We started our last day in Ukraine very early by driving to the airport in Kiev at 3am. The first flight was only a few hours. We landed in Frankfurt, Germany, early in the morning as well. A few of us were randomly selected for more security screening, which ended up taking a very long time. We eventually made it to our gate with seconds to spare. Finally we got through and got onto the plane heading to Houston. The flight was much longer than anyone expected: almost 11 hours.
After the flight we landed back in our favorite state and began talking about the great memories and relationships we had made over the past week and about all of the lessons we learned. We were so sad it was over, but at the same time it was an amazing week that allowed us to bond with the Ukrainian people we had met as well as our entire team.
As we head back to Austin, the relationships and memories we made will be carried with us into the future and I can’t wait to see the impact this week will have in everybody’s lives.
This Saturday morning we packed up and started on our way back home. We left Zhytomyr and spent the day in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.
We got to visit a few church buildings, make our way through the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), and walk down Kreschatyk Street – the main boulevard through Kiev where Soviet displays of military power were staged as “parades” for years. We later made our way to the Motherland Memorial (huge Soviet WW2 statue that looks across the Dnipr river from Kiev) by way of the Metro – and an escalator descent into the deepest metro station in the world!
Independence Square and Kreschatyk were also the epicenter of Ukrainian Nationalist political protests in 2004 and 2014, since they are the main gathering place in town and just down the street from the building that houses the Rada, Ukraine’s legislative body. In 2014, suspected Russian undercover operatives attacked the protesters and the months-long protest turned bloody over the course of a few days. We got to visit where these tragic historic events took place.
We received notice from the US Embassy earlier this week that a protest would be held on the Maidan Saturday morning, so we exercised extra caution and avoided the area as necessary. When these events occur (and escalate) in Ukraine, they tend to be very localized.
Thanks for your prayers for our team. We have felt peace, safety, and lots of blessings so far this week. We are so thankful for the time we have had together and with friends in Zhytomyr.
After the church and the square, we headed to lunch at a Ukrainian buffet. While most of the locals only had a plate or so at their table, we as Americans had about 6 plates per person. We wanted to try everything.
After we finished eating we walked about a mile or so to this popular chocolate store, Roshen, where we all stocked up on many pounds of candy. Once we finished with the subway mentioned above, we drove to the 300 ft tall statue that included a really interesting WW2 museum that taught us about Ukraine’s heavy involvement in WW2 and the Holocaust. Once we were finished with the museum we headed back to the hotel for a final Ukrainian meal together and a few short hours of sleep for the long travel days ahead.
Today, we split into two groups by job preference for the morning. One group woke up earlier and headed to do construction with Restoration Project and the second group woke up about an hour later, ate a quick breakfast, and walked to take the trolley to the shelter.
The other group went to the same house they worked on a couple days ago, but this time they tore up the floors plank by plank. After one floor was gone, they sledge-hammered for what seemed like hours. They said it was a fun way to get exercise but most importantly, to help those people restore that home for someone in need.
Once at the shelter, my group did crafts with the young moms while a few of us chose to hang out with their kids. We made picture frames with Bible verses in either Ukrainian or English and decorated them with yarn, flowers, ribbon, and drawings. When that was finished, the rest of us went to play with the kids on the second floor of the Shelter to help keep the young children busy so that the moms could rest for a few minutes. This consisted of playing mini soccer and helping the kids not get hurt while they played. It also involved chasing the “escapees” who wanted to play a not-agreed-upon Hide-N-Seek.
It was a lot of fun and when it was over, we headed to the Day Center for a wonderful lunch of fried chicken, seasoned carrots, and mashed potatoes. There we played cards, ping pong, and other games while we waited for everyone to arrive for English camp. The Ukrainian boys are all amazing at card games and ping-pong, almost always beating us without struggle. We split into two groups for English lessons, one more advanced and one more basic. I was in charge of the more advanced group and we practiced things like simple phrases, colors, the alphabet, and counting by tens. The kids had a great time and earned prizes like candy and pens.
After this, the groups rejoined and Andrey Pankyeyev, the leader and founder of Last Bell Ministries, gave a powerful message about believing in yourself. He paraphrased the story of Louis Zamperini, the famous runner whose story had been told in the Novel and eventually film of Unbroken.
