UKRAINIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH OF THE USA
CONSISTORY OFFICE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
2013 Mission Team Concludes Its Visit to Ukrainian Orphanages!
His Grace Bishop Daniel
Photos by Svitlana Lymar, Subdeacon Yurii Andreiko, Pani-matka Ivnna Wronsky and Irene Onufrey
As the lines of this article being posted on the Church’s web site, the group of college students (Subdeacon Yurii Andreiko, Subdeacon Adrian Mazur, Taylor Gladys, Kaitlyn Zimmerman, Irene Onufrey, Paul Micevych, Christopher McNaulty, Alison Sailer, Svitlana Lymar, Lesia Mahlay, Anna Pasakas) and His Grace Bishop Daniel – Spiritual Father of the Mission Team; Pani Olga Coffey – Lay Team Leader and Pani-matka Ivanna Wronsky, advisor) flying over Atlantic ocean, returning to the US following annual two-week mission experience in Ukraine. The Team traveled to do pretty much what our Lord instructed the seventy to do: to say to those whom we served, "…the kingdom of God has come near to you. God loves you and we love you too!" The Mission Team said it by playing with handicapped children, painting, shopping for shoes and clothing at the local markets, taking children for a walk through the local towns - all for children who are not able to do these things for themselves in an institution that is unable do these things for the children because of staff shortages and financial concerns. It was a gift – a pure blessing of God bestowed upon us to have this opportunity to help these children. What better way to say, "God loves you and we love you too!" than to offer an act of love, which is what mission is all about…
Some 35 suitcases of humanitarian aid and toys were delivered to the Ukrainian orphanages sponsored by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, when the College Age Mission Team of Students of the Church landed in Kyiv Boryspil International Airport on Saturday, June 1st, 2013.
As the next two weeks developed, the daily routine for the team members of the 2013 College Student Mission Trip to Ukrainian orphanages was to get up at about 7AM, offer morning prayers and to begin their work with the children of Znamianka, Kirohovrad Region orphanage in Ukraine – adopted by our Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.
On June 3rd, 2013, the forteen members of this years Mission Team arrived to Znamyanka in order to visit about 125 children between the ages of 4-32 with special needs. The Znamyanka orphanage is classified as an institution for children with group 3 and 4 (most severe) physical and mental disabilities.
Throughout the years, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA has hired about 15 teachers - rehabilitation specialists to work in the orphanage, which has made a huge impact on the mobility of many children.
In addition, according to Tatiana Ivanivna Walko, director of Znamyanka Orphanage, a number of children have felt the impact of the presence and usage of adaptive equipment, sponsored by the Church, which allows handicapped children to move around freely…
Day One… The orphans are already in the hallways, making joyful noise, playing with each other and yet peeking through the glass windows to see whether our group is ready to come out and to begin their day. It is a great feeling to be unconditionally loved by these children, who want to play with you, try your glasses on and especially pull your beard and hair. How great it is to chant your prayers in the hallway in front of the icon, as the children pull on your cassock and try to peek in your prayer book in order to share in a short morning prayer service. As a routine, a young man, Serhiy, who is severely handicapped, always in the wheelchair, participated in the prayers, chanting at least one of the prayers; and the voice of a handicapped child, offering his prayers to God touches the very core of our human existence…
The Team members immediately adapted to a new orphanage schedule and missionaries offered themselves unconditionally, ministering to the children in the Name of our Savior. Among traditional projects: rehabilitations activities, walks to the local market, wheel-chair outing, etc.; this year’s Team sponsored a unique opportunity for the children of the orphanage – a visit of Kirovohrad Puppet Theater to the orphanage. Having obtained medical and administrative clearance from the orphanage administration, the Team treated dozens of children to a unique outing to a Theme park in Kirovohrad.
