Friday, February 26, 2016

Dear Ukraine

February 26, 2016
"Dear Ukraine"

Our time in Ukraine has come to an end again.  Always, there is more to be done, and thankfully the staff at the Mennonite Centre carry on after the Canadians have left.

We were given this bead-work framed map of Ukraine with the caption “Dear Ukraine”.  

“Dear” for the people who gave this to us, who struggle to create a successful and meaningful life in a country that is challenged by political uncertainties, high unemployment and inflation – people who know this place as their homeland.

“Dear” for our ancestors who left this country reluctantly and who often reminisced of a thriving and enjoyable family, church, and community life.

“Dear” for us who have now formed significant friendships through the ongoing work of the Mennonite Centre.  Please remember Ukraine in your thoughts, prayers and with your financial donations to the Mennonite Centre.  Contact information can be found at: 

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Week at the Mennonite Centre

Blog #5
A Week at the Mennonite Centre

We are often asked what we do when we are in Ukraine.  Sometimes it is difficult to describe, so perhaps giving you glimpses into this past week will help.

We began with visiting the 2 Kindergarten schools in the village.  (Kindergarten here is Day Care, Pre-school, and Kindergarten, all present in the same building)  These are such enjoyable visits to make because we see colourful, tidy classrooms filled with beautiful children, performing songs, short dances,
and looking very angelic as they sleep peacefully in a room filled with more than 20 children!  Mennonite Centre has done many and various projects in these schools.

When we returned to the Centre we were met by 2 people from Svetlodolinsk historical committee asking for assistance to erect a memorial honoring the 2 brothers, Johann and Jacob Wall, founders of the railroad built in that area.  They would also mount a photo of that familiar scene where Mennonites are boarding the train to leave for Canada.

The next day we visited the Ukrainian School who had assigned one of their Gr. 11 students to interpret for us.  It was a delight to meet this young man who was brave enough to try out his English skills.  We were given a tour of many classrooms filled with students, and proudly introduced to some who have won competitions in Math, debating, Karate,etc.  Photos mounted in the hallway indicate the help these students have given to Ukranian soldiers, one project being the making of 5000 perogies to provide food!

Oksana, Ira, and I spent the next day delivering food packages to housebound seniors or physically challenged people.  These are among the most needy.  Several years ago we met Igor, bedridden all his life, unable to speak, being cared for by his 72 year-old mother.  He is now 27 years old, a complete cripple, barely able to eat because of his twisted body.  The mother was so pleased to see us, warmly welcomed us into her home, and shared her concerns for her son.  In the past we have provided a bed, a spinner washer, and various supplies.

In the next home we met another mother, caring for her 42 year-old son suffering from burns to over half of his body because of a marital dispute.  These two people are now alone, trying to cope with the rising costs of food, medication, and heating costs.  We hope to help with medications.

Stephania, only 60 years old, suffering from horrific hernias, shared her difficulties with us.  She has a diagnosis from a doctor but has no idea how she can get to a hospital in Zaporozhzhiya from her small village.  She is overcome with emotion when given the food package.  We hope to provide assistance for her surgery.

On Thursday Dave and I were invited to the English class in the Russian school, to share a bit about our historical connection to Ukraine, and to describe Canadian life as our family experiences it.  We presented a power point and invited questions.  A few students were brave enough to ask questions, but many are too shy. We enjoyed meeting these youth and were also given a tour of the school and their museum.

Mennonite Centre has provided some medical equipment to the Tokmak Health Centre including a cardiograph, holter monitor and computer.  We were invited back to the hospital and met 3 of the doctors, who expressed their sincere gratitude.

 Sergei Lokotkov, director of the Tokmak Music School, invited us to a student recital to celebrate the music of Mozart.  Piano, violin, flute, saxophone and vocal music, even a few “period costumes”, were a delightful way to complete our day.  One of the pianos used was donated in honor of Linda Stobbe.

 Friday morning we received a visit from a soccer coach and a local deputy describing their dream of improving the “stadium”, a community soccer field and track in Molochansk.  They want to provide a place for healthy activity for youth and a place for the community to gather.

