KHARKOV, Ukraine – With a little help from Spokane, hope for this country’s future is now growing out of the ruins of a former Soviet youth camp.
Its crumbling brick buildings, heavy iron gates and cold tile floors aren’t much different from any of the dozens of state-run orphanages in Ukraine, but the similarities stop there. The compound has recently been transformed into a private, Christian orphanage and is the focus of a bold new experiment.
Instead of being treated as burdens, the 36 children at Otchiy Dom – Father’s House – receive English lessons, computer training, religion classes and loads of personal attention and care. Orphanage staff and financial backers in Spokane believe their work could serve as a national model for rescuing thousands of Ukrainian orphans from a near-certain fate of alcoholism, prostitution, crime or suicide.
“Little by little, we are creating a good atmosphere here,” said orphanage director Yuriy Bliznyuk, while conducting a tour earlier this summer. “We believe our children feel loved.”
Spokane’s Garland Alliance Church is a major underwriter of Otchiy Dom. The congregation is part of a growing number of churches in Spokane that are embarking on missionary outreaches to Russia and Ukraine. Most of the other churches, however, are comprised of recent Slavic immigrants to Spokane. Garland Alliance learned of the orphanage’s needs through members of Spokane’s Bethlehem Slavic Church. For most of the last decade, the Bethlehem Slavic congregation worshipped at Garland Alliance.
Bethlehem has since raised enough money to buy its own church, but the two congregations maintain close contact, said Bob Bishopp, a Garland Alliance member. When the idea was raised more than a year ago, members of Garland Church were intrigued by the notion of supporting a small orphanage in Ukraine, Bishopp said. Even though there’s more than enough need in Spokane, the opportunity in Ukraine couldn’t be ignored – the entire orphanage runs on about $5,000 per month.
“We can achieve far more by using our wealth over there,” said Bishopp, who runs an investment management firm.
Last year, Bishopp and a handful of other church members traveled to Ukraine to see the orphanage. They found the orphanage struggling to stay afloat, but its operators seemed even more determined to not squander a rare exception granted by the government that allows orphans to be raised in a Christian setting. The travelers were profoundly touched by what they saw, Bishopp said. “It was life-changing.”
In few other places could a small church like Garland Alliance have the chance to make such a huge difference in so many young lives, he said.
“It was a door that got opened for us and we just needed to walk through it,” Bishopp said. “We don’t want to just send money. We want to be involved. This is a ministry to the whole person.”
The more church members learned, the more they felt compelled to help. Garland Alliance Pastor Steve Flora said he was floored by the children’s stories. Some had sexually transmitted diseases and alcohol addictions. One boy was found living in a cemetery, barely surviving by eating food and drink offerings left behind on tombstones. A little girl arrived at the orphanage rail-thin and with burns on her hands – her parents had disappeared and in the desperation of starvation, she tried to recall how her mother had cooked rice. She tried to scoop rice from the boiling water with her hands.
“We think the meth houses in Spokane are bad,” Flora said. “But this is unimaginable.”
The orphanage receives no government support – the country doesn’t even have money to replace steel manhole covers commonly stolen by thieves looking for a few quick kopecks from a scrap-metal yard. But Ukraine’s new leaders have expressed an unprecedented willingness to accept help from Christian missionaries and outside aid organizations. This has created a rare opportunity for religious groups, including the team from Garland Alliance Church.
The group returned to Ukraine in June, carrying thick bundles of supplies, including handmade quilts for dozens of children at a Christian-run orphanage. Bishopp noted that orphans and widows are near and dear to the teachings of Jesus. For the second mission to Kharkov, the Garland team brought extra suitcases packed with shoes, clothes and a handmade quilt for each of the orphans. Bishopp and five other Spokane residents stayed at the orphanage. They ate with the children in the large dining room, played basketball in a wooded courtyard and spent countless hours on language lessons, crafts and Bible study. Conditions in Ukraine are difficult, Bishopp said, but it was hard to leave the country. “You can’t go over there and spend much time. The kids really end up with a piece of your heart. … We’re already laying the groundwork to take a much larger team back next summer.”
But Bishopp said he and other church members are not interested in bringing any of the children back to Spokane. “If there were adoptions, we would want to see those adoptions take place with Ukrainian couples. We really don’t want to be party to exporting Ukraine’s future to the U.S. or to any other country. Ukraine is going to need responsible citizens, citizens with a moral code, ethics. As that country emerges from the communist malaise they’ve been in, they’re going to need the committed, bright kids to stay there.”
The orphanage does not require the children to be Christian, nor does it force children to attend Bible study lessons, Bishopp said.
Apart from supplies and training, Garland Alliance has also sent about $10,000 to the orphanage. This can make a large difference at a facility where staff members earn about $70 per month. But orphanage director Bliznyuk said times remain difficult. The orphanage has eight computers, but not enough money for software. Clothing comes mostly from donations. Local farmers and gardens help supplement the pantry. Fixing and painting the old buildings is done whenever spare money allows.
“We never beg for money,” Bliznyuk said. “We believe in our hearts Father doesn’t want his children to be beggars.”