Moreover, due to a generous donation of Protection of the Birth-Giver of God Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Allentown, PA, the Mission Team purchased over 170 kilograms of meat for nutritional purposes of the orphanage’s residents…
Year after year, trips like this one expose the youth of the Church to the often unknown and unopened pages of human existence. Christopher McNulty, a team member from St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Philadelphia, PA, in a reflection following the trip to Znamianka orphanage, stated: “It’s ironic that some of the most complicated truths in life are revealed by observing the simple actions of children. As people we are called to love one another as Christ has loved us; but, as a person who has lived in the faith for twenty-two years, I don’t think I truly understood what that meant to love as Christ loves until I met these children. In these orphanages it doesn’t matter if you are younger or older, if you can communicate with the children or not, if you are extroverted or introverted, or if you are a new face or if the children have seen you a hundred times- the children get such great joy just from having some one there to be with them, hug them, and hold them. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, the children will love you and cherish you for simply being with them. Though as missionaries we came to minister to the children, I truly believe that the children have also ministered to us. I pray that we have been able to impact the lives of these children just as positively and purely as they have impacted our lives.”
I often read such reflections and pray to our Lord for the team members as well for the children in the orphanages that with tears in their eyes bid farewell to all of us, as we get in a minivan or on a train and depart until the following year. Sitting on that train or in that car is a torture, because you leave behind something so precious and unconditionally open to love and yet, you understand that you must go on in order to somehow influence and change the future.
I vividly remember the exact moment my reality shifted, when I visited the orphanages of Ukraine for the very first time some 15 years ago. There were metal bed frames, some with mattresses and some without. There were children on the concrete floor. The combined smell of urine, human body odor and vomit was unbearable. In that precise moment, my whole world was turned upside down. I still feel the expressions on their faces burning in my eyes and the emotion of their screams ringing in my ears. It is a moment that will be forever etched in my memory and will forever influence every decision I make. Life became something new…
Things are different at the orphanages now. At times, I do not even remember what it used to be like 15 years ago. Znamianka orphanage, under the leadership of a kind director Tatiana Ivanivna Walko, drector, has always been an example of loving care for the orphans and their basic needs. Physical rehabilitation rooms with appropriate equipment, decent clothing, play grounds, better nutrition – these are fruits of the labor of all the faithful of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA who have contributed to our Orphanage Adoption Program over the past 15 years – fruits that changed not only the physical structure of the orphanage, but the way in which the children there are cared for.
"We live in a world that is constantly telling us we need more—more money, more popularity, more stuff. But what do you really need more of? And what do you need less of? After all, Christ Himself asks us to have less "me" things—less fear, less here and now rewards and less ego. Sometimes we even need to do less so that we can have a better relationship with our Lord. When we worry less about "me" and, instead, focus on Christ we get more—more courage, more time to be in a relationship with God and more ability to love others.” - These were the words of our discussions as we ministered to the children of the orphanages and to each other this year. Together we were given the opportunity and the challenge to step out of our comfort zones, we were given opportunities to serve as the hands and feet of Christ for those who fall between the cracks, who tend to be ignored and who struggle on a daily basis.
Alison Sailer, another Team member, mentioned near the end of the trip: “…The orphans of Ukraine have caused me to reexamine not only my understanding of love, but how to express that love to others. We are called to be little Christs, but service begins with humility, with compassion, and with affirming God’s image in each and every human being regardless of their outward (or inward) condition. While it is impossible to articulate all the ways in which I have been touched by this experience, I have rediscovered the importance of being present for people who truly value my presence – people for whom the virtues of humility and compassion are effortless and who cherish me instantaneously. Yet, loving the orphans of Ukraine is the easy part. Our divine calling extends to all of life, and now is the time to “go forth…”
Throughout our journey to the orphanages we took time in both the mornings and in the evenings for prayers, discussions and silent reflection. The experiences from the trip are good lessons for each of us, regardless of whether we are living and serving in distant places or right in our own neighborhoods. There is an unending need in our lives to step back and realign our priorities and values so that they greater reflect the Faith we confess; along with the need to seek and draw closer to our Lord, rather than the way we tend to understand the Holy Faith as something that brings us comfort and peace. We look to Christianity to enrich our own lives, and look to God to bestow on us gifts and graces. The need is for us to be proactive in living our Faith and not passive, expecting it to come to us! Mission trips are exciting, fun and intense to be sure. But those of you who read these reflections need not wait until the next mission trip takes place. Use the gifts you have been given by God to find a way to help others and to tell them the truth: "…the kingdom of God has come near to you. God loves you and we love you too!"
