About two weeks ago I was returning from a week in Ukraine. As I mentioned, a unique, God ordained opportunity opened for me to make the trip over there. I had taken my iPad with me & late each night I would jot down thoughts from the day - the events & the kid, and then I spent the plane ride home making complete sentences out of those thoughts. There's been some hesitation to post simply because my words do not do justice to the week or the kids. But I wanted to share... And yes, there are some pictures. But first you get the stories; the pictures that will bring them to life come next.
Literally exhausted. Thought a night of sleep on Saturday would do the trick but not so much. BUT beyond excited to have spent the day in Kharkov. So thankful for smooth and safe travel.
Last night we met our first group of kids from the orphanage in Sachnovsheena and had dinner in the city. Kharkov is not what I'd call a friendly city. The architecture is cold - concrete and fences everywhere. If you've read Child 44, create a visual image from any scene and that's the city of Kharkov. Minimal westernization. A city still in the past. The children speak little to no English but they were full of smiles. Though my body and my head were exhausted, my heart was happy.
Today started with a Ukrainian Baptist church experience. It took me several minutes to get over the fact that just 30 hours prior I was having dinner in Dallas with a best friend and now I am in northern Ukraine worshipping God in Russian. Church lasted two hours with a communal communion (I can't lie; I prefer our individual grape juice cups to the community wine glass). During communion the song Give Thanks was playing, which happens to be a personal favorite. It's the song my talented Aunt Jo did a special arrangement of and dedicated to me in her book. It's one of the songs I played at my senior piano recital. It's one of the songs I still play today. It's a song that is just as beautiful being played in the Ukraine as it is in Texarkana or Shreveport or Birmingham.
My first and second Ukrainian meals consisted of mashed potatoes. Well there were other items but that's about what I managed to get down. That's going to take some work. After lunch in Kharkov we headed out to the camp, just outside Loubetin. Truly a beautiful spot. Reminds me of my summers at Camp Redcloud. This won't be suffering for Jesus.
The kids love volleyball. I haven't played since 8th grade, and there's a reason for that. But I am playing here, and the bruises are forming on my arms. We've only been hitting around. We'll make our way down to the sand court tommorrow where I can relieve those horrible middle school games where I was never able to a serve over the net...but maybe I won't be the worst...
(This picture cracks me up. It appears as though I know what I am doing. Just trying to make the Dawson Recreation Minister proud.)
For a better picture of what we are doing this week, we have about 30 children here at camp. Only five of them are girls. The age range is generally 10 to 16, and I've grossly underestimated the age of all of them. They are so malnourished that 14 and 15 year old boys look 8. They come from three different Ukrainian, government run orphanages in Loubetin, Sachnovsheena, & Chernegi. We have partnered with Lifesong, a faith based organization that has a presence & program at each of these orphanages. Lifesong also owns and built the camp where we are spending the week. We've got some good kids coming out here this week. I am so ready to get to know them.
My energy returned today. Thank you Lord for a good night of sleep that enabled me to be ready to take on the day. The three girls on the trip are blessed to have beds and a little bit of hot water. The guys: tents and water straight from the well. So thankful to be a girl.
We've split up into teams and today the Red Team headed out on our quest. By quest I mean six mile round trip hike to a sand pit. But the kids loved it. We took a volleyball and football, and the kids carried all their food (including the pots and pans) with no backpacks. Coming from working at a camp in America where the kiddos whined about carrying their own waterbottles, this was truly impressive. They were happy to be out.
The thing I see from today is that it doesn't really matter what we are doing, they are happy. I mean they were all over a carrot chopping contest in preparation for lunch. A sand pit provided hours of entertainment. It's showing me it's not about the activities, it's not about entertaining them or giving them things, it's about just being with these kids. It's about building relationships.
The day concluded with a bonfire - the songs and stories kind of bonfire.
None of my meals today included any potatoes. That was both good and bad. Refreshing not to have them but at the same time they are safe and edible!
Today was our first sports camp day - volleyball and football (American soccer) all morning. Wow. Exhausting. Muscles are starting to appear that I did not know existed. But truly there is an indescribable joy waking up here to kids that ready to bring on the day. Kids that don't want to shower for fear of missing a moment of life. Kids that have smiles when they are dead tired. When have I ever had that kind of energy, that kind of excitement for whatever the day holds? And I am blessed immeasurably. Convicting.
I am no further in learning any new Russian. My vocabulary includes nit (no), dah (yes), and spesiba (thank you). And please note these are my personal phonetic spellings. I should not and would not even attempt the correct spelling. HOWEVER, I am well versed in the all the rules of Ukrainian style UNO after playing for about three hours. They could play this all day, all night. And I must admit it is far superior to UNO American style once you learn the rules. And I assure you they are competitive.
I love to watch God at work in the details and in the small things. Lunch today had God's hands all over it. And by that I mean, He clearly wanted to see just how far he could stretch me. It was bad. Cold soup. With dill. With egg whites. With other "floaties." And some sinkers for that matter too. No idea what was in that massive bowl. And soup is not something you can push around to make it appear as though you ate some. It's got to go down. And so it did. Well half. Thank you Lord for guiding my hand from the bowl to my mouth.
All of the evening hours involved Ping Pong. Now the Brown kids loved some ping pong growing up but we've got nothing on these kids. The kids at were predominately boys and they tried for so long to be gentlemen and not play as tough on a girl. God bless them. But they just couldn't do it for long. Once their real game emerged I was toast. These were my ping pong boys - Dima & Sasha.
