The 2019 Mission Team of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA to Znamyanka Orphanage in Ukraine consisted of 12 Mission Team Members: Very Rev. Fr. Taras Naumenko, Very Rev. Fr. Vasyl Sendeha, Subdeacon Mykola Zomchak, Subdeacon Ivan Venhryn, Reader Roman Baker, Natalia Hlushko, Alexis Naumenko, Andrew Powers, Daniel Steliac, Mariya Pavlusyk, Olena Lymar under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel.
His Eminence Metropolitan Antony blessed and commissioned the 2019 Mission Team at the Spiritual Center-Metropolia of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA in South Bound Brook, NJ on Monday, August 5, 2019. Following the blessing, the team departed for a long journey over the Atlantic Ocean to central Ukraine.
Upon arrival to Kyiv- capital of Ukraine, the missionaries had the opportunity to adjust to a time change and see the beauty of an ancient city with its golden dome churches and monasteries. Archbishop Daniel gave a very interesting tour through the city. Lots of walking and lots of interesting places to see and visit. For some of the group member it was their very first experience of the Ukrainian culture.
After catching some breath, a day later, team of missionaries took a train south towards Odessa to the city of Znamyanka, Ukraine.
The arrival at the orphanage was as anticipated, the children, who are mobile, where anxiously waiting for the arrival of the group with their favorite “bishop” Daniel.
Hard to describe in words their excitement when the minibus pooled in-front of the main door of the orphanage. Smiles mixed with tears, jumping from excitement, hugs, lots of hugs and of course the words, “You came back! You promised to come again and you you came back!” We are so happy that you came back.”
All of a sudden the tiredness from a long trip and changes of transportation was gone. The excitement of the children was so energizing, that you forgot about the exhausting trip and difference in time.
Children wanted to know for how long the Team was going to stay. They wanted to known if the team members were going to take them out into the town for walks, for shopping, for ice cream. “Of course we will” said His Eminence Archbishop Daniel, “let us just unpack and get situated.”
The next morning, after Morning prayers, breakfast and orientation, the mission team met with the direct of the orphanage Tatiana Ivanivna Valko and toured the orphanage to meet the staff and the residents. You could tell that for the first-time members of the team, it was emotionally hard to see bedridden children with physical deformities as well as children afflicted with mental illness. Even for the returning members of the team was hard to gaze upon the reality of the life in the orphanage housing 125 children, when most of them have the highest levels of mental disorders.
With prayers and the grace of God, members of the mission team started their mission work-service by interacting with the children. Time was well spent by playing outside games, going for a walk by pushing the wheelchairs, swinging on a swing set or just talking or simply holding hands. Children were hungry for attention, they were hungry for simple human touch, they were longing for love.
The first day was exhausting, but very rewarding. There was this overwhelming feeling of accomplishing God’s will to share His love with anyone without an exception. After delicious dinner prepared by loving hands of kitchen personal of the orphanage, the end of the day was topped off with evening prayers and reflections of the team members. Everyone took turns in reflecting on their first day experience. Sharing personal experience helped team members to overcome obstacles of coming out of comfort zone and be more open in their ministry.
Every day spent in the orphanage brought new experience for the mission team members as well as created great memories for the children. Each morning began with the Morning Prayer Service led by Archbishop Daniel and each evening the day concluded with the Evening Prayers led by either Fr. Taras Naumenko or Fr. Vasyl Sendeha.
Friday, August 9th was a very special day, as children were taken on the bus to go to a popular pizza place - “Chelintano” in the city. The excitement of children was overwhelming, once they learned they were going to go on such a trip and a treat. Minivan can only take so many kids with wheel chairs. There is simply no room. “No problem”, mobile older kids, “we will carry those who are in wheelchairs and put them on the bus and carry them into the pizzeria on our hands!” We than came up with the idea of carrying them on actual chairs, which we took from pizza place. It was a fun day with lots of smiles.
Another great activity was making of sandwiches. We have provided all of the supplies for children to be able to learn how to cut and assemble simple meal. What a thrill they had in putting those sandwiches together and later eating them themselves as well as distributing them to all of the bedridden kids, who can chew and swallow these special treaters.
On one of the afternoons, we took older kids who can walk as well as those who are in wheelchairs out for a walk into a town. One of the requests of many of them was to be able to see the train go by. So we made a special visit to the train station. We were lucky they saw a speed train stop for a minute at the stop as well as local electric train. The outing into the town was culminated by visit to a local grocery store where kids were allowed to get any food or hygiene items they wanted and we would pay for them. They were very excited that they can actually shop on their own. You would think they would try to load cards and cards with stuff, but no. Many of them picked only a few items. It did take them sometime to decide what actually they would like to buy. As one girl said, I do not want to spend too much of your money.
