WARSAW, Poland – In December, Melissa Nowicki and her family decided to host an 11-year-old Ukrainian orphan for one month at their home in Rochester, New York.
Things went well.
“We just absolutely fell in love with him,” she said of Oleksii. “He was the missing piece of our family that we didn’t know we were missing.”
Nowicki lives on a farm with her two biological children and her husband. Oleksii fit right in. So they started the adoption process in January. Per the terms of Host Orphans Worldwide, the boy returned to Ukraine after four weeks. Host Orphans Worldwide is a religiously affiliated nonprofit founded in 2019 and based in Wyoming. Nowicki heard about the organization through a friend who’d hosted with them. Under normal circumstances, the adoption process would be finalized in August or September. The plan was for the boy to spend the summer with the Nowickis while that paperwork was finished.
Then war broke out in Ukraine and the boy, whose orphanage was in Mariupol, was evacuated with the help of Matt Shea, a controversial pastor with On Fire Ministries in Spokane.
Now, Oleksii is in Poland with Shea and another hosting organization called Loving Families and Homes for Orphans.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has suspended all adoptions for the moment, leaving the boy, and the Nowickis, in limbo.
And then, last week, The Spokesman-Review, the Seattle Times, the Inlander and Range all published stories documenting concerns raised by Polish volunteers in the small town the children are staying in. Those volunteers allege that Shea has kept them from seeing the children, and they questioned his motives.
Shea, who is married to Ukrainian-born Viktoriya Vinnikova, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, during a Friday video interview with the Spokane-based Church and State podcast run by former Spokane Valley Councilman Caleb Collier and Gabe Blomgren, an associate pastor at Covenant Church, Shea said he was in the process of adopting four Ukrainian children and that the families trying to adopt the other children are furious at the news stories. That podcast is sponsored in part by On Fire Ministries, a congregation Shea founded in May.
“You have a lot of very, very upset parents right now who were ecstatic that their kids were rescued out of a warzone, brought to safety, and now the media is literally trying to put some insidious motivation behind this when really it’s about making sure there are no more orphans left in the world,” he said during the 30-minute live interview. “And every child deserves a loving and safe home.”
Nowicki said despite having some initial trepidation about Loving Home’s and Families, she now has no concerns.
“Honestly, I personally have had no issues,” she said. “I’ve had some contact with my boy since he’s been in their care. To be honest with you, he seems happy and well cared for.”
At first, she was concerned because the organization Shea is volunteering for, Loving Families and Homes for Orphans, had a spotty internet presence. The organization’s website didn’t seem to be working, and there was little information about the Texas-based hosting organization online, she said. The organization’s website is at lovingfho.com.
“So of course, we were concerned,” Nowicki said. “This has been a really hard process. We’re having to trust people we’ve never heard of and don’t know.”
But she talked with Irina Sipko of Spokane, who is a director of Loving Families and Homes, and to Shea. She was able to FaceTime with the Ukrainian boy she hopes to adopt after two Rochester, New York, missionaries visited the kids in Poland.
“They have been very open and receptive,” she said of Shea and Sipko.
The media reports about Shea concerned Nowicki because they reported where the children were living in Poland. As a prospective adoptive parent, she was told to never reveal where the children are located as it could jeopardize their safety. Additionally, she worries that if the Ukrainian or Polish governments believe the kids are in danger, they could place them in foster care, ending any hope of her adopting Oleksii.
“There are quite a few people who are out there that don’t have kid’s best interests at heart at this time,” she said, referencing child trafficking.
Now, Nowicki is waiting to see what happens next. She is hopeful that the Ukrainian orphans can get U.S. visas while the Ukrainian government can finalize the adoptions.
“We had to send him back to Ukraine, which of course was very difficult,” Nowicki said. “We would have done anything to have him stay during the adoption process.”
During the Church and State interview, Shea also provided more details on his involvement in the rescue. According to Shea, the children were moved from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine. That’s when he got a call from Loving Families and Homes asking if he could help bring the children from Zaporizhzhia to Poland. He said the orphanage in Mariupol has been “completely leveled.”
He also took issue with Polish volunteer Weonika Ziarnicka, who first raised concerns about Shea and was quoted in news stories.
Shea’s past activities and associations with far-right groups and his writings in a manifesto called “Biblical Basis for War,” which espoused violence in the name of religion, have brought him notoriety.
Perhaps the most problematic issue he faced was an investigation by the Washington House of Representatives that found he planned and participated in acts of domestic terrorism. Among them: his role in the 2016 armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
Worries about Shea and his motives led Ziarnicka to burst into the hotel where the children are staying. Ziarnicka demanded to see documentation from Shea. Shea refused and said he asked her to provide identification, which she refused to do.
“If you’re refusing to show identification, you need to leave. She refused to leave,” Shea said during the interview. “She was hurt by this and she went on this media frenzy.”
Ziarnicka said she refused to provide identification because she wanted to speak to the legal guardians of the children. She called Shea’s interview “a lot of lies,” in a text message Tuesday.
“These are the things books are written about or movies are written about,” Shea said during the interview. “These aren’t the things that you suddenly use kids as some sick political level against people you disagree with. All these politics and everything else should go out the window and out the door.”
Spokesman-Review reporter Eli Francovich is in Eastern Europe to cover stories with ties to Spokane. Francovich’s articles will appear throughout the week. His trip was paid for largely by Spokesman-Review readers who have donated to the Community Journalism Fund and through the newspaper’s Northwest Passages event series. To help support this trip and similar newsroom efforts, contributions can be made at www.spokesman.com/thanks.