Alabama Mission Group Visits Orphans In Ukraine

VOLODARKA, Ukraine -- Tom Benz sits with a team of missionaries, their heads lowered as he prays for the group of orphans they will minister to that day.

Outside, it is cold, as several feet of snow covers the ground at Volodarka Internat orphanage.

Children slowly make their way to the dining facility for breakfast, where they will receive their first glimpse of the Millbrook-based Bridges of Faith mission team.

The 10 Alabamians, one Iowan and seven Ukrainians have traveled 5,500 miles to minister to these children, to love them, to show them God's love, and to leave an imprint on them that they hope will change lives.

Bridges of Faith International has done mission work in Ukraine since 1995.

The organization also raises money to bring in Ukrainian orphans to BridgeStone Prayer and Retreat Center in Billingsley.

Although not an adoption agency, Bridges of Faith helps introduce the children they bring to central Alabama to families, and if the families are interested in adopting, an adoption facilitator takes over.

Of the eight groups of about 10 orphans, about 80 percent have been adopted by American families.

In Ukraine, the missionaries are instructed to spread the word of God, and to use words if they have to.

At the orphanage they learn communication isn't always through the spoken word.

They learn how just a hug, or the holding of a hand, can make a difference.

"Help us speak to them like we only had seconds remaining," Benz, founder of Bridges of Faith, says in prayer.

Both faith and adoption are particularly important for these children.

When they are forced to leave the orphanages at age 18, they become prime targets for human traffickers.

A 2008 U.S. Department of State report on human trafficking reported that "Ukrainian children are trafficked both internally and transnationally for commercial sexual exploitation, forced begging and involuntary servitude in the agriculture industry."

And there are estimates that about 60 percent of the girls who leave the orphanages become victims of human trafficking.

The mission team this morning in Ukraine is crammed into a small kitchen at the showcase orphanage, which is one of the top two in the country and makes them the most privileged orphans in Ukraine.

Instant coffee, hot tea and sweet bread are set before the mission team.

Hands are clasped, and the more than dozen people on this trip prepare to provide outreach to about 35 orphans.

There are 117 total children at this site, but many have returned home to visit extended relatives for their spring break March 23 through March 31.

"There's so much more to these trips than the Evangelical 'Let's win somebody to Jesus,'" Benz said.

"These (missionaries) here this week for the first time have been introduced to a society, a culture, that they never touched before. To be here, and to understand that (Ukrainians) are just people ... they are like us. There is so much more that goes on here. There is a level of human understanding that is pretty amazing."

The group makes their way into the dining hall that morning, where the Ukrainians and the mission team meet, some for the first time.

The children glance up from conversations with friends and plates of food, and smile.

Waves are shyly offered and returned.

It momentarily quiets down, then chatter resumes.

When the missionaries sit down, hot tea, bread and butter, and eggs stuffed with meat await them on the table.

Also awaiting them are the 35 children who will change their lives.

Benz first arrived to Ukraine as part of his job with the International Bible Society in 1996.

Within 24 hours of visiting an orphanage, he said children crawled into his heart and never let go.

They grabbed such a hold, that three years later, he formed Bridges of Faith and gave his life to the cause of providing outreach at Ukrainian orphanages.

"There is nothing that has struck me personally as more sacred, profound or noble as bringing these kids and seeing them find forever homes," he said.

"From the very beginning, our teams going to Ukraine are not just international, interdenominational, but also inter-generational. We used to be teams just strictly going from the United States to Ukraine, and the idea was that these teams were melting pots where people would develop relationships with people they would not ever have developed relationships with."

"They are indeed bridges of faith."

Also to the kids, to help them to come to faith in a life of Christ ... to help them find hope, real answers to very real problems. We build bridges every day."

For two years, the ministry has flown Ukrainian orphans to the 140-acre BridgeStone Prayer and Retreat Center in Billingsley.

There, groups of 10 orphans stay for up to four weeks and through activities and meals, visit people and businesses in the River Region and surrounding areas.

Families come to visit them at the camp, and lives are changed.

They arrive sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Or with a small plastic sack of personal items that may or may not include toiletries.

They arrive to a foreign country with wide eyes, and even larger hearts.

About 80 percent of the children brought over are adopted, and while both boys and girls are adopted at about the same rate, the quickest sympathy goes toward the girls who often become victims of human trafficking after leaving the orphanages.

Most people are interested in adopting babies, Benz said, so once a child starts school, their chances of becoming adopted plummets.

One of the underlying premises of Bridges of Faith in bringing the children to the U.S. is placing them in front of the people of central Alabama "and that they would respond to the challenge.

"Half, or more, of the adoptions that have happened, or are under way, are people who did not come to BridgeStone with the idea of adopting," he said.

"They just came to BridgeStone to help. They came because the mission field came to central Alabama. And in the process of being there, they fell in love with a child and adopted."

The youngest is 7 years old. The oldest, 18.

Often, tattered socks will be worn every day for a full week.

Clothes are changed every few days.

There is bickering among the younger children as though they are siblings.

And the older children stick together in a pack.

They've been there the longest.

And with many, there is pain. And pain acceptance.

