2017 Mission Team of the UOC of the USA Serves in Ukraine
The College Mission Trip to Ukraine always starts off with a day of sightseeing in Kyiv, so the team members can become acquainted with the history and culture of Ukraine before spending the majority of the trip at the orphanage. The beginning of the trip is very relaxed and a lot of fun, as we run around Kyiv to visit sites like St. Michael’s Monastery with its beautiful golden domes rising from the top of the hill. We also explored St. Andrew’s Market, which is a shopaholic’s dream for all things Ukrainian and just about every other item, too. The market winds down miles of road from St. Andrew’s, and even though we could not go inside the church due to renovations, it was still an impressive sight to see. However, the fun and wonder of Kyiv is nothing compared to the experiences of the orphanage. There is also nothing in Kyiv that will move you as much as the children in Znamyanka do.
Arrival – Monday, June 5th, 2017
Monday afternoon, we took a train to travel from Kyiv to Znamyanka. The plan was to arrive at the orphanage in the evening around six o’clock, where we would eat dinner, unpack, and maybe meet some of the older children who were still awake. We were not disappointed. When we first arrived at the orphanage, we had a chance to interact with some of the older girls before having dinner, and after dinner, we were allowed more time to just hang out and get to know these older girls outside near one of the playground areas. Eventually, the girls had to go off to bed, and we had to prepare for Evening Prayers, bringing an end to our travel day to the orphanage.
Although Monday was mostly a travel day, we still got to have our first real lesson from the children. We sat after Evening Prayers, with Vladyka Daniel preparing us for our first full day, and he pointed out his favorite picture where we have prayers. It is a picture above the door with five children in rainbow colors linking hands, some in wheelchairs and others standing. The poster says, “We are all angels with one wing who must embrace each other to fly.” Even though we had only met with a few of the children upon arrival, the picture’s saying had already proven true. The children embrace each other and make life better for each other, trying their best to fly. The first example that comes to mind is two girls, Katia and Nadia, who we had met after dinner. Nadia is very small and could not walk at all in the past, even with help. However, Katia adopted Nadia and began acting as a mother to her. She helps to feed her, dress her, and carries her around all day. Now, Nadia is able to walk with help from Katia, and Katia has even begun to trust others with the care of her “child.” Moments such as these are only the beginning of what we will experience with these children.
First Day – Tuesday, June 6th, 2017
Every day, the team starts with Morning Prayers, and the Gospel Reading for our first day was the reading about the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes were good preparation for what we would experience on our first day. Recognizing how important the children are in the Kingdom of Heaven is essential if you are ever to learn from them. As many children as could stand or sit in wheelchairs greeted us with a two-hour-long concert after Prayers, singing traditional and modern Ukrainian songs, reciting poetry they had written, and celebrating the birthday of one of the children, Yulia. We even participated in her birthday celebration by singing “Happy Birthday” in English, after the rest of the children had finished singing it in Ukrainian and wishing personal hopes for her on her special day, like one wish that she could see her mom soon.
Our afternoon was entirely full with visits to the bedridden children, splitting into two groups to visit the boys and the girls. We spent two hours going from room to room, playing with the children that could walk and just holding hands and talking with the ones who could not. In the evening, we finished out our day by walking with some of the older children to the train station to get treats and ice cream. The children were overjoyed to get out of the orphanage, even for just a little stroll to town and back, because they do not often get the chance to leave the orphanage.
We end each night by discussing how the day had gone after Evening Prayers. We each had amazing experiences during the day, but one of the most touching moments came from a team member who interacted with Yura. Yura is one of the smaller boys that does not usually open up to new people, and he does not talk much, if at all, around strangers. However, he had gone right over to the team members and picked one to cling to, and even talk a bit to, earlier in the day. One of the nurses had come up and explained how little Yura opens up to people and how amazed she was at his interaction to the team member. Every team member had similar stories, and all of our experiences reflected the themes from the Beatitudes reading that morning.
Second Day – Wednesday, June 7th, 2017
Wednesday was an exciting day at the orphanage. In the morning, around ten o’clock, the children gathered upstairs for the chocolate fondue party we sponsor when we visit. The fondue party is hosted by a theatre group that provides all the fondue materials and also entertains the kids while they are waiting for food and eating. This visit, Minnie Mouse and two other costumed performers led the children in some fun dances that wore everyone out before getting wound up on chocolate. After the dancing, we helped the nannies and performers get the children into aprons. Chocolate was everywhere! A few of us also took some chocolate-covered goodies downstairs to the children that could eat it but could not make it up to the second floor.
