thoughts winging toward youth again.

In the last week we visited several young people living with disabilities. We had the joy of celebrating Katya Samofalova's eighth birthday. She suffers from cerebral palsy, but there is nothing the matter with her mind. When we arrived she greeted us in three languages, - zdrastvuitje, guten tag, hello. Katya is a second grade student living in the village of Dolina. Due to her lack of mobility teachers visit her home each afternoon. Not only is she a good student, she also writes poetry. We presented her with a little booklet including her own poetry and pictures of her classmates. The following poem is a translation from Russian to German by her principal and then to English.

I Love

I love nature
and beautiful weather,
children's laughter
and being together -
all that makes the world
a wonderful place!

I love all the animals
and all the birds
which God our Father
made in love.
He always thinks of me!

Katya has a way of winning the hearts of people. Her principal, Marina Romanova, dreamed of providing a computer for Katya. Little by little, money was raised. Marina lobbied for funds as far away as the government in Kiev and Katya is now the proud possessor of a notebook. Three years ago FOMCU provided a wheelchair. Katya is a very special young girl with a zest for life.

Alyona Obernikina is 10 years old and lives on the outskirts of Molochansk. She was born hearing disabled - on the scale of one to four she is classified a three. Her father is one of our night watchmen. Monday through Friday she stays in a facility close to Zaporozhye. Here, among other studies, she receives one-on-one instruction in language, lip reading and learning to speak audibly. This is possible because FOMCU pays for her tutor. There is an optimum time for this type of learning and we don't want her to miss out. Alyona is capable and also artistic. When we visited she was a little shy initially, but warmed up and showed us booklets of her artwork and penmanship. She has a beautiful script. Also it was exciting to hear her and her mother hold a short verbal conversation.

Were this 120 years ago Alyona may have been attending the school for the deaf built by Mennonites in the village of Tiege, a half hour drive south of Molochansk. In its time this was a state-of-the-art institution and had the reputation of being the best school for the deaf in all of Russia. Teachers were trained in places as far away as St. Petersburg and Frankfurt. The building still exists but is in poor condition. Busts of Marx and Lenin hold pride of place in the front yard. The last time we were there the mayor, showing us around, pointed to these statues and remarked "Which one is deaf and which one is dumb."

Sasha Mezunsky is not disabled but became disfigured due to an accident. He is 13 and lives in the village of Novokhorivka 45 minutes north of Molochansk. Three years ago his parents brought him to the Centre asking for help. Sasha had been watching his older brother working on a motorbike when an accidental explosion caused severe burns to 65% of his body. Sasha was hospitalized for 2 months and had much skin grafting done; other donors were required. As time went by and he was growing it became evident that the scarred areas weren't stretching. What Sasha needed at that time was a surgical implant to administer silicone. The family asked for financial assistance; this procedure could only be done in Dnepropetrovsk. We were able to help them and today Sasha is a well-adjusted grateful boy, shown here with his school principal.

To be continued next week.

Friday, April 16, 2010


Coming to the Mennonite Centre Monday morning rumours are confirmed that all schools and businesses are closed. The president of Ukraine has declared "A Day of Remem-brance" standing in solidarity with the people of Poland who have suffered such tragic losses. Coincidentally this day and also Sunday are already days of remembrance in which Ukrainians traditionally visit the gravesites of their ancestors to tidy the plots, leave brightly coloured plastic flowers and sip a little vodka. Commerce stands still in Molochansk and it is quiet at the Centre. We take our receptionist Olga to the cemetery to tend the graves of her husband and daughter.

Tuesday we visit the local Sanatorium, a rehab institution for children with heart and respiratory illnesses. This is a residential complex housing children from a wide area of Ukraine. Some spend many months in therapy and we are told that 47 children are permanent residents because they have no other home. The government pays for treatment but gives little further support. Children are taught regular classes. Teachers have minimal resources. There are also no funds for infrastructure - broken floors need replacing, no money for outdoor sports equipment, children's games etc. Through the years we have helped in many ways and will continue to provide support.

