By Lena Lucas
It is over 5,000 miles from Zhitomir, Ukraine, to Indianapolis. Culturally and economically, the two places couldn’t be more different. Despite this apparent lack of connection between the two cities, a group of dedicated Indiana residents have found it in their hearts for the past 16 years to tirelessly work to help the impoverished and disabled in this remote Ukrainian city.
In 1997, Dr. Ken Ney, Nella Wainscott and Dr. Don Lawton met over a kitchen table to form the board of Mission to Ukraine (MTU). Unlike Dr. Ney and Dr. Lawton who had no real personal connection to Ukraine, Nella was raised in the U.S. by Ukrainian parents and spoke only Ukrainian in her home.
Nella’s passion for her Ukrainian people was combined with Dr. Ney and Dr. Lawton’s uncommon interest in Russia and their strong Christian faith as the driving force behind the involvement of numerous Indianapolis residents with MTU, including two Zionsville residents, Ellen Smitson and Amy Sorrells.
You may have heard about Ukraine in the course of your formal education or somewhere on the news, usually not in a positive light. The quality of life in Ukraine, especially child welfare, is worse than in Uruguay, the Bahamas, Peru and Albania, according the United Nations Human Development Report 2013. Poor ecology, poverty, poor medical care, substance abuse and crime continue to increase after the fall of the Soviet Union. The number of children placed in orphanages and children born with disabilities increases accordingly.
Ukraine has one of the highest abortion rates in the world, according to the World Health Organization. In Ukraine, abortion is a primary form of birth control. An average Ukrainian woman has three to five abortions during her lifetime. One out of three Ukrainian babies is aborted. All of this is happening while the Ukrainian population is shrinking; there are more deaths than the births annually. Unfortunately, there is little hope in the foreseeable future that the situation will get significantly better without help from the outside world.
The Crisis Pregnancy Center in Zhitomir, Ukraine, was the first program of MTU. It began with one room and three Ukrainian women as its staff. The Center has been serving women facing unplanned pregnancies by offering free counseling and support with food, diapers, vitamins and clothing for the first 18 months of the life of each baby.
The Physical Therapy Department is another program MTU has undertaken that aids disabled and handicapped children and their families. MTU expanded into the ministry to the disabled by offering a camp experience for children with disabilities. Eventually it grew into the Physical Therapy Department offering medical care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, preschool, speech therapy and social integration programs.
In 2007, after a long search, MTU reached out to Romaniv Orphanage for boys with severe physical and mental disabilities. Initially MTU was told that the institution does not exist.
“We asked the director of the orphanage if we could come and start working with the boys,” says Dr. Ken Ney. “She said yes, although she wasn’t sure what we could do with them….They were literally treated like animals. While they were fed, clothed and sheltered, that is about it. They were kept in a locked room that resembled goat pins. No toys, no human interaction, no teaching. They ranged in age from five years old to 35, about 90 of them.”
MTU staff started going to the Romaniv orphanage weekly to work with the kids. The first step was to help the mentally and/or physically disabled kids to sit still. Eventually, after that task was accomplished, they were taught how to interact in groups, such as raising their hand when they wanted to speak, listening to one another and being friendly.
From that point, they were ready to start the learning process of color recognition, music, playing educational games, craft projects and so on. The tasks were challenging, but MTU volunteers refused to give up, despite discouragement from the Romaniv orphanage staff. The kid’s transformation, in a relatively short period of time, was just short of miraculous. The most advanced boys were successfully taught life skills with one of the boys actually getting adopted.
In addition to the work being done with the Romaniv orphanage, MTU provides services to approximately 135 children with disabilities a week that live outside the orphanage. These children are being picked up by MTU’s transportation and brought for physical and occupation therapy daily. Thirty full-time staff and numerous volunteers work eagerly every day to provide compassionate care on par with European standards.
The third major program of MTU is its annual summer camps. The two camps in July host 160 kids and adults in a beautiful wooded area nearby Zhitomir. During the much anticipated 10-day camp, children with special needs and their families experience the joy of participating in fun and spiritually nourishing activities. For these children and their families, it has become the highlight of their entire year.
The camps are supported every year by numerous volunteers that travel from the greater Indianapolis area. Every year, approximately 40 people from the Indianapolis area go to Ukraine to volunteer at the camps.
“If you have a heart to love a kid, you can go,” says Dr. Ney. “There are things to do for everybody. You can teach English, push a wheelchair or kick a ball with a kid.” Dr. Lawton continues, “You can go on a slide with them or teach somebody how to swim for the first time.”
“We want these kids to be seen as kids, not kids with disabilities,” says Dr. Ney. “At their core, they are just kids, and that is so cool at the camps. Nobody sees their disabilities. They just have a blast. They are treated with dignity and love, and nobody cares for them as we do.”
“I have the privilege of taking high school and college students to Ukraine, who just by being exposed to the disabled kids, completely changed their course of studies after coming home to go into occupational or physical therapy so they can work with disabled kids,” says Dr. Ney.
What began over a kitchen table in Indianapolis with a few individuals who had an innate desire to help people has grown into an active mission that involves many local residents while having saved 1,000 babies and improved the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainian children for over the past 16 years.