In the afternoon we met with the Ukranian board of the Mennonite Centre, reviewed the projects of 2015, shared concerns and ideas for the future, and enjoyed a delicious dinner prepared by Ira.  We heard words of gratitude for the assistance received from the Mennonite Centre.  We reminded them that we are only representatives of the many generous and caring Canadians they don’t see:   you, our donors!   


Monday, February 15, 2016

Living in Hope

Living in Hope

Having met many different people in various situations in the past few weeks, we repeatedly encounter individuals who rise above circumstances, giving of themselves to make life better for the people around them.

Just last week we had the privilege of meeting Ina and Vlodya, a middle-aged couple who have opened their home and their hearts to four orphaned siblings.  Initially they planned to adopt a young girl from the orphanage.  They discovered she had three siblings, one of whom was still in a hospital in eastern Ukraine.  After several trips to the hospital, they managed to secure permission for him to come to Zaporizhzhia and then proceeded to adopt all four siblings.  With the financial support from Mennonite Centre they are now renovating their home to accommodate their large family.  Their love and compassion for these children, who had experienced the death of both their parents, was evident.      

Another couple in Zaporozhzhia has also opened their home to others in need, but in a very different way.  They were former addicts, but have left that lifestyle behind, having experienced the love of God.  Every Friday evening they welcome others into their small apartment living room.   They enjoy a time of singing, sharing, and eating together, providing encouragement for one another.

Sergei  Lokotkov, director of the Tokmak Music School, was summoned to report for military service.  When he reported, however, he was told that he was not needed at this time.  We were so thankful to hear that, because he directs a music school of 270 students, conducts the choral group Rhapsody, and has frequently provided free concerts at various community events for seniors, church groups, women’s day celebrations, etc.  With so much stress in this country because of the threat of war, challenging political and economic conditions, the power of music is undeniable.  He generously shares his musical talents.

Another individual who was called to report for military service, but did not have to go, is Vladimir, a soccer coach from the war-torn area of Donetsk.  He, with his young family, fled to Tokmak.   He has a heart for children and youth and is concerned for their well-being.  He has founded a soccer school, because as he says:  “investing in children means investing in the future”.  Since September the enrollment has grown from 40 to 200.  Observing the indoor soccer practice of a group of seven-year olds, it was evident they were not only learning great soccer skills but having a lot of fun doing so.  When Vladimir describes the conditions in the war-torn region, easy access to weapons and areas littered with land mines, one is all the more impressed with his ability to live in hope and serve his community.        

Monday, February 8, 2016

Focus on Youth

Blog #3
February 8, 2015

Over the past number of years the Chortitza-Rosenthal Maedchenschule has received considerable visibility from Mennonite tourists returning to their homeland.  For more than a hundred years its ornate architecture and durability have served this Ukrainian community well.  To this day it functions as School #81 in the city of Zaporizhzhia.  However, another school, located next door to it has seemingly received less attention, even though it was established some 50 years earlier. 
School #82 was established in 1842 as a “Zentralschule” (secondary school) in this Mennonite  village.  Recently school director Alec Chekov contacted our Zaporizhzhia project manager, Olga Rubel, with the question why this school received so much less attention than his neighboring school.  We visited the school and found a thriving trade school, incorporating regular high school level courses with courses in accounting, hair-dressing and truck-driving/mechanics.   A “hands-on” emphasis in their teaching style was evident, sometimes even using toys.   Unfortunately, the 350 students were not in school the day of our visit due to the H1N1 flu quarantine.  Mr. Chekov, who formerly worked for a private company was invited to take over the administration of this school in 1998.  Since then he has initiated numerous building improvements, largely with private funds.  Being part of the regular school system, students attend free of charge. 

Not being content with the success of this school, Mr. Chekov has been given access to another historic Mennonite building,   the former Mennonite Teacher Training Institute constructed in 1912 and located next to the Holodomor Memorial that was erected by Mennonites in 2009.   The building is presently being renovated and upgraded to accommodate courses in cooking and baking. 