Wednesday we are invited to attend the Red Cross annual general meeting. We provide monthly support to this organization and are impressed to hear of the many ways in which they help people. They give us a certificate and express warm gratitude for our contribution. Wednesday is also the day our Mom's Group meets. This week we have a special guest who speaks to the hearts of our young mothers and encourages them. Some have very difficult lives.

Thursday is catch-up day, banking, shopping supplies for the Centre. Rudy installs a new faucet in the kitchen and washes the car. Currently we have no maintenance man. A student from the Ukrainian school comes for information. She is doing a research project on our building, the former Mennonite Maedchenschule. It's a delight to pass on historical material to interested young people.

Today is Friday. We arrive at the Centre and find a man waiting for us, obviously impoverished and very dirty. He has ridden 15 km. on a wired up and bound together bicycle to ask if we can help with transpor-tation so that he can bring his mentally disabled 14 year old son home from hospital in Zaporozhye. He tells us a little about himself. He has bone cancer. He shows his foot to one of our receptionists - she can hardly bare to look. He was given the diagnosis last November and showed us a document recommending amputation of his foot. He didn't have money and now the cancer has spread and he will likely lose his leg at the knee. He is wearing glasses, arms wired together, a lense missing and the other hanging crooked on his face - such a sad picture. We give him a sandwich and tea. In the meantime Rudy drives to Tokmak and returns with a new pair of glasses. A receptionist gives her own money to fix the bike tire. All he is asking is transportation money and we give him a little extra. Someone mentions that he is an alcoholic and we wonder about giving money. But this proves to be false. Much wisdom and discernment is required. By law medical care is free in Ukraine, but not so in reality. Doctors are paid so little that they usually won't help unless the patient pays.
In an hour the bike tire has air again, the man can see, he has a little money, he is grateful and leaves on the two hour ride back to his village. Our minds can hardly perceive the poverty, sometimes there is so little we can do and once more our hearts ache.

Thursday, April 8, 2010


"Youth for Life" - the big event of the week, a culmination of months of visioning and planning. The logo states "your choices today, your future tomorrow". Our manager Dema, who has a passion for challenging Ukrainian young people to make wholesome lifestyle choices, designed a program highlighting perils of wrong choices and presenting positive options. It was interesting to participate in preparations, another learning experience for us in terms of patience, flexibility and understanding. A myriad of details were left to the last minute; very different to our way of thinking and preparing. Another factor foreign to us was the way contracts and requests need to be made - always in person, not by telephone or email. This required numerous trips to Tokmak over indescribable roads, as many as four times a day last week. No sooner had we settled on a date when we got notice that it had to be changed, requiring another trip to Tokmak and more stamped documents. This was repeated twice over the course of a few days. A little unnerving but nothing unusual. We ask, "why can't we pick up the telephone?" The answer, "It may be perceived as putting ourselves in a superior position to the city authorities." Slowly we begin to understand. Due to the many changes schools were notified at the last minute, yet they all participated.

The day dawns bright and beautiful. Our cooks at the Centre are busy preparing breakfast for two bands that will playing later and then cooking dinner for the entertainers. News arrives that our main speaker, the pastor of Grace Church in Melitopol, has had a car accident and won't be coming. What now? Dema knows a lawyer who has given many AIDS seminars. She is free and available so Rudy & I head to Melitopol with no time to spare. In the meantime fifteen buses
and 17 marshrutkas are engaged bringing 700+ students and teachers from 16 village schools to the Tokmak Palace of Culture for the 12 o'clock event. The streets are crowded; police are directing traffic. The hall fills quickly and soon there's standing room only. At 12:10 the band comes on stage and the program begins. Dema welcomes all present and explains the purpose of the gathering - youth for life. A doctor speaks about the damaging effects of nicotine, alcohol and drug abuse, using a graphic powerpoint presentation. A policeman explains criminal implications. The students give rapt attention to the woman talking about AIDS and abstinence. Speeches are interspersed with lively music, singers, dancers and gymnasts. Huge applause bursts out at the end. An award will be given to a student from each school who exemplifies positive attitudes and values. At the end of May winners will be invited to an awards ceremony. The first Youth for Life event was held last fall in a smaller context. Two more are scheduled for May. The hope is prevention and inspiration, that young people will take to heart and put to practice what they have heard. It will also be important to find ways of following up in the future.