Thursday, May 2, 2019

BLOG # 7
April 30, 2019
How quickly time passes!    This is our last week in Ukraine and therefore this will be our final blog.  Our experiences have included lows and highs.  Again we have become reacquainted with friends from the past and made new friends.  The return of spring has resulted in much natural beauty.  We are seeing new plants and hearing new bird songs.   The locals are also noticing some of these changes.
                                                     Climate change?
The lows have been in the stories of suffering that villagers bring to the Mennonite Centre.  Low salaries, unemployment, poverty, illness and the war in eastern Ukraine cause much hardship for many Ukrainians.  One example would be the story we heard from a farming couple.  She had been diagnosed with colon cancer.  They had already paid for surgery and 2 of the required 6 chemo treatments, but now their funds were exhausted.  Each course of chemo cost 10,300 Uah. ($515.00 Cdn.)  They are still too young to receive pensions.  Their adult children had helped where they could but all were earning minimum wage.

The couple owns 12 hectares of land which they had seeded in barley and wheat, but without adding fertilizer because they could not afford the cost.  Even if the harvest is successful, grain prices are very low, because they are forced to sell to buyers who have access to the markets. They have a garden, some pigs and chickens, so that will keep them fed fortunately.  The husband has a bad knee and struggles to walk, so he is due for a knee replacement. 

As Canadians we cannot imagine their dilemma because our medical expenses would be covered. The only way Mennonite Centre can respond to such needs is through your donations.  We thank you for your generosity.

Monday we were invited to an Easter Festival at the Tokmak Greek Catholic Church.  There was music inside the church by a small choir from the Molochansk Music School, and outstanding violin performances by Dasha Barenovskaya, graduate from Dniepro University.

Outdoors there were displays of Ukrainian artwork, Easter Egg painting, and offers of paska, eggs, and tea for snacks.  Dancers from the local music schools performed in colorful costumes.  We enjoyed the music of guitars, bandura, accordion, and more singing.  It was a wonderful community event for people of all ages, enjoying fellowship in this lovely wooded area.  Many volunteers from the church had worked hard to prepare the grounds and displays.  It was an Easter celebration by the church for the community. 


On Tuesday we met with our Ukrainian Board, a legal requirement for doing charity work here in Ukraine.  The members are leaders from the community whom we trust for feedback for the types of projects we do.  The dialogue and exchange of ideas and perspectives among them was most encouraging.  After lunch we were entertained by Sergei, Irina and Masha Lokotkov and pianists Tanya & Oksana, all from the Tokmak Music School.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

BLOG # 6
APRIL 23, 2019

In the past we have mentioned the changes that have occurred because of educational reforms. Teachers are implementing a more interactive approach in their teaching style.  The Ukrainian School in Molochansk  has taken this to another level.  They have chosen to use a program in their school entitled “Intellect of Ukraine” which incorporates an inter-disciplinary approach.  This new program costs each parent about 2000 Uah per year.  This includes all the workbooks, tests, videos, posters, charts, etc. that they will need.   We were invited to observe Grade 1 English and Ukrainian classes.    There was a lot of interaction between teacher and students, working in small groups.  New knowledge was reinforced by using games, rhymes, and songs.  They were reading and speaking and enjoying the learning process!   Mennonite Centre had helped pay for the necessary renovations in the classroom.

 The standard of musicianship in the Tokmak and Molochansk Music schools continues to impress us.  We enjoyed a vocal concert in Tokmak last week with performers ranging from age 6 and up, including the two instructors:  Irina and Sergei Lokotkov. 

We heard wonderful solos, duets, and ensembles, accompanied by very fine pianists.

  The  Molochansk Music School held their 4th Annual Piano Festival in honor of Linda Stobbe.  Several years ago Linda had done piano masterclasses with the students and in her memory they began the festival.  It was evident that the students and teachers had worked very hard to give top-notch performances.  Both these schools provide the communities with dance, instrumental, and vocal instruction.  Mennonite Centre continues to support them in various ways.

