Sunday, June 24, 2007

My Ukrainian Family

I'm amazed at how many things there are to do on any given day. And weekends even more so. Saturday morning, I returned with a team to the Children's Sanitorium of Zaporozhye. Because it is only a short term placement for these children, I knew that it would be my last weekend with them. I am leaving in two days for a seven week children's camp - which, by the way, is out in the middle of no where. True camping style. For those who know me well, you will be shocked, but yes, I am going 'camping' for an entire week, and yes - I am excited about it.

Spending time with these children across the past two weekends has been incredible. My heart breaks for them, and for the struggles they have in their daily lives. In a place of such hardship and poverty, they face even greater barriers to survival and enjoyment of basic necessities and rights. They are, by many, cast aside. They have health disorders, physical and mental disabilities, and behavioral disorders. But they are brilliant - wise beyond their years and beautiful. Some have become hardened - untrusting of the world around them because of the repeated rejection and cruelty they have faced. But in so many I saw hope, resiliance, and determination. And such joy over the smallest gestures of love and kindness. So often it seems that we feel helpless and hopeless in the face of so much global poverty and problems. But I've seen how stepping in and doing SOMETHING - how loving, how caring, and how genuinely investing into individuals and groups can truly bring about change and transformation. It is not hopeless, and it should not be something that we dispair over to the point of inaction - it should motivate us and encourage us by knowing that by taking action and by becoming involved, lives truly change.

In the evening, we held a sending out party for Sveta and Vlodia. Sveta works in the Tomorrow's Clubs of HOPE International. She and her husband Vlodia are moving from Zaporozhye to a small village to start a children's ministry there. They are such a sweet couple - they've been like family to me here and have been a constant source of friendship and humor. Their move to the village is a choice that I am encouraged by and in awe of. They are embracing a life of little comfort and much poverty, but are doing so because they feel such a love for the people there. They want to serve them and to make a difference in their lives, and are willing to forego the comforts they have here to do so.

Across the evening, we played badmitten. Zaporozhye has faced a severe drought this year, but for some reason, winds picked up and the rain came right over the game. We were left trying to find creative ways to retrieve the birdie from the neighbors' yards. We resorted to a shovel and broom through the fence. Given that the neighbors keep a menacing dog (a rotweiler), this task was most often left to Paul.

The best part of the evening was being in the company of so many wonderful friends. More than friends, they are quickly becoming like family to me. Since I haven't before, I thought I would introduce them to you so you could understand a bit about them - I refer to and speak of them often! Paul and Cindy (HOPE's Eastern European Regional Directors) together with Yura and Galena (pictured at the right) have taken us in almost as daughters. Their warmth and goodness is a breath of fresh air each morning when I arrive at the office. Yura is a pastor at a local church and Galena is the accountant of the HOPE Children's Ministries. They are an amazing couple - absolutely filled with love and graciousness. And forces to be reckoned with on the badmitten and volleyball courts.

Jzenya and Larissa are another couple that have fast become good friends. Larissa is due with their son any day now. Jzenya has all the energy and enthusiasm of ten teenagers. He has an inclusive leadership style - he strives to ensure that everyone is involved and at east. In that way, he reminds me very much of my brother Beau. Larissa is sweet and shy - always kind and gentle. She does not speak volumes, but when she does, her words are soft and full of wisdom. They are perfect compliments of one another. I am SO excited for them to be parents! It will be sometime this week and next - they will be wonderful parents together.

Lenna and Vadeem are another couple I've gotten to know here. Vadeem took on the perilous task of driving us to HOPE's regional conference in Crimea several weeks ago. Lenna leads the children's ministries of the Zaporozhye region with Jzenya. Lenna is a very strong, organized, and capable leader - and a wonderful mother! Their daughter Yyeva (life) is an absolute jewel! She is talkative, sociable, and very much the explorer. Her expressions are absolutely priceless! I absolutely adore her - she is a constant reminder of my nieces in the states.

Nadia (pictured with me at the right) and Olga have been our interpreters and constant companions. They are both amazing women and wonderful friends. We spend nearly every day together - I've learned so much from them about this country, the culture, the people, the language, and life here. We are the same age and it has been incredible to share the vast differences of our lives and backgrounds. They grew up under the Soviet Bloc and remember well what life and the economy were like when the country was communist. They remember the fall of communism and have experienced a country in transition from communism to market democracy - a transition that continues today. They have shared how that has impacted their perspectives, their faith, their ambitions, and their hopes. They have opened my eyes in so many ways to how extensively the structure and modes of economy and politics impact individual lives. I have studied in depth the connections between politics, laws, economies, human rights, and individual freedoms. But no amount of classroom experience or book knowledge can compare to what is learned from those who have lived it. The conversations that we have as friends have taught me what years of study cannot. They have taught me again what it means to understand these impacts from a personal perspective, and why this work remains so important. These are friends that I will cherish for life.

Travis (pictured left with my niece Mackenzie and nephew Caden) arrives in a little under five weeks. I am excited and anxious for him to arrive! We have waited for years for the opportunity to work together for an organization like HOPE. I am excited to share this work with him and for him to meet the amazing family that I have here now. We did not need this summer to motivate us toward this work. We did not need it to inspire us to care about the lives of those who are living out the daily struggles of poverty and hardship. We did not need it to realize that holistic microfinance ministries are one of the most effective and sustainable methods of poverty alleviation. Our hearts and hopes were in this work already. But this summer has given us the opportunity to be a part of it at last! And I am excited for him to share in it and to share in the friendships that I have here. It already seems hard to think of leaving them in August (seven weeks is far away yet, so I try not to think of it!), but I am confident that we will see them again and that we will continue to partner with them in this work far after this internship ends.