With others, there is a simple determination to finish school and move on to a higher education, or to pursue jobs.

To leave a life — and even a country — they say offers them nothing.

Being at the orphanage is like a big family, said orphanage director Anatoly Ivanovich Kosodsky, who has directed the government-operated orphanage for 15 years.

It is a family many have not experienced, and one they still are trying to teach the children.

Children here have lost both parents, or have a parent who is mentally unstable and unable to care for them.

The children come from backgrounds of poverty.

The orphanage's relationship with Bridges of Faith was at best rocky in the beginning, with its Ukrainian director not sold on what it stood for.

But a visit with the children to the Billingsley camp a year ago changed everything, and Benz hopes the mission trip to his orphanage in late March was the first of many.

Although it is an orphanage, only about 30 percent of the children have no families, Kosodsky said.

The rest are either from low-income families who brought them to the orphanage because they could not afford to keep them or were in homes where the children's health was deemed to be at risk.

But Kosodsky said all the children are orphans, whether their parents are dead or simply deprived of parental rights.

"So when they come here, they have a good standard of education, medical care ... we have psychological provision and social provision," Kosodsky said through interpreter Larissa Benz, Tom Benz's wife who is from Ukraine.

"While they are here, we are working to provide accommodation and we decide the issue of whether they will continue their education once they leave here. And basically, being launched into real life.

"We are doing whatever we can to gain skills. It's very few — one or two kids in a year — who decide to not continue their education. Usually they go to vocational training, college or universities."

While just months ago Russia signed a law that stops families from the U.S. from adopting children, it has no effect on Ukrainian adoptions.

"They were hot-headed about issuing that law because it was the ambitions of one person," Kosodsky said.

"After that law Russia adopted, we have had talks about (doing the same) in Ukraine. But at this point, Ukraine is in a social and economic position that they cannot do that."

He said Ukraine does not have the programs to handle the orphans, especially handicapped orphans.

"Ukraine cannot provide these kids employment or accommodation. If one graduates from a college or university, Ukraine would not be able to provide a place to live, a job."

In the past two decades, Americans have adopted more than 60,000 Russian orphans, many with mental and physical disabilities.

Russian lawmakers cited the death of several adopted children while under the care of American families.

"I think just like with any foreign adoption — either with Spain, Italy — it is the same relation," Kosodsky answered when asked about the adoption relations with the United States, adding the rate of adoption is 50-50 between the two continents. 

"There is a revival of adoptions through the U.S.," he said.

"Europe wants healthy children."

In Ukraine, the children who have the status of an orphan have certain advantages and benefits when pursing higher education.

"Right now, we have had the reform in education a couple of years ago a Western style of education," Kosodsky said.

"The orphans have the opportunity (with) the minimum GPA (to) enter university or college. But the university or colleges don't want necessarily many orphans."

If 50 apply, 10 might be accepted.

It is a matter of the additional financing that the child with need, either with housing or with needed special care.

"We still do our best to find the place for them," Kosodsky said.

"We go and beg and convince and do whatever we can ... to find a place for them ... as if (they) were our own children."

Financially, every child has an account from a savings book. Money put into the account is from parents who are required to pay a type of child support.

"In reality, the majority of the parents do not work," Kosodsky said.

"And we need to bring them to responsibility. Many parents of the children are in prison because they didn't pay the support. If parents died, then our children get the support from the government because they lost their breadwinner. The problem is for children who don't have the status of an orphan and the parents are not able to help them."

After a week here, the team leaves in tears, and with a resounding verse from Matthew 25:40 — "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me."

Their van pulls away from the orphanage at 6 a.m. on March 31 — Easter morning — headed for the airport in Kiev, and soon, home, 5,500 miles away.

The children place their hands on van windows before it pulls away, and team members place theirs on the opposite sides.

Tears are not hidden.

Neither are the smiles from the children who wish the adults, "Good luck to you." 

The team spent a week praying on, and for, the children. They distributed Ukrainian and Russian Bibles, struggled to answer questions, sat quietly with them, and played countless games of UNO and ping pong.

They danced with them, performed skits, learned Bible verses in Ukrainian and English.

This team never stopped, and gave all of themselves to the children.

The team was humbled. And changed.

"This is a showcase orphanage," Benz told the group.

"So they receive a lot of mission groups here. To them, each group is another opinion. Where we want to be is to open these kids up to Christ. They were always open to touch. But by day three, they started asking questions. If God is that big, and in our hearts, He must be sticking out somewhere."

The most important imprint missionaries can leave is a spiritual one, Kosodsky said — to help the children know they are needed in the world.

"How do you feed a sheep who doesn't want to eat," Kosodsky asked.

"Our children ... they do not want to take it because they do not have the vision. Sometimes, they don't know what the small family is about, but we are working to help them."

Benz said it will be years before the mission team knows what happened this past week.

"The longer we were here, the more they saw we were not here to exploit anything," he said.

"We were simply here to love them, to share the love of God, and to fellowship with them.

"As many times as I've been involved in this, I'm not jaded. It still opens up this raw part of me that I've never gotten over."

Source: Houston Chronicle