The local interest in Mennonite history continues.  Right after our arrival last year a history group from Tokmak   visited  Mennonite Centre to question us about the experiences of our ancestors who used to live in these villages.  Since then they have produced a video showing many of the remaining Mennonite buildings and sharing descriptions about life here more than a hundred years ago.  Now we were invited to view this video at the Tokmak Museum.  It was good to see their efforts in trying to discover a history that was forbidden to the local people during Communist times.  In his remarks the mayor referred to the saying: “Those who do not know their history do not have a future.”    The instructor of the group said he was surprised that Mennonites had returned, after he had learned about the horrors they experienced here.  It was an opportunity for us to speak about the faith that sustains us and our reasons for returning and serving the local people.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

BLOG # 5
April 16, 2019
Last week we spent 4 days in the Zaporizhzhia area visiting completed projects, and checking on new requests.  After many kilometers, some on very rough roads, we are always thankful to be safely home in Molochansk again.  We met many people who are dedicated to helping others and to improve life in their communities.

The Shiroke Community group, made up of 28 villages, has responded positively to the reforms initiated by the government.  A council of locally elected deputies working together to reform medical, educational, and social services has resulted in tangible hopefulness.  Instead of waiting for change, they have embraced the opportunity to take initiative. 

Several village groups invited us to meet with them and describe ways in which Canadian seniors volunteer.  That resulted in some enjoyable discussions around the table.  In the village of Maleshevka (Neuenburg) some of the women who enjoyed singing together decided to form a group and give concerts in different villages.  Instead of charging a ticket price they asked for donations to purchase hearing aids for children with hearing difficulties.  A second project they did was to buy some equipment for the local clinic.  After they told us about this, they got up and performed one of their musical numbers for us!  They obviously loved to perform.  This was a wonderful example of using their talents to serve others. 

In a second village, leaders became aware of the need for a laundromat.  Mennonite Centre purchased the machines, but volunteers prepared the room, and were in charge of supervising the use of the facility.  The most needy persons could use it free of charge and others would pay a minimal fee.

We were delighted to again observe the work at “Prometey”, a school  for children with autism and cerebral palsy.  The children are obviously comfortable in their surroundings and feel loved by their teachers.  Their enrollment continues to grow and they are now serving 120 children!  When they began 10 years ago, they had 2 small classes.  Their expertise is becoming known and has resulted in a waiting list.  Recently they have hired a psychologist to formally write up their philosophy and document their work.  They are receiving an increasing number of inquiries from  within Ukraine and abroad regarding their work.

It was wonderful to hear about the children who will be enrolled in a regular school class in fall.   Mennonite Centre continues to pay for their heating and transportation costs.      

A few years ago Nicolei and Irina, refugees from Crimea, began a new life in a village near Zaporizhzhia.  Their bee keeping operations have expanded to 24 hives.  The bees  survived the winter very well, a credit to Nicolei’s expertise in caring for his hives.  They are still working at establishing a better method of marketing the honey.  
They also sell fresh roses, harvesting up to 400 at peak times.  They have a buyer who picks them up at the farm.  Nicolei has found a way to keep them fresh longer by storing them in a small air-conditioned cellar.  In speaking with him, we realize his creative ability to solve problems and his extensive knowledge of beekeeping and horticulture.

Every day we walk by the home of Anatoly on the way to and from the Centre.  Anatoly is deaf and almost blind, in his nineties, and living alone.  He is always so friendly when he meets us.  Despite his limited vision he wanted us to admire the bright red tulips blooming in his immaculate yard.  We were moved by his kind gesture when he insisted on picking 5 lovely blooms to present to us!  