Another day of sports - more football and volleyball. And of course there's the Ping Pong. But each day continues to be more fun with our kiddos. We've all warmed up to each other and we are just flat out having a good time. Plus for me it's kind of fun being a celebrity - there's really not a moment that someone isn't yelling my name wanting to play a game or just have you come sit by them. This morning also rocked because we had cereal for breakfast; even the whole milk couldn't kill my excitement for a really good breakfast.
In addition to having our team, the camp also had staff from the orphanages and translators hanging out with us all week. And these guys were awesome. Some of them having made their life's work helping these kids reach their potential. And the translators were there just to connect us with the kids. They spent every day listening to and relaying other people's conversations. What servants. The week would have been impossible without them. And it provided me some smidgen of comfort to meet those who would be going "home" with our kids.
Tonight concluded with another bonfire. Well let's go with campfire. I love hearing the praise songs sung in Russian. But I loved the message tonight presented to the kids. It's not a concept I am unfamiliar with, but I loved the phrase. United by the Cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our desire to serve Him is the only reason a seemingly odd group of strangers found themselves sharing a campfire in rural Ukraine on a Wednesday night. Pretty cool.
Since the kids were only out of school for three days this week and we had to get special permission for Thursday & Friday, we worked in a trip to the city and some history at the World War II memorial in Kharkov. And after that a couple of hours at an amusement park & a white table cloth lunch. Well, the amusement park was temporarily closed but we found just as much fun in a local park playing silly games you'd find at Dave & Buster's. They loved it. And they got to buy ice cream. And chips. And Coke.
Oh and I let one of the sweet girls, Sveta, french braid my hair on the way to the city. That hurt. Bad. Not to mention it was highly unattractive. But when in Ukraine.... The whole french braid thing started when she asked the translator that morning to ask me if I had brushed my hair?!? Ha. Hairbrush? What's a hairbrush? I don't think they go for the messy hair look in Ukraine.
Around 2ish we took them to a white table cloth, four course lunch. What fun it was to treat these deserving kids to something special. I think they thought it was pretty cool. And really, I am amazed by their manners.
So, I am leaving tomorrow. Leaving wondering and knowing that there is no way I've touched the lives of these kids, the way they've touched my heart. Knowing there is no way I've shown them the unconditional love of Christ, the way they've unconditionally loved me this week. Knowing there is no way I've demonstrated the joy that comes from knowing Christ the way they've expressed that joy.
It's hit me today of where these kids will be returning to when they leave on Friday. It's not like my days at summer camp both as a camper and counselor where everyone looked forward to Friday - pick up day. The day where your parents show up and you show them everything you've been up to that week - where you've lived, what you've made, the awards you've won. Going home knowing that your mom is going to cook you your favorite meal because you've been gone all week.
No. They're returning to the orphanage - not running into the open arms of excited parents. They're returning to a place where the beds are worse, the bathrooms are worse, and the food is worse. A place where hugs are likely a rarity and cool afternoon snacks are non-existent. Most of my kiddos are going back to the orphanage at Loubetin, not far from where we were for camp. This is where my precious children live:
My prayer for each of you is that you feel the unconditional love & presence of your heavenly Father each and every day.
I simply do not do goodbyes well. And today I had to say goodbye to my kids. I've come close ruining my iPad between the tears and runny nose. Let me tell you about some of them.
This kid. Ruslan. Fell in love with him a hundred times over this week. Ate every meal next to this guy. And every meal he was waiting for me, ready to pull my chair out. Awesome. If you know of any other 16 year old kid with that kind of heart and manners, let me know. My dad and Mr. Nelson (founding partner of my firm) are the only men I know that do this on a regular basis. His thoughtfulness is contagious. Ruslan has been at the orphanage since he was a young child. He knows his birth mother and grandmother, but both have mental illnesses that prevent them from caring for him. At one point he talked to them occasionally but he no longer has any contact with them.
Sasha. He's on the left. And his sidekick Vitalik is on the right. (Excuse my side ponytail.) This was my ping pong partner and protector. He made the other boys place "nice." Of course he also loved making fun of me. He is a handsome kid. Sasha was also orphaned at birth and is now 16. He told me he's in the top 5 in his school class. And we know I am all about some academics. Breaks my heart knowing that he'll likely never reach his full potential. I am told however that the government makes it possible for orphans to attend technical school or the university for very inexpensively. But I also know that orphans are not integrated into the regular school program. They are isolated. Nonetheless, he's a smart kid that I grew to love very quickly.
There is nothing like serving with the one of the best of my friends. Thank you David for lighting up when you spoke about these kids in such a way that it was impossible for me to refuse the offer to be part of something big. And the other seven people that completed our team. Awesome. Of course I expected nothing less. Though I might be biased, all good things come from Dawson Memorial Baptist Church.
(me & dave)
We've wrapped up our trip with an evening in Vienna - dinner in Stephanplatz. What an incredible team. Nothing but good times. Ah, and walking through Vienna brought back the five months I spent here my junior year at Baylor studying at Salzburg College. And as far as that goes...what happens in Europe....
Cannot wait to be back. Yesterday.
And what a team to serve with...Paul, Shauna, Heather, Dave, Hunsberger, Perry, Todd & Brandon...