Following this message, Ukrainians and Americans alike were divided into three teams for a scavenger hunt across Zhytomyr. We were required to work through the language barrier in order to emerge on top and complete embarrassing challenges in the local mall like singing a Christmas Song aloud or clapping for random people as they entered the building.
After this, we returned to the Day Center and loaded up our vans to head back to the hotel. Everyone emerged in great spirits and ready for whatever the next day brings.
Today was filled with a lot of work, but it was worth it knowing we helped change the lives of those who needed it. We started the day by going to a construction site through Restoration Project. Kaylee, Luke, Cody, Cole, and I tore down a brick wall that was nearly one hundred years old with sledge hammers. We worked hard for a few hours in the snow and showed our strength and that we can get our hands dirty.
After we left the construction site, we went to the Day Center and ate lunch while watching crazy Ukrainian and American music videos. After we ate, we went to the market/mall to collect items to make sandwiches for students at two different trading schools. While we ate and played games with the kids, I learned that the kids were too young to be living on their own. Many were fourteen to sixteen years old and living in dorms with the responsibilities to take care of themselves. Yulia and Abram were the LBM staff members with us, and the love they had for these kids was immeasurable. They serve them so well and make them feel part of a family.
Finally, after a long day of work and play, we went to the Day Center with our small group and took about a thirty minute nap. We later woke up and left for a shelter to eat dinner, where many of the orphan moms lived with their children. There we saw the nice living conditions these moms were given by Last Bell and I thought that was a really cool thing. Today was a long but impactful and fun day.
This morning, after breakfast, our team split up into two groups. One returned to Oleg and Tolik’s house in the village near town to do Restoration Project work and the other (including me) went to visit several young moms and their babies. We went around to different apartments owned by young former-orphan parents and got to meet them. We were privileged to hear their stories and experience their homes, even though it was heartbreaking to see and hear. One story that I heard that I will never forget consisted of a family of a mother, father, their daughter and son. Shortly after receiving his measles vaccination, the six year old boy started having some seizures. They continued and got worse and he was diagnosed with an unknown seizure disorder. It has been going on for twelve months now. Last Bell and their church raised money for the boy’s hospital bills and medicine. But there were problems. The mother had to fight against the local government for housing near the hospital, and the doctors weren’t being cooperative. They suggested the family just let the son die so that they can donate his organs. Luckily after Andrey and Oksana advocated for the kid with the doctors and the government, he received some medicine and his seizures started to get a bit better. Even though he is still in the hospital today, still without a certain treatment, there is now hope he will survive and recover.
After visiting the moms, we visited a local business that builds manufactured homes. It is owned and operated by a Christian family Andrey and Oksana know in Zhytomyr. We went to visit because the Restoration Project may work with the company (called “Ukrainian Dream”) to replace some homes that are beyond repair or build a small village of homes for a Last Bell Community in the future. We saw several finished home floor plans and watched them constructing homes in their factory.
Later we went to the day center where I had the privilege of playing cards and foosball with non-English speaking Ukrainian kids and staff while the others were playing ping pong or soccer video games.
After lunch at the Day Center, we went to the social dorm at a trade school to meet former orphans around my age. They were very light hearted and talented. One even showed us her drawings and paintings; we asked if we could buy a few of her pieces of art and eventually she agreed and her pictures were almost sold out by the end of our visit. We shared our fears and how fears are important in life no matter how much they might scare you. On the way home we learned that she couldn’t attend her university classes last week because she ran out of supplies and didn’t have the money to buy more paper or pens. Now she does have the money to get some more supplies and continue her studies!
Lastly, we had dinner at a shelter for moms and their children with the Last Bell staff. They made us a cabbage-rolled rice and meat eggroll type food called Golubtsi (“Go-LUP-see”). It was AMAZING! We might’ve watched a bit of Ukrainian Monsters Inc. afterwards. We made it back to the hotel barely able to keep our eyes open and with proud hearts.
After a short nights sleep and a quick breakfast of pancakes, meats and cheeses, we loaded into the bus to head to the Day Center to meet our friends at LBM.
We arrived and began to meet part of the staff that we hadn’t met yet. After a “short” introduction that took around 75 minutes, we got into our little red van and drove around to see the houses that were part of the Restoration Project:
“Many of our youth inherit uninhabitable property. The Restoration Project is an apprenticeship program, training a group of orphanage graduates to restore the apartments and homes of fellow orphans. Last Bell staff provide both construction oversight and mentoring. The young people who participate will become employable and able to participate in restoring their own communities.” – LBM
3 years ago, I had seen these soviet era (and some pre WW2) homes that had now been fixed up. It was amazing to see the difference and see the work that last bell had done.