After the first round of chocolate, the governor of the state stopped by to quickly visit the kids while meeting with the director and Vladyka. The performers led the children in one of the dances for him, and then the kids sang him a song, with direction and accordion accompaniment by their music teacher. When the governor left, the children were treated to a second round of chocolate before the cleanup routine began for lunch. Cleaning up did not stop the fun, though, since there was quite a bit of dancing and singing going on while the nurses were leading children back to their rooms and the performers were packing up their equipment.
After lunch, the team spent the afternoon visiting the rooms of the bedridden children again, though we switched which floors we were on. That way, all of the children got to spend quality time with every team member. The boys, as usual, were a pretty rowdy bunch, while the girls were a bit calmer and very much interested in getting their hair braided. Two of the team members also helped one of the girls write a letter to her godmother, to be delivered upon return to the United States. It was touching to hear how much she missed and loves her godmother, but also how understanding she is that her godmother is busy with her family.
After dinner came a slightly shorter walk outside the orphanage with a smaller number of the older children. Instead of walking to the train station, we walked with them to the park area, with a pit stop into a store for ice cream of course. We took a brief look around the school where some of the older kids take classes after having our sweet treats, and then we headed back to the orphanage so the children could get ready for bed. We had Evening Prayers soon after the walk, which was a special experience because a few of the older girls joined us. A couple even helped to read the prayers.
Third Day – Thursday, June 8th, 2017
For Morning Prayers some older girls joined us again, and it was so nice to have them participate with us for prayers. Then, after Prayers and breakfast, we spent the morning going around to the various classrooms and interacting with the children and teachers. These teachers are some of the most dedicated people we have ever met. Pani Olena works with the older and more mentally capable boys and girls, doing various activities such as embroidery, beadwork, and computer skills. Pani Natasha works with some of the younger and less mentally capable boys by providing activities with blocks, dancing, coloring, and toy instruments. Pani Alla stays with the least independent children, mostly girls, in a nursery-type room where she can keep an eye on all of them while working with a few to help them stand and move for short amounts of time. Pani Taïsia Ivanivna actually was not in her usual teaching element while we visited. She typically works with some of the more capable kids to create more challenging artwork, but some of the team was staying in her normal workspace. Instead, she was working with mostly girls while we were there, teaching them the alphabet and poems to memorize.
In the afternoon following lunch and the children’s daily siesta, we rounded up the kids onto the orphanage’s bus and drove to a pizza place in town. We even made two trips with the bus, in order to bring as many children as possible. Everyone had a blast! There was meat and seafood pizza for everyone, not to mention the five different types of pop being passed around to all the kids. Our group almost entirely filled up the patio of the pizza place, and the kids could not get over being out and about in the sun with all of that good food. As per usual, we finished our outing by having some ice cream for a final treat.
When we returned to the orphanage, the team let the children go off to bed, and we spent the rest of the time before Evening Prayers organizing all of the donations that had been collected for the orphanage. We had huge piles of clothing, art supplies, beauty products, and essentials such as diapers. The number of donated items was incredible to see, and the team is looking forward to showing the teachers all of the art supplies tomorrow.
Fourth Day – The Midpoint of the Orphanage Stay – Friday, June 9th, 2017
Since we have been here, it has become a wonderful habit for some of the older children to join us for Morning and Evening Prayers. They are so attentive and willing to participate, and they really enjoy helping to read the prayers.
This morning was again filled with visits to the teachers’ rooms, but it was a little more hectic than the previous day. Inspectors from the state were visiting, so all the teachers were busy getting the children ready for the inspection. Our team tried to help the teachers when we could and still interact with the children, but we also made sure we would not make the teachers’ jobs more difficult while waiting for the director and state committee. Although it was a bit nerve-wracking for the teachers and other employees, the inspection seemed to go well. The state committee was so touched by the love and intelligence the children showed, and they seemed impressed by how much dedication the employees have for the children.
The afternoon was a lot more relaxed. During the children’s siesta, all the teachers came downstairs to pick what art supplies they wanted for their children from the donated items. They quickly grabbed as much as they could carry, and even then, they still were shopping for new items for the kids. After the siesta, it was a spa day for the girls. The majority of the female members of the team came to the girls’ rooms armed with nail polish, nail stickers, glitter, hairbrushes, and hair accessories. The male members of the team spent time with the boys upstairs, while downstairs, the girls moved around the girls’ wing and did nails and hair for all the children that were able to have a makeover. A number of the older girls mentioned that they felt like they were at a salon, and they had never had anyone spend as much time on makeovers before. It was such a big hit that we will probably try to do it again one more time before we leave.