Paying for the children to shop was a small token in making a change in the life of the orphanage. It didn’t cost much at all. Much bigger funds of the mission team were used to buy thousands of diapers of all kinds and shapes. The supplier was literally emptied out of diapers!!!
Another major project that was finances was the purchase of hundreds of kilograms of meat, which was packed and frozen to be used for future children meals.
Moreover, this year mission team has sponsored a complete remodel of the bakery on the premises of the orphanage that bakes delicious bread daily. Necessary and overdue repairs were done to the bus and a car of the orphanage. New windows and doors for the kitchen of the orphanage were prepaid for. Lots of craft supplies were purchased.
On Monday, August 12, we had a great opportunity to participate in the presentation of a book of poetry “WONDERFUL WORLD - ЧУДЕСНИЙ МИР” by Valia Nyzhnyk - a young lady in a wheelchair from the Orphanage. His Eminence Archbishop Daniel opened the presentation. Many children and staff of the orphanage gathered in the hall of the orphanage for this joyful event. The author Valia recited her favorite poems as well as members of the mission team read out loud the poems from her book. The books were distributed by Valia to all the present. The book signing took place.
Toward the end of the presentation, Valia had a nice surprise as she was presented with a new for her wheelchair that came all the way from Yuriy and Aimee Zmysly of Orland Park, IL. She was thrilled to sit in a very comfortable and cushioned wheelchair, which was delivered and adjusted for her needs by Fr. Vasyl Sendeha. Valia couldn’t stop saying thank you for publishing the books and bringing them over as well for the surprise gift to her.
The publication of the book was a product of love and generosity of the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. Special thanks to Viktoriia Zomchak for the linguistic set up and to Elizabeth Symonenko for graphic design. The consistory of the UOC of USA printed the book.
Wheelchairs and racing, seems like these two do not go together. Actually they do, especially if they are carefully planned and run by Sundeacon Mykola Zomchak.
Racetrack had start and finish lines made with chalk on a pavement as well as cons for obstacle course and of course the real finish line tape.
On one of the beautiful a bit hot afternoons, children of the orphanage participated in two different types of Olympic racing; on foot who could run as well as in wheelchairs, those who couldn’t walk.
How do you describe an excitement of a boy in a wheelchair who can’t talk, but wants to go racing over and over again? Awesome fun! That’s smile with missing teeth, drooling and making these sounds and gestures of excitement, are just priceless.
Children didn’t want to stop even for a quick rest. They wanted to keep going and to do it over and over again.
Finally, all sweaty and exhausted we called it a day. Toward the end of the Olympic races, all were the winners. There were no first or second places. No one minded that. The most important thing was that they had fun and extraordinary fun and so did we.
The whole service was actually done above one of their beds. They have spent the whole life laying in bed. They are best friends for sure. One of them can move his head and see different sides of the room as well as tv on the wall. Another, unfortunately is very limited on his view of surroundings. He is paralyzed from head down. He can only see one point, most of the time is a ceiling. However, his roommate describes for him what he sees and what happens around.
Imagine the great joy both of them had, when the room was filled with mission members and some of the orphanage personal and kids for the Holy Unction service.
It was a very Moving moment that stirred up a lot of emotions in many of us as the final prayer was read by His Eminence Archbishop Daniel and the Gospel book was open above them. As the anointing with Holy oil continued from room to room, mission team members were singing “Jesus remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”
Many of the children, hearing the song already knew what was coming. They were ready to receive the anointing with Holy Oil by bowing their heads and putting forward their hands. It was a tear dropping experience to watch as some of them who have little control of their hands were trying to cross themselves right before receiving the Holy Oil.
I though that Administering this Sacrament of Holy Anointing to these children, especially bedridden would be very hard, however thanks to God’s Grace it was heartwarming experience. You could feel that you are providing a special touch to those kids and they were responding back to it with the confirmation of sincerity and complete openness to the Grace of God, with no guile.
They have benefited from the Sacrament and so did we. It taught us simplicity and openness in front of God is a must if we want to receive His healing Grace.
The personal experience of the team members varied from individual to individual, but everyone would agree that their visit to the orphanage was a life changing experience, which they will never forget.
After saying tearful goodbyes, the mission team departed on their journey back home by walking to catch a train to Kyiv.
The final two days in the capital of Ukraine included visits to the great cathedrals and monasteries of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church: St. Michael the Golden Domes, St. Andrew Church, Monastery of the Kyiv Caves.
A special tribute was paid with the visit to the National Ukrainian Holodomor Memorial, where the Team members toured the museum and learned about the history of the Artificially created Genocidal Famine in 1932-1933.
Bidding farewell to Kyiv and Ukraine, the 2019 Mission Team of the UOC of the USA departed for the United States of America at 3am on Saturday - August 17, 2019.
By Fr. Vasyl Sendeha
Text by Fr. Vasyl Sendeha
Photos by Subdeacon Mykola Zomchak and Natalia Hlushko