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Blog #4
April 9, 2019

Many of the medical requests we receive from individuals are from seniors.  Requests for cancer surgery and chemotherapy, heart surgery, or cataract surgery are common.  Most of these can only be done in the larger centres such as Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia or Kiev.  Major surgeries can cost more than 100,000 uah ($5,000 CDN).  Pensions have increased slightly in recent years, but still a minimum pension now amounts to 1600 uah ($80 CDN).    In addition to the trauma of getting a diagnosis like cancer, these folks face the overwhelming task of raising the equivalent of 5 years’ entire pension for their medical care. 
But, as we know, medical needs are not limited to seniors.  Earlier this year we were made aware of premature twins, born at 24 weeks, now 18 months old.  They require specialized therapy available only in Lviv, some 1200 km from here.  The concerned parents were deeply grateful for the financial help Mennonite Centre provided for them.  This enabled them to access this treatment for their twins.  The doctor at the hospital was optimistic about their prognosis.

Speaking of children, kindergartens are always a delight to visit.  However, with educational reforms in the country, they too are feeling the squeeze.  Although more like the daycares that we are familiar with, these facilities accept children from about 1 year to age 6.  Until recently first grade was included in the kindergarten.  Now Grade 1 students have been shifted to the regular schools.  Stronger emphasis on more interactive learning also affects children at this level, 
and so better facilities and upgraded equipment are required.  The government does not provide the necessary funds.   This kindergarten in Tokmak has about 200 children, including some that require special speech therapy. Mennonite Centre helped pay for some new desks/tables and cupboards. For this we were treated with a short concert and a thank-you card made by the children.  Stop by our place in Gretna after we get back and we will gladly pass on their gratitude to you, the donors.

A few days ago Tima & Vika had supper with us.  We got to know Tima several years ago when he was completing his masters degree in agronomy.  Last fall he and Vika were married.  Presenting us with a picture of the Mennonite Centre she had done completely with beadwork (13,700 beads in 23 different colors!) they said: “We also like to give, not just receive.”

                 Apricot blossoms 



Wednesday, April 3, 2019

BLOG # 3
April 2, 2019
After travelling extremely rough roads we were again privileged to meet with Father Peter in Melitopol.  His energy seems boundless and his love for people is contagious!  Recently his church began an after-school program, teaching life skills, offering tutoring services, and activities.  They continue to feed the homeless, and now also include seniors struggling to pay their expenses.  Some meals and diapers are provided for the homeless in the hospital. During spring break they were running a conference for 20 young people.  In commenting about the countless tasks, his comment was:  “Better to wear out, than to get rusty”.  A motto many of us could adopt!

We went to see the home of a very poor family that he was assisting with house repairs.  Mennonite Centre had helped with the purchase of the windows and doors.  The parents were extremely grateful!   Perhaps with a better home, some work for the father, and moral support, their life will improve.

Two years ago the Ukranian government began implementing educational reforms. The emphasis has been to change to an “interactive learning” approach.  Another emphasis has been to integrate children with disabilities and learning difficulties into regular classrooms.  We were invited to participate in a meeting with University instructors, classroom teachers, social service workers, and student teachers doing practicums.  They were discussing theories, as well as personal experiences.  Not only were they working with children, but very aware that families also need training and support, and that the attitudes in society need to change.  The challenges are huge, but we were pleased to hear about the direction they were going and tried to offer encouragement.  Mennonite Centre has provided assistance to several schools that are attempting to integrate inclusive programs.

Wednesday we also met with Viktor, a personal friend whom we got to know during our first term in Ukraine.  Here our knowledge of the German language enables us to visit with him without translation.  He just had his 79th birthday, lives alone, and has no surviving family members.  He is always so appreciative of our visits, extremely hospitable, and loves to discuss spiritual truths and questions.

In the nearby village of Kutusovka (Petershagen), the former Mennonite Church has become a Care Home for seniors.  Lilli, the director, tries to provide excellent care for 12 women.  With rising living costs, this has become an increasing challenge.  The residents’ pensions are limited ($80 to $100 CDN per month) and the donor base for the care home has shrunk.  The residents need medications, some need diapers, and, of course, nutritious food is a necessity.  Mennonite Centre provides a monthly stipend together with the Benevolent Society, but with rising costs this needs to be increased.  

