By Pat Jones
Pat Jones writes here about her first-hand experience of the Depaul orphanage in the Ukrainian village of Zaluchya. The orphanage was one of the beneficiaries of our Christmas 10% Collection.
Pat first visited Ukraine in 2014, and then every three months for the following 18 months. She remains in contact with the Depaul organisation there.
My first visit to Ukraine was quite a marathon. I flew to Kharkiv, near the Russian border, and spent three days there seeing the work of Depaul Ukraine. First, outside the Cathedral, under a half-tent, a small team of staff and volunteers were feeding around 90 homeless people each day with hot home-made soup.
The Daughters of Charity who work with the projects laid out second hand clothing on the nearby bushes for people who needed an extra layer – winter in Ukraine is cold. Next, in huge Soviet era hospitals, taking sandwiches to homeless people who were ill or disabled. Because they are homeless, the hospital will give them a bed, but no food or medical treatment – so Depaul provides both food and medicines. Then a lovely house for 15 homeless young mothers with babies; one had been found aged 17, 8 months pregnant, crawling through holes into the basements of buildings to find warm pipes to sleep alongside.
Life is not so easy in Ukraine; even after communism, corrupt governments did little to make things better. The ‘revolution of dignity’ - the uprisings in Kiev that saw off the previous president in 2013/14 - has given people some hope, but also many new problems. There is still conflict – civil war really – in the Donbass region, and there’s little provision for thousands of refugees and wounded soldiers from that conflict. Under communism, there were no charities, as people believed the state would provide.
So it’s a new thing to build up a Ukrainian charity.
Depaul Ukraine started in 2007, as part of the Depaul International group of charities. As fundraising in Ukraine is so difficult, most of its funds are raised here in the UK. For the size of its work – around 12 programmes in 4 cities or regions – its budget is tiny. I was working for Depaul International, providing support for the charities in Ukraine, Slovakia and France.
After Kharkiv, I took an overnight train to Odessa, on the Black Sea, to see the projects there. The Sisters of Charity and volunteers feed about 70 people each day from an old bus in the park by the railway station. And there is a tiny day centre where showers and clean clothes are given, and help to get identity papers. Then in the afternoon, we drove for 12 hours to Ivano-Frankovsk, near the border with Poland, the far west of this enormous country. We arrived at midnight, to sleep on armchairs in the convent of the Daughters of Charity, near the village of Zaluchya.
The next day was Sunday, and after Mass, we went to the orphanage. It’s a handsome building, but once inside, I tried not to show my shock. We were shown round by the leaders of the Depaul volunteers. We call them volunteers, but in fact they work full-time, and they’re paid 100 Euros a month, hardly a salary. There are around 120 children and young people there, all disabled, many immobile. Most would have been taken from their families in early infancy, because of their disabilities or the families’ inability to look after them. The orphanage is a government-run facility, but the staff are few, and their task is only to keep the children alive. The official regime has little concept of therapy or flourishing. So the Depaul volunteers work with the children and young people, to help them learn to feed themselves, to get dressed, to play and make things. They take them out (in small groups – there are only a few wheelchairs) and most of all, they love them.
The children had so little. The more capable ones simply sat in rows on the floor. The older boys who could move had an empty room in which to play. The immobile older boys simply stayed in bed. The younger and severely disabled children lay in their high metal cots, waiting. I greeted as many as I could, having learned many years ago from experience in the L’Arche community that what matters is to see and recognise each person. They smiled back; the older boys were delighted to be in a photograph, and beckoned to me to turn the camera round so that they could see the image. Some children had ordinary beds and murals on their bedroom walls that they’d painted with the volunteers, but in some rooms there were 12-15 cots and plain walls.
The Depaul volunteers are supported by the local Vincentian priests and Daughters of Charity, who have a day centre not far away. They are just local young people learning as much as they can. When I asked if they had had any training, they said enthusiastically, yes, we went to Poland for a week. Their village is a long way from most places – Lviv is the nearest city, 4 hours away – so it’s hard to find resources. Yet what they do is amazing; the care and tenderness they show, their commitment to the children. A few years ago, a Vincentian charity funded a mini-bus for them. Before that, they would spend hours walking each day just to get to and from their work. Now they can get there in time, and take the children out. They believe that the children have potential; that they have rights; that they should be able to grow and flourish.
Bogdanka is their leader. She came on the Depaul Vincentian Values training programme, an international programme for managers in the Depaul charities. Each participant has to do a project at the end. Bogdanka’s dream was to take some of the children to see the sea. Most have never seen the sea – neither had Bogdanka. This meant an extra bit of fundraising in the UK, but finally she managed it. The photo shows some of the children who spent a week in Odessa, on holiday.
It is a long way from Guildford to the tiny village of Zaluchia in western Ukraine. But our parish gift to the orphanage through the Christmas 10% collection has made a link of solidarity which is real and powerful. It was a privilege for me to visit the orphanage, and meet the children and the volunteers, one of those moments where you think – this is what matters, the dignity and vulnerability of these children. All the volunteers’ work, for eleven of them, for a full year, and all that they need to care for and work with the children, costs only around £35,000, a tiny budget. Our gift will make a real difference.
For more information on the work of Depaul, visit these websites:
Depaul UK: http://uk.depaulcharity.org/
Depaul International: https://int.depaulcharity.org/
To donate: https://int.depaulcharity.org/get-involved/donate
If you wish to specify that your donation is to be used for the Zaluchia Orphange, simply state this clearly when making your gift. If this is not possible, then call or email Jason Eades, Senior Partnerships Manager at Depaul International, to make your wishes known:
Email - Jason.Eades@DepaulInternational.org
Tel - 020 7939 1248