MTU is not finished though. It needs your time and monetary support to continue to save lives. Somebody said, “You cannot ever underestimate the power of an action by a single individual.” If you are looking to give a present to somebody that would last a lifetime, you can give a gift of joy and happiness by taking care of one of these Ukrainian kids.
Sofia is one of the babies saved by the Crisis Pregnancy Center who has developed a malignant brain tumor at 4 years old. She was diagnosed by MTU’s neurologist in the free clinic. MTU raised funds for her surgery and continues to help the family with medications.
At the age of 3, Illiusha suffered a severe form of scarlet fever with unexpected difficult complications that resulted in muscle atrophy. After six months, he had to re-learn to hold up his head, sit and walk. Even though he looks healthy at present, he can neither dress himself nor walk the stairs or any long distances. Any acute respiratory disease affects all of his muscles.
Lily, one of the moms that is supported by MTU, has no relatives, and her boyfriend deserted her as soon as she became pregnant. She lives in a temporary living shelter and receives minimal support from the government. It hardly covers her utility bills, so she appreciates every item she receives in God’s name. She loves Bible studies and opens her heart to embrace God’s love and truth. Her son’s name is Kirill.
Your $30/month donation ($360/year, only a $1 a day) can buy a month’s supply of:
Send your checks to Mission to Ukraine: 1033 3rd Av. SW, Suite 105, Carmel, IN 46032 or donate online at missiontoukraine.org/how-can-i-help.
MTU has a spiritual effect on mothers, children and entire families through the Bible studies and love they receive at the Center. It has had a huge impact upon the local officials and schools in Zhitomir. Almost all of the support comes from the U.S. It has been a blessing to all who have given of their time and resources to visit Ukraine.
Zionsville residents involved in Mission to Ukraine
The past has a way of coming around again in unexpected and redemptive ways. My family’s experiences with the MTU organization did just that. While on the outside, the story of our involvement is relatively recent, it began over a century ago when my paternal great-great grandparents, Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, came to America along with millions of other Eastern Europeans escaping the increasing waves of pogroms – organized massacres of Jews in Eastern Europe which spanned from the 1880s through the early 20th century.
Flash forward to 2009 when my son, Tucker, a sophomore at Zionsville Community High School, and I heard about the story of Peter through MTU. The same age as Tucker, we were instantly smitten with Peter, a toe-headed boy of normal intellect who was abandoned at the Romaniv orphanage after his mother died. Peter suffers from muscular dystrophy, and before MTU became involved, workers at the orphanage assumed incorrectly that because he was physical handicapped, he was mentally handicapped too. He was placed along with the other severely handicapped boys and often beaten and knocked out of his wheelchair, helpless to defend himself.
Along came Yuri Levchenko, a worker with MTU, who connected and fell in love with
Peter. Despite having seven (now nine) of his own biological children, Yuri committed to adopting Peter into their home. Successful at first, Peter lived happily with the Levchenkos for a year until governmental red tape forced Yuri to take Peter back to the squalid (but improving, thanks to MTU) orphanage. Yuri would not stand for it. He moved into the orphanage with Peter, refusing to leave for days until the government fixed the paperwork and let Peter come home with him again permanently.
When the opportunity arose to travel to Ukraine and meet Peter whom we helped sponsor financially and speak at a women’s conference about the possibility of finding hope and healing from sexual abuse, I jumped on it. I met Peter, now bedridden because he is so weak, who just celebrated his 17th birthday December 2. I spoke to a church congregation in a tiny village called Chudniv about how a century ago, my ancestors left the country in fear, but I was there to tell them that the horrors of even the pogroms can be redeemed.
At least half my heart remains in that country, the land of my ancestors, a rich land that has been a crossroads for massacres and injustice for centuries, a land and people which, thanks to MTU and organizations like them, is finally experiencing the in-breaking of redemption, hope and freedom.
Amy lives with her husband, three sons and a gaggle of golden retrievers in Zionsville. A former three-year columnist with the Zionsville Times Sentinel, she is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau (rainn.org) and speaks to groups about healing from abuse. An award-winning writer, her debut novel is releasing in bookstores everywhere March 1. She can be reached via her website at amysorrells.wordpress.com.
Ellen and Dave Smitson
At the urging of friends Nela Wainscott and Dr. Don Lawton in 1999, Zionsville residents Ellen and Dave Smitson took a trip to Ukraine that would change their lives in so many ways. First, the Smitsons were simply “smitten” by the Ukrainian people while also being overcome by the enormous need for help in the country.
Immediately, the Smitsons became deeply involved in MTU, despite the fact that neither has any ancestral connection to Ukraine. Dave was on the board of directors for several years, and Ellen currently sits on the board. Since 1999, Ellen has made two to three trips to Ukraine a year. They have also been substantial financial contributors to MTU.
The Smitsons’ involvement in MTU has truly been a family affair. Each of their three older children have traveled to Ukraine with MTU. The Smitsons have gone well beyond normal philanthropy in their support for the impoverished in Ukraine. A few years ago, they adopted their youngest child, Luda, who at the time was a 4 year old living in an orphanage in Ukraine. Ellen said that she has been going to Ukraine for so long that several of the people over there have become like family. Ellen and Dave Smitson’s selfless giving in support of MTU changes the lives of so many Ukrainian children.