Irene Onufrey, a Team member from Sts Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Carnegie, PA, wrote in her reflection: “As I reflect on this mission trip, the phrase “And remember/The truth that once was spoken/To love another person is to see the face of God” from Les Miserables keeps playing in my head. The impact that the love each child has for a complete stranger, even from the moment they meet them, is nothing short of extraordinary. It is simple, it is pure, it is something that is rarely seen within the modern, distrusting society that we live it. Being able to experience that love, if only for a moment, is extremely humbling and gives you a reality check about life. That is what I will remember from this journey – the face of God… – is present in every single one of these children. I will cherish the time I spent with each of them for the rest of my life.”
Another Team member, Taylor Gladys of St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox parish in Pittsburgh, PA reflected: “This trip has been one of the biggest wake up calls and learning experiences of my life. I have found that I need to reevaluate what my purpose is, and what is important to me in life. Time is such a precious gift, and I would hate to waste a moment of it. That’s what these children have taught me. There isn’t enough time in this life not to love the people around you. There isn’t time to be judgmental. There isn’t time to be selfish. God has bestowed so many wonderful blessings on us, and the largest blessing of all is to have each other. Though disadvantaged and disabled, that much is clear to the children at Znamyanka.
I don’t know what kind of lasting impact I will personally have here. I don’t know if they’ll remember my face or my name weeks from now, but I know that our Mission Team has done the best they could with the short time they’ve had. Everyday, smiling, laughing, and holding the hands of these children have made a difference in their lives. The simplest touch makes them light up with happiness. In rehab, the children have been accomplishing more than they ever could. It is a beautiful gift to be able to come here and learn with the children. I came here thinking that I would bring the light of Christ to them, but instead I now think that they have brought the light of Christ to me.”
Paul Micevych, a Team member from St. Katherine Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Arden Hills, MN, wrote in his reflection: “As I reflect upon this experience, I stop and think about the simplicity of joy. Merely touching their hands or picking them up brings such happiness to the children of this orphanage. As I will soon try to re-enter my “normal” life and get back into my usual routine, these memories will certainly stick with me as I hope to find happiness in the simple things, not material possessions. I will greatly miss these kids as we depart; however, they have made a lasting impact on my life, showing me the true meaning of happiness.
Moreover, this experience has shown me the value of human touch. You simply couldn’t put a price tag on the beaming smiles across the faces of a child each time a team member walked into his/her room. Spiritually, the mission trip has made feel truly blessed in my life…”
Mission trip participants Kaitlyn Zimmerman of Protection of the Birth-Giver of God Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Allentown, PA shared her thoughts: “Being on this trip is truly a blessing. In just a few short days I have learned a lot from the children that live here, one of which being that the simplest aspect like human touch can make someone happy or brighten someone’s day. I also realized that not only do we comfort the children when we visit, but they have comforted me at times, which is a beautiful thing and I will forever be grateful for the light that these children have shown me…”
Subdeacon Adrian Mazur, seminarian of St. Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Bound Brook, NJ also reflected: “…Touch… I never understood or realized how powerful a simple touch can be. I have learned how just by a simple touch you can bring a smile and happiness to another person around you… I don’t know if I have made an impact on the children by just a simple touch or by playing with them, but what I know is that they have touched me and they will always have a place in my heart and prayer life…”
Svitalna Lymar, a Team member from St. Volodymyr Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago, IL, wrote in her reflection prior to departure from the orphanage: “Since we are still on the trip, it’s difficult for me to reflect on certain aspects of my experience. However, I was surprised by the beauty and kindness a human can give to a stranger. I was terrified before we got to the orphanage. I thought I would be scared to touch the diseased individuals. As soon as I saw the smiling and anticipating children, a flame began to flicker within my heart. How could anyone be afraid of such innocence? This trip was the first time I have felt so much love, trust and humility in my life. I am grateful for the people who have introduced me to a part of life I didn’t know much about, and led me in the path of the Lord. Thank you. ”
As a bishop of our Church I must say that my Episcopacy and the lives of many are enhanced because of the service and dedication of the youth of our Church. With them, I offer my simple and humble prayer asking God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to bless the faithful members of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA for their commitment to those in need. May our Faith and love be strengthened as we, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, “purify ourselves by responding to the cries and needs of those with whom we share the great gift of being created in the image and likeness of God”.