Innovations in educational programs are not limited to the prescribed public school curriculum.  Zhenia Shubolov has become involved in two school programs that are largely outside of the regular classroom schedule.  In the villages of Shirokoye (Neuendorf)  and  Nikolaipole (Nikolaifeld)  he teaches a one-hour a week class in “Bad Behaviour Prevention” addressing issues such as addictions, respect for authorities, AIDS, etc.   Having come from a difficult home background where he experienced some of these challenges personally during his adolescent years, he is able to speak about these issues with authenticity and sincerity.  Students appreciate his candid approach to these issues and look forward to his classes.                                    
School directors and teachers spoke highly of him and his teaching, sometimes even with a hint of envy for his ability to relate to the students.  On the day that we visited the school these teachers took advantage of the flu quarantine by upgrading their computer skills in the classroom Zhenia normally uses.

The second program Zhenia is involved in is the “Real School” program.  This, also, is an initiative that is outside of regular school hours, and takes place off campus.  Here topics such as career selection, job readiness skills, resume writing are discussed and presented.  The program is set up as a two-year course.  Now in its second year, some 70 young people gather weekly at the New Hope Mennonite Church in Zaporizhzhia.  The hope is to add a third year component to this which would include a time for Bible study as well.  Recently a village in eastern Ukraine that has received material aid from the New Hope Church, has expressed interest in establishing its own “Real School” program.  Zhenia will likely be one of the team members to launch this.  Mennonite Centre assists in financial support for Zhenia and covers some of the costs related to these programs.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Blog #2
February 1, 2016
Living with Less
Recent visits to local schools and a hospital amplify for us the reality that many institutions are required to function with fewer resources.  Instead of small budget increases to account for the rate of inflation, reported by the Statistics Bureau running at 43.3% in 2015, budgets have been reduced by 20%-30%.  This is barely enough to cover heating and electricity costs as well as salaries but does not allow for a raise.    Funds for other maintenance, improvements and supplies must be secured elsewhere.    We marvel at the ingenuity of directors and managers who keep their institutions running.  However, as one director proudly told us:  “Cossacks don’t give up!” 
In the midst of this, Dr. Sepiyan, chief doctor of the Molochansk hospital, proudly demonstrated the tele-medicine project the Mennonite Centre has helped fund.  Quite quickly he was able to contact one of the feldshers (nurse practitioner) in Novagorivka, a small village north of Molochansk.  They report that within the past month a number of patients have been helped with better diagnoses through direct contact with the doctor in Molochansk and several times with specialists in Zaporizhzhia and Kiev.  This is encouraging, especially for young, graduating family medicine interns, 8 of whom are scheduled to take up positions in some of these village clinics.  Unfortunately, adequate internet access is still lacking in five of the villages that are waiting to be connected to this system. 

A visit to the Sanatorium School on Thursday echoed the recurring theme.   This is a school operated under the health system providing both education and health treatment and therapy for children with various respiratory, cardiological and other ailments.  Typically the children are referred to this school from the rural area of the Zaporizhzhia oblast for one to two months of treatment/education.  They live in dormitories on compus.   In early February a new group of up to 90 students, ages 6-17 are expected to arrive.   Drafty second-storey windows require children and teachers to wear their parkas throughout the day while doing their schoolwork.    

The director, completing her 50th year of instruction and administration at this school is looking forward to a well-deserved retirement at the end of the current school year.  She proudly points to a display recognizing the connection this school has had with the Menno Simons Christian School in Calgary.  The ping-pong tables                                                                   generously donated by students from Calgary by now require new                                                         paddles after much use.                                                                       
Various craft projects and substantial indoor flowers                         brighten the classrooms. 

In Melitopol we met Father Peter who was instrumental in restoring the former “Schoensee” church.  In addition to serving his parish in Melitopol he has also established a small re-hab centre for up to 12 men  who are struggling with addiction issues.   Because of the desperate plight of homeless people in the city he has opened a                                                      “soup kitchen” which provides one meal a day for up to 80 people.                                                                                                                                                                    

After completing renovations for a church in the city of Tokmak, he wants to turn this building in Molochansk into a worship facility as well.  Living with less has not dimmed his compassion and care for people in need.