But Bliznyuk admits he worries constantly about keeping the orphanage open. Making life less cheap in this country is no easy task, he said. If Otchiy Dom closes, the children would return to massive, government-run facilities. When children leave government orphanages, more than two-thirds end up involved with prostitution, drug use, alcoholism or lives of organized crime, he said, while walking through the dining hall, which smelled of fresh paint. An estimated 15 percent of graduates from government orphanages commit suicide within two years.
The departure of 18-year-old orphans from government institutions is a sad affair, Bliznyuk said. At many facilities, the event, known as “final bell,” happens each year on the last day of school. Staff and the younger orphans assemble for the sendoff. It’s a hugely depressing event, with many people crying. Afterwards, the orphans are often driven to the center of the nearest town and left to make their way.
After talking about the gut-wrenching fates faced by most of the country’s estimated 110,000 orphans – fewer than 1,000 live in privately run facilities – Bliznyuk threw his hands into the air. He no longer wanted to talk about how Otchiy Dom hoped to help its children buck the steep odds.
“Only a mystic could answer these questions! I don’t know how we will do this!” he said. “Why don’t you ask me about how the ceiling used to be dark and dirty here, and now it’s covered with fresh white paint?”
Small improvements are also taking place at nearby government orphanages courtesy of outside aid groups, most of which are Christian missionary organizations. Not far from Otchiy Dom is the massive state-run Loubetin orphanage, where about 325 children live. An Illinois-based missionary group, Life International, now has paid staff at the orphanage and has been helping the facility to remodel. Life International is also working with Otchiy Dom and has met with representatives from Garland Alliance.
Life International also has a presence at 15 of 20 government orphanages in the Kharkov region. The group’s vice president for Ukraine, Kharkov native Denis Poshelok, insisted the children need not convert before they can receive food, warm beds or loving care.
“We want to spread the good meaning of Christianity through practical things,” he said. “God can solve problems through us.”
Most of Life International’s work so far has focused on the Loubetin orphanage, where it has built a bakery, refurbished a crumbling gymnasium and bought 15 dairy cows to supply milk. Eventually, the group hopes to help orphanages across the country, said Poshelok, who dipped into his growing repertoire of English colloquialisms to describe his plan. “I like the phrase, ‘Walk before you run,’ ” he said, smiling, adding moments later, “One bite at a time, this is how we eat an elephant.”
Despite the improvements, the massive facility still has the chilly atmosphere of a children’s home straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Even on a hot, sunny summer day, the massive brick buildings are dark and cool inside. The hallways echoed with distant heel clicks. Children sat in their dormitory-style rooms, peering out at a visitor. But many other kids were playing handball and soccer outside on a large lawn. Others were busy painting a building. Still others prepared for a fishing trip to a nearby river.
Poshelok walked the halls of one of the dormitories, pointing out projects his group had funded. Nearly all the children stopped and smiled when they spotted him. One little girl raced out of her bedroom, which she shared with six other girls.
“When will you make my room nicer?” she asked. Poshelok smiled, patted her head and kept walking.
“Funds, we need funds,” the 27-year-old said, gently shaking his head. “Frankly, this load is not possible for us to carry on our own.”
Ensuring the self-sufficiency of the orphanages is key to preventing suffering, Poshelok said. Ukraine’s economy is growing, but remains incredibly shaky after last year’s Orange Revolution, in which the country’s top political leaders were ousted. Government officials have banned the outright promotion of religion in the orphanages – Life International gets around the rule by calling its voluntary lessons “ethics” classes – but the government seems increasingly willing to allow the missionaries greater access.
Vera Sivitska, director of the Loubetin orphanage, said that during modern Soviet Union times workers were paid, children received enough milk and there were no worries about keeping warm when Siberian cold fronts invaded each winter. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, everything fell apart. For nearly a year during the late 1990s, many workers in Ukraine, including those at the orphanage, went without pay.
“Try to imagine how hard it is to make people work when they are not getting paid,” Sivitska said, sitting in her sunny office at the orphanage.
Meals were mostly potatoes raised by the children in nearby fields, said Sivitska, a former orphan. The steady diet of Soviet propaganda was gone, but it’s hard to appreciate freedom without food. “It’s hard to say if it was better then,” she said, speaking through a translator. “But at least the system functioned.”
The Loubetin orphanage has received most of Life International’s attention so far. Poshelok unashamedly admits that he has a special fondness for the facility – this is where his father was raised after his grandfather died from battle wounds received during World War II. Kharkov was the scene of three intense battles, and some of the city streets are paved with cobblestones laid by German prisoners of war kept captive by the Soviets through the early 1950s. Poshelok’s father tried to attend college after leaving the orphanage, but was kicked out for his evangelical Christian beliefs and went on to work at a tractor factory.
The country will never improve unless it can bring some hope to its most vulnerable members, Poshelok said, going on to note that the teachings of Jesus are full of references urging people to care for orphans and widows. Poshelok doesn’t try to hide his desperation in trying to help the orphans, most of whom come from families that have been dissolved by vodka and poverty. The entire system remains bruised after four generations of Soviet control, with its forced starvation, wars, prohibition of religion and widespread repression, he said.
“If we lose this opportunity, we might never get it again,” he said.