This past Sunday Ukraine had their presidential elections.  People appreciate the privilege to vote, to make a choice, although choosing from 39 candidates on the ballot was a challenge.  We walked to several polling stations in Molochansk just to observe and here in the village everything seemed to be proceeding in an orderly fashion.  A police patrol was present.  The results are not conclusive and so on April 21st there will be a run-off election between the 2 candidates that received the most votes.   We sense that people are somewhat anxious about the results.  What will the outcome be and how will life in Ukraine be affected?


Tuesday, March 26, 2019

BLOG # 2
March  26,2019

Last week we were invited to the MCC meetings on peacebuilding and conflict resolution.  This was an opportunity for MCC’s various partners to learn and have fellowship with one another.  Mennonite Centre cooperates with MCC on several projects.   We appreciated this opportunity to meet and to learn from their workshop.  The well-known peace builder from Ireland, Joe Campbell, shared from his expertise, having devoted 25 years to peacebuilding in Ireland and other parts of the world.

Mennonite Centre purchased a blood analyzer for the lab in the Tokmak Intensive Care Hospital.  We met the director and his assistant who  expressed their gratitude and also explained some of the challenges they face in implementing the government medical reforms.Doctors’ salaries have improved substantially but it is still difficult to attract doctors to smaller centres with outdated equipment.  Many doctors are leaving for other countries.  The director was pleased that their hospital had qualified as an intensive care facility for the area. Acquiring equipment for laparoscopic surgeries would enable them to provide much better services.

The local sports school organized a program to encourage families to improve their physical fitness.  We attended a competition where several family units participated in timed events such as skipping, ball throwing, running, etc.  Scores were kept.  In the end all participants were awarded prizes for participation and a winner was announced.

Today delicious aromas are penetrating our office area.  Seniors  enjoying a lovely lunch prepared by our staff. The number of visitors seems to be increasing.  They enjoy the food and the fellowship and often continue their visits outside, enjoying the warmer spring weather.  Lunches are also sent home to shut-ins and poor families with many children.

The variety and scope of our projects are endless.  The challenge for FOMCU is always to determine the purpose and value of each project and how we can provide the most benefit to the local residents.  We want you, our donors, to know that your contributions are deeply appreciated.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

BLOG # 1  2019
Back to Ukraine

Even though it is hard to say good-bye to our children and grandchildren, we are always warmly welcomed by our friends and co-workers here in Ukraine.  Not only was the welcome warm, but also the weather.  Having come from a world of deep snow and blizzards, it is a treat to see green grass, swelling buds on trees, and early spring flowers.  We see people walking with rakes and hoes to their “dachas” (gardens).  Apparently some have already planted potatoes, in order to take advantage of the spring moisture.

We flew directly into Zaporoschye with Polish Airlines instead of to Dnepro, saving us one and half hours of additional travel by road.  Unfortunately they left one of our checked bags somewhere along the way and we had to pick it up 3 days later.

In the first 4 days at the office, we have already had many requests for assistance from schools for repairs, and pleas from individuals for medical help.   We are always impressed with the dedication of teachers and parents to look after the upkeep of their schools.  The government does not cover maintenance costs and so those are left up to the community.  Often Mennonite Centre helps pay for supplies while teachers and parents provide the labor.

Again we are seeing the insurmountable expense for individuals who need chemo treatments or surgeries.  Many have already exhausted all other possible resources for funding and then come to the Centre for help.  Just this morning we received the heartfelt thanks from a woman whose husband received funding for his third round of chemo.  We wish you, our donors, could have heard her expressions of gratitude.

Today we were invited to visit a school on the other side of the Molotschna River.  These are villages that originally belonged to the German Lutheran population.  Mennonite Centre had assisted this school with several projects in recent years, such as windows, small chairs for the Kindergarten, lighting, internet installation, and a dividing wall to facilitate two Kindergarten classes.  The principal proudly explained, in German, all the benefits to their school.  Students are taught German and English.  Then we were invited to a lovely lunch as their way of saying “Thank-you”.

Our seven week stay in Ukraine is quickly filling up with visits to check on various projects, those already completed as well as new requests for assistance.  We are also making plans for an annual Ukrainian Mennonite Centre board meeting, a legal requirement for registered charities in Ukraine.