The evening was a little bit more difficult than the rest of the day. We went for our usual walk to town for ice cream with the more mobile kids. We went to the train station, got ice cream, and then stopped in a grocery store heading back to the orphanage. However, on our way back to the orphanage, some of our team experienced the reaction people who do not know the children might have to the orphanage’s kids. A group of young adults outside the grocery store commented within earshot of a member that seeing the children walk by made them “sick to their stomachs,” and an older woman with her granddaughter hid her granddaughter’s face when one of the children walked past. One of the hardest parts of the trip so far was those incidents; realizing that not everyone sees the children with love is extremely difficult to process, especially when we are here specifically to love the kids as much as we can in the short amount of time we have with them.
For those negative experiences, though, we also had positive reactions. A man with his children knew one of the kids and stopped to say hi and chat for a minute. People in cars and a man on a motorcycle waved back at the kids and honked their horns to say hello as the children walked past. The man at the shish-kebab stand in front of the grocery store thanked us for spending time taking the children out for walks and offered us free shish-kebabs. People on the street said good evening back and smiled when the children politely said hello. The women waiting for kvac (a fermented bread drink) had conversations with some of the children while we also waited at the kvac stand. Even though today was fun and difficult, a lot of us realized how important it is to support these children like we have been. Despite the negative reactions, we had hope for the children because of the positive interactions and because the children’s love shines in everything they do.
Fifth Day – Saturday, June 10th, 2017
Saturday was a big day at the orphanage. It was the market day in Znamyanka, and we had promised to take the children to buy supplies for kanapky, which are sandwiches. After Morning Prayers and breakfast, we rounded up the kids we were taking and made our way into Znamyanka. The market was such a cool experience, for the children as well as the team members. Some of us had never been to a market like they have in Ukraine, so the experience was eye-opening. They have everything there! There were vendors selling clothes and shoes, farmers from the village bringing in milk and cherries, people in little stores selling an assortment of car parts, and even some women that were selling crates upon crates of little chicks and ducklings. We walked around once or twice with the children and then started to buy the items we needed for the kanapky. The kids also got some presents from the team members, too. Shura, one of the older girls, got a new hat and a pair of shoes. It was Sveta’s birthday, another of the older girls, so one of the team members bought her a new dress on behalf of her godmother. When the store clerk heard it was Sveta’s birthday, she gave them a discount and also ran out after they had left the store to give Sveta another dress, as an extra present. It was so sweet to see how much the children enjoyed being out and about and interacting with the rest of the town.
We spent the entire morning at the market, so when we got back to the orphanage, the kanapky-making had to wait until after lunch and siesta. Around four o’clock, we gathered as many of the walking and wheelchaired children as we could around a large table in the second floor lobby and started making our kanapky. We had mayonnaise, ketchup, cheese, kielbasa, cucumbers, tomatoes, and chives to make the sandwiches, and the kids used up everything! They made themselves sandwiches first, washed down with pop, and then they made trays of kanapky for the bedridden children, who enjoyed the treat we brought them. While we were wrapping up our kanapky-making, we surprised Sveta with two birthday cakes with candles. We sang “Happy Birthday” to her in Ukrainian, English, and Russian, and then Ginny, Vitaliya, and Juliana gave her a birthday present. She really loved the attention and was so happy we had remembered her birthday.
The evening was a little calmer, but still a lot of fun. We set up a movie theater in one of the windowless hallways and played all sorts of cartoons for the kids. We played Tom and Jerry, Masha and the Bear, Nu Pogody (a Russian Tom-and-Jerry-like cartoon), and some others. We passed around chips and some leftover pop as snacks. As usual, we ended our day with Evening Prayers, and also as usual, more of the older kids joined us to pray.
Sixth Day – Sunday, June 11th, 2017
Sunday morning started with a Moleben service. It was well attended by the older children, and you could tell that they are starting to get used to us being there. The weekends are usually pretty calm at the orphanage, just like Saturday was. Despite it being Sunday, though, three of the teachers were there working, so the team spent the morning going around to the classrooms. The female team members also spent time passing out gifts, some to the few teachers that were there and others to the girls, especially if their godparents had sent gifts for them with the team. The music teacher was there, so he spent some time travelling around from classroom to classroom. Singing songs with him and his accordion seemed to be a big hit in one of the girls’ classrooms on the first floor. Lianna, Yulia, and Angela knew every song by heart, and they sang with such enthusiasm that it was hard not to try to sing along, even if you didn’t know any of the words.
The afternoon was also a lot of fun because the children enjoyed the movie theater so much that we decided to bring it back for a second night. This time we watched the French live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast,” which is definitely a bit darker than the Disney version and has a lot less (by that, we mean no) singing in it. However, everyone was completely captivated by the film, so much so that when we paused it for dinner, we had to promise the kids that they could come back afterwards to find out how it ends.
