“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans… in their affliction.” James 1:27
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora is a solid example of caring for orphans and those in need. Over the past two decades, with the blessing of His Eminence Metropolitan Antony, Prime Hierarch of the UOC of USA, the Church has organized mission trips to various orphanages throughout Ukraine, specifically focusing on the orphanage for severely handicapped children in Znamyanka, Ukraine, under the directorship of Tetyana Ivanivna Valko. The children residing at this orphanage suffer the most severe handicaps. Some are mute, others blind, and many have mobility issues requiring wheelchairs, walkers, and leg braces.
Each year the Mission Trip, led by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, Ruling Hierarch of the Western Eparchy of the UOC of USA, brought cheer and supplies to the children. The faithful of the Church donated funds, clothing, diapers, and toys to be delivered to the youngsters. It was with great anticipation that the children awaited the annual visits from Vladyka Daniel and the mission team, during whose visits they would laugh and play and go on excursions. The grounds of the orphanage would echo with laughter and joy, as the mission team members played with them.
The echoes of laughter have been replaced this year with echoes of sirens and drills and fear, as the Russian Federation invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine. No longer did the children spend carefree summer days lulling in the shade of the trees in the courtyard of the orphanage. No longer were they safe in the only home they had ever known. The constant bombardments necessitated the evacuation of the orphans, who were among the most innocent of Ukrainian citizens, and who were unable to protect themselves against the invading forces.
Therefore, the children who were able to be transported, were carefully loaded on a bus, and taken for the longest ride of their lives, finally crossing the border into Poland and arriving in the city of Krasnobrod with their teacher, Veronika Mykhailetska and three staff members of the orphanage.
Here a building formerly utilized for rehabilitation became the new home for 38 of the children from the orphanage. The children slowly settled into their new abode, getting to know their way around, starting their new routines, and trying to put the fear that had permeated their little bodies aside. They thought they’d only be there a few weeks, but the weeks have turned into months, and the youngsters have slowly become accustomed to living in a foreign land, grateful for having been given shelter, yet still worried about their friends whom they left behind.
One August morning, as the children quietly sat outside basking in the warmth of the sun, a motion caught their eye. As they squinted into the sun, they saw a figure clad in black, turn the corner and walk towards them. With a huge smile upon their face, they recognized Archbishop Daniel, who came running towards them. Once again, their faces reflected joy as the children screeched with joy at seeing an old “friend” whom they trusted and loved. “Vladyko!” they yelled, as they clapped their hands.
His Eminence was enclosed in a group hug as he called each child out by name, and inquired after their health, assuring them that they had been missed, but not forgotten. As he freed himself from the little crowd of children, he made his way to those who were not able to run up to him, crouching down to smile up at the child in the wheelchair, and tickle the tummy of one who was reclining on a blanket and not able to sit up.
With the arrival of His Eminence, arrived joy. The children’s quiet demeanor faded, the scales of fear melted away, and they once again were the same children who had been carefree back in Ukraine. Archbishop Daniel went inside to visit with the teacher and administrators, as well as with the other children who were bedridden indoors. With him he not only brought joy and laughter, but much needed medical, hygiene and nutritional supplies.
The remainder of the day was spent in happy banter, jokes, and games, as the children’s spirits were lifted. Before leaving, His Eminence, gathered the children so they could all pray together, for their continued safety, and for the Lord’s protection over them, and their homeland of Ukraine, to which the children dream of returning one day soon.
During the visit, the archbishop undertook a trip to a local grocery store in order to purchase the most necessary nutritional items for the kids. Eight large carts were rolled out of the local grocery store, providing the head teacher – Veronika Mykhailetska and three other staff members with the nutritional needs for the young people with disabilities.
Visiting a local pharmacy, Vladyka Daniel was able to obtain the basic medical supplies for all residents of the temporary orphanage site, thus looking into the unknown future with a bright ray of hope.
Holding children in his lap, the Archbishop listened to the patriotic songs and poetry performed by Liana – a twenty-eight year old young lady, who spent most of her life in Znamyanka; but forced by the unjust was in Ukraine to depart for a distant Poland. As she bid farewell to the archbishop, she said: “…we want to go home… to our Znamyanka… we can live there under the threat to explosions – but home with our brothers and sisters and teachers, who are our parents…”
Ensuring the children were well cared for and providing them assistance made possible by the generous donations of the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, Archbishop Daniel blessed the building and the children, and assured them of his, and everyone’s continued prayers on their behalf.
With final waves goodbye, His Eminence walked out into the street, but behind him the grounds of the building still reverberated with laughter, as the children once again were children, and not just refugees.
We are truly grateful to the clergy and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA for their continued love and support of the orphaned youth in Ukraine.