If someone had said to me five years ago that I would spend five weeks in Ukraine and have the time of my life I would not believe them but it‚Äôs true!
I spent most of my life being pretty oblivious to the hidden lives of orphans in foreign countries. I wasn‚Äôt aware of the suffering and neglect that innocent children endure on a daily basis. Especially those who are born with special needs. Watching the documentary ‚ÄúUkraine‚Äôs Forgotten Children‚ÄĚ changed my life. I could no longer ignore what was happening on the other side of the world. Last year I decided I wanted to see for myself what life is like for these kids. Plane tickets were booked and a friend from work, Jenny, decided to come too! I set up a fundraising page and spoke with the local newspapers. The response was amazing, over NZ$8,400 was raised for the children.
Then in December there were the protests in Kiev. Then Crimea was taken by Russia. Pro-Russian Terrorists fight in and bomb cities and towns, killing soldiers and innocent civilians. Then 12 days before we are due to leave, flight MH17 was shot down, 298 innocent lives are lost. Many people tried to talk us out of going for our own safety but we decided to go ahead with our trip. After 2 days of flights and hanging around in airports we arrived in the capitol. A day later we were on the new fast train to Zaporozhzhye. Kiev Train Station is definitely an experience all on it‚Äôs own... Mariya from the Happy Child Foundation picked us up from the train station for the 2 and a half hour drive to the first institution we were to visit, Kalinovka.
Kalinovka is home to 120 children and men. On the way we got to see the building site for the new Foster Family Home, where orphaned children will get a chance to live with a family. I am very excited to see this project come together!
Kalinovka really is in the middle of nowhere. The thought of so many lives being lived hidden from the world is heartbreaking. Some of those lucky to be living in the Happy Homes now have spent their whole lives at Kalinovka. For most of their lives the world was completely unaware of their existence. I didn‚Äôt expect it to be so big and the buildings to be so spread out. Grown men wandering around aimlessly, some only young and others old. Many with the emotional and physical scars of a lifetime of being in institutions.
The new Happy Home, built by the Happy Child Foundation, where the girls live is beautiful! The girls and their home are well cared for. There are toys, music, TV and a swing to keep them occupied. Little Katya in particular keeps herself busy by pretending to hammer nails in the wall, fixing toys, putting toys away (by throwing them up on the shelves, even if the other girls were still playing with the toy‚Ä¶), practicing massage therapy dolls, watching anything the staff are doing very closely and changing her own clothes / diaper.
Older Katya (I can‚Äôt call her big Katya as they are the same height!) and Larisa do beadwork, colouring in and love chatting with all the different staff members. Larisa of course spends most of her time listening to music and she assigned me the job of putting her music player on charge as required.
Vera also enjoys listening to music and spending time with staff. We were lucky enough to be there when Natasha was adopted and to see her leave the orphanage forever with her family. Anzhela and Olya are both very sweet and love the extra attention they get in the Happy Home.
Miroslava loves the swing and the vacuum cleaner!
Varya is always on the go and is quite the adventure seeker.
Zhenya is full of energy and mischief, she keeps the staff busy. Even her hugs are at full force.
The caregivers and teachers are caring and affectionate towards the girls. The girls are very lucky to live there!
The boys Happy Home is not for the faint hearted! Yura, Vanya and Maxim love attention, hugs and music! Usually all at the same time! The staff have their hands full with those 3 and they do their best to keep them occupied with arts and crafts, sports, music, TV and toys.
We got to see Ruslan leave with his family too, he was very excited! He will be an amazing son.
Artem got the chance to go to summer camp with ‚Äúmainstream‚ÄĚ kids and really enjoyed himself, he continues to do well with his walking.
Alyosha always greets you with a big smile. He can write and likes colouring in, he concentrates so hard to do it.
There are two young, bedridden adults living there, Sasha and Vladik. They both seem settled and relaxed, Vladik gets to spend time outside and gets massage therapy.
Big Sasha keeps everything running smoothly, he is always busy! He collects and empties all the rubbish from the Happy Homes, supervises all the boys and helps the caregivers out with everything from laundry to dishes to vacuuming. He is very happy doing all of this and also likes doing arts and crafts.
Then there is little Sasha. He is the size of a toddler at 20 years old. I bought some socks for the kids with me and he fits the ones for 18 month - 3 year olds. If I could of brought this little guy home with me I would of. I had a soft spot for him before I visited but now I‚Äôm in love! He loves music, walks and really enjoyed listening to my iPod!
The boys have made some really beautiful things and their artwork is displayed throughout their home. Their caregivers and teachers know them well and have a good sense of humor!
One of the highlights was taking Katya and Larissa over to the boys Happy Home after dinner for dance parties!!
The caregivers and teachers were very good to us, even though we didn‚Äôt speak the same language and they couldn‚Äôt understand our accents. It was also great to see the kids getting massage therapy! After spending three weeks at Kalinovka I could see what a great idea the Happy Homes are and how the kids thrive from living in them. And after visiting the boys and the girls institutions in Zaporozhia I was convinced of this.
The boys institution is home to over 130 boys and young men 4 - 35 years old. In one of the groups in the institution for boys there are 20 young boys, all with different needs and abilities, boys that are constantly trying to hurt themselves and occasionally others, covered in scars and fresh wounds, hands tied behind their backs or to beds / wheelchairs, some mobile, some completely immobile, none can communicate verbally, very few appear to be continent and there are only two caregivers.
All these boys need individual attention and they just can‚Äôt get it. There were educational toys sitting unused as no one was told that batteries were needed for them. Once batteries were put in the toys were played with non-stop, the boys loved them!
The boys in this group are so sweet and even though they are surrounded by others all the time, they seem so alone in the world.
One of the boys who is 16, only just recently arrived. He was dropped off by his family who could no longer cope with his needs. After 16 years‚Ä¶ I still can‚Äôt get my head around this.
We were given permission to visit the girls institution for a few hours. This institution is home to over 400 children, women and men. After watching a concert at the put on by the institution we got to meet the bedridden children, escorted by two of the administrators. Some bedridden boys from Kalinovka were also transferred here a few months previously. The bedrooms come off a lounge and when we arrived all the doors to the rooms were all shut.
A caregiver opened the doors when we went in and then closed them again behind us. Children left in cribs all alone and in complete silence.
While the institution is clean and friendly looking this is no way to live, they deserve so much better. The staff do not believe that these kids need any stimulation or activity even though almost all of them respond to voice, touch and sound. I wish we were allowed to stay with these children longer. Some really responded to being touched and spoken to. The thought of thousands of rooms like this around Ukraine and other places in the world kills me. How can people think this is anyway for innocent children to live?!
I will never forget my time in Ukraine and hope to return again. Everyone should pray for peace there, the most innocent are already suffering and it needs to stop. Costs are rising and the Happy Child Foundation and other charities in Ukraine need your donations and help more than ever. Now that you know the plight of these children, how can you ignore it?
I would like to express my gratitude to the Happy Child Foundation for their help and everything they do for the children of Zaporozzhhye‚Ä¶ We felt safe the whole time we were there. And of course thank you to Maya from Maya‚Äôs Hope!