After some touring of the houses they were working on, we stopped back at the hotel to have some very reasonably priced dinner, before we dressed up to go play soccer against the Ukranian kids at Last Bell. During the game we took an early lead, and played quite well, but with twice as many substitutes, they eventually won. Day 2 was in the books!
Thank God for a good nights rest after some long travels! We woke up hungry and ready to try some more interesting Ukrainian food. Breakfast consisted of crepes, boiled eggs, and weird pastries coupled with upbeat sounds of Ukraine’s version of EDM music. We got a small taste of the culture last night and even more on our walk to church. The streets are filled with dogs and a mix of traditional and modern buildings. The wind is refreshing but a bit frosty so we hurried to the church where Kaylee and I were asked to lead some last minute worship music. Everything went smoothly and Andre spoke some good truth to the group and the rest of the guests there. We got the opportunity to meet so many amazing people who showed us kindness and welcoming attitudes.
After church, some Ukrainian friends led us to an underground lunch spot. Now that we are familiar with some of the food, we could identify a couple of the dishes while also getting to try a potato pancake and a special dessert crepe for the first time. Full and excited for our day, we headed to the Zhytomyr Park, which was right on the water. The park was filled with many food vendors, music, and activities such as rock walls and obstacle courses. We got to try some food from the street vendors and then made a quick trip to the local mall to check out Ukrainian brands. I picked up some cool white sneakers and indulged in a McDonalds milkshake with Dylan, Sarah, and Katherine before we headed out.
We met back up with Andre and the others at the Day Center for a pizza dinner. After a tour of the place, the boys went to a sauna and the girls stayed to do hair and nails with some of the Last Bell staff. Talking with the women and making connections was really special and makes me excited for the rest of the week. We all met back up at the hotel and talked about our favorite parts of the day.
Wow! What a long day it has been. A day filled with lots of laughter, many memories, and multiple yawns. A total of 28 hours of traveling and we are finally settled into our hotel in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
Our trip began at the Austin Airport, Friday morning, where we checked multiple bags of supplies that we have collected over the past few weeks to bring to the people in Ukraine. These bags included things such as houseware, food supplies, and most importantly, many articles of clothing and warm coats collected by Mrs. Burns AMAZING 4th grade class! Thank you to Mrs. Burns and her 4th graders!!
After sending our belongings through, we endured 3 different plane rides. Austin to Newark, Newark to Munich, and Munich to Kiev. The group did an amazing job staying together, staying calm, and embracing every aspect of international travel. We spent time in conversation and played cards, while also roaming international terminals and people watching as if it were a sport. It was a rather seamless travel day (minus recovering a bag left on one of the planes…crisis avoided!), and we thank God for that!
Once we arrived in Kiev, we were welcomed by our friends at Last Bell Ministries: Andre, Oksana, Abram and his wife. Andre and Abram showed up in plaid shirts, cowboy hats and cowboy boots. I’d say it was a proper welcome! We quickly loaded the vans and took off towards a favorite restaurant of theirs.
At the restaurant, we experienced many “firsts” of Ukrainian meals. For one, we had “smoked apple juice”. It tastes exactly how it sounds. Oksana and Andre ordered multiple types of Ukrainian dumplings; some with potato filling, some with meat, and the other with cherries and sugar. I believe we ate our body weight in dough. We also got to try a famous Ukrainian soup. I will not even attempt to try to spell out the name of it… but it was delicious! It was a great time of fellowship with the Last Bell staff.
After our wonderful dinner, we loaded the vans and headed out for Zhytomyr. About an hour and a half later we arrived at our hotel, unpacked our bags, and settled in for the night. At this point it has been 34 hours since we have slept (well), so we are all looking forward to a restful night in a bed and not crunched in an airplane seat.
For everyone reading: Thank you for your prayers. Please keep them coming…. they are felt!
Prayer requests would include: health/safety of our team, for open hearts for us as well as the people we will encounter, and for experiences and relationships that will shape us more into an image of Christ. I pray that this trip truly does leave an impact on multiple people, both Ukrainian and American.
Stay tuned this week for more blogs from the students to hear what our days here in Ukraine have looked like. Again, we appreciate YOU! Thanks for making this experience possible.