After dinner, we did finish the movie, but first we took as many children as possible on one final walk. We brought everyone we could, wheelchairs and walking children, since it was the last time they would be able to go out on these types of walks until the next mission team comes. We walked down to the corner store by the park and made sure all the children got at least one final snack or drink to keep in their rooms. We have to spoil them a little bit whenever we can! Everyone sat in the park after the store and had one final ice cream together before we took everyone back home. Then, we finished off the night with the end of the movie and Evening Prayers. The usual suspects joined us for prayers, but the hugs goodnight afterwards were longer than usual. They know we will be leaving soon, and they really do not want us to go. The feeling is mutual; we really don’t want to leave them behind either, even though we will have to on Tuesday.
Last Day – Monday, June 12th, 2017
Monday is our last full day here. Tomorrow, the suitcases get loaded on the bus and driven to Kyiv at five o’clock in the morning, and the rest of the team not going with the suitcases will take a train back to Kyiv at 9:50 a.m. with the seven children and three nannies that are accompanying us for a few days in Kyiv. That is the plan for tomorrow, but for now the team will spend as much time as possible with the children.
All of the teachers were back at work today, since it is no longer the weekend. The team passed out more gifts to the teachers and nannies, and then everyone found a classroom or two to hang out in for the morning. We were only in the regular classrooms for about an hour or so, though, because a lot of the kids had music class upstairs in the lobby halfway through the morning. It was kind-of like an impromptu goodbye concert. There was a lot of singing, since all of the kids have around two hundred songs memorized. And, of course, there was dancing. The music teacher played some very upbeat songs, and everyone would break off into clapping and spinning in circles and grabbing onto their favorite closest team member for a dance. Some of the kids in wheelchairs got on their knees to spin around on the ground, and others would get pushed in circles in their chairs so that everyone was participating and having fun.
The hardest part of the morning though was when the kids started asking us if we were coming back. They know we are leaving tomorrow, and they do not want to let us go. They have been saying how much they love us, they have been calling us “Mama” and “Papa” and “Aunt,” they keep saying we are family, and they keep asking when we will come back. They want to know when exactly we will visit them again or just if we will come back to visit in general, and that is the hardest part. Most of us cannot make the promise to come back to visit. These children hold our team members to their promises. It is easy for Vladyka Daniel and Pani Olha to say they will come back because they will in the winter. They are always the team leaders, and they have been coming every summer and winter for a number of years. The rest of us, though, have to be vague with the children. You want to tell them, yes, you will come back as soon as you can, but if you say that, then in the winter, Vladyka will be with the children and someone will ask where you are and why you are not here. As much as you want to comfort them, you cannot lie to them just to make them feel better about you leaving. They hold us to our promises.
After lunch and siesta, we hung out with the children as much as possible. We took a lot of them outside to just sit under the trees and relax. We especially tried to take some of the bedridden children outside in the strollers, since they are hardly ever outside of their rooms. Some of the team members also finished passing out all of the gifts. We gave the girls bracelets and hair accessories that we had leftover from our donations, and the boys got stuffed animals. We also tracked down the last of the nannies, teachers, and cooks to give them their gifts as well.
Around six o’clock, the team members all headed to the director’s office for our farewell dinner. Pani Tatiana, the director, and Pani Tatiana, the cook, joined us, and the director started the meal off by thanking us for coming back to the orphanage. She reminded us again how much she and the children appreciate our visits, and she said she really enjoyed seeing all the love we bring for the children and all the love we receive from them as well. She gave us each a certificate of appreciation for our work this past week, and we also had a small gift for her and Pani Tatiana.
After dinner came the most difficult part of the day. We had the Holy Unction service to bless all the children in the orphanage, and then we had to pack and say goodbye to the children. The Holy Unction service was really wonderful to experience. Even though we have been with the children for a week, it’s hard to spend time with every single child. Every child was embraced during the service, though, so every child felt the love from our team. Some of the children even gave Vladyka or other members presents during the service, like Serhey, who gave Vladyka a beautiful 3-D tree made almost entirely out of beads. After the service, we went and visited the rooms again to say goodbye to all of our new friends. It was extremely difficult to not cry around these kids. You would walk into a room to give someone that you had bonded with a hug, and all the other kids would start crowding around you, crying and saying they did not want you to go. It was only one week, but in that one week, you became a part of the family. It was a really tough night for all of us, especially for the children.
The next few days will be in Kyiv with a dozen of kids from the orphanage. Stay tuned…
So, as we conclude our Mission Trip to Znamyanka, we ask for your prayers for about 120 teachers, some 60 to 80 staff members and us – the Missionaries - the representatives of the clergy and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA under the leadership of our spiritual fathers Metropolitan Antony and Archbishop Daniel.