Friday, June 17, 2016


Five weeks have flown by.  We've reconnected with people we've grown to love and appreciate through the years.  We've reviewed many Mennonite Centre projects and have seen the difference these are making in institutions and in the lives of people.  We've had occasion to talk to various people about life in general.  In conversation with a young man this week, he said, "I cannot understand how our country has not been able to get on its feet."  People here are looking for stability, something they can count on.

Despite difficulties of everyday living we notice a resilience, an appreciation of beauty and the joy of celebration.  Recently a group of kindergarteners came to entertain our seniors.  The children love to dress up, to dance and sing and don't appear at all self-conscious.  Of course our seniors coming for lunch enjoyed ever minute.

Another recent musical highlight was the Molochansk Music School piano recital held in honour of Linda Stobbe.  Twelve young pianists played their pieces beautifully.  Leanna Baranovskaya gave a tribute to Linda, how she had taken a special interest in this music school, how she had supported and inspired the teachers, brought books for them, and held master classes for the students. Also how much they appreciate the Yamaha pianos that were donated in memory of Linda, one for the Molochansk School and the other for Tokmak.
The school also has a very fine Estonia grand piano dating back to communist times.  The story is told that when the Soviet Union collapsed an effort was made to move this piano out. Fortunately it was not possible to do this safely because of confined spaces in the building.  Students therefore have the opportunity of studying on very fine instruments.  We also enjoyed hearing several student/teacher duets.

Ada, our former bookkeeper
Wednesday is quilting day at the Mennonite Centre.  Women bring worn clothing and fabrics, cut squares and sew up blankets which are donated to the poor. It's a good time for socialization and a cup of tea.  Another good example of doing more with less.

Oksana discussing issues with Lili
A further area of great need in Ukraine is elder care.  There are few good institutions. Families count on seniors' pensions and are reluctant to give these up, meanwhile not providing adequate care.  A section of the former Mennonite church in the village of Kutuzovka is now a senior's home providing care to 11 women, some of them bedridden.
This woman is legally blind
It is managed by a Lili, a missionary from Germany.  The Mennonite Centre provides some monthly support.  Part of the building has been renovated, however the need remains great and it is too costly to expand further. Women are being cared for on two floors, they think they are in heaven.  There are steep staircases and other safety issues.  To respond to this need, a home care program is being initiated, beginning in Kutuzovka and Molochansk, also to be managed by Lili.  Workers will be given a week of training at Boris Letkeman's home care program in Zaporizhia.

Lest you might think these weeks have been all work and no play, a few examples to the contrary.   We recently organized a wiener roast for our staff and families as a token of gratitude for all they do.  We even had s'mores thanks to Anita for finding room in her suitcase to bring graham wafers and marshmallows along. Youth played volleyball and the Centre back yard rang with happy children's voices.

A full 5 oz. cup

Coffee culture has come to southeastern Ukraine. This bus, in Zaporizhia is a mobile coffee shop, can be set up anywhere.  Notice the table and chairs in the distance made of stacked crates. Too bad Rudy doesn't identify with the feelings expressed on the sign. But who needs a coffee shop if your staff comes up with creations like this.  Our Centre housekeeper brought this cake on her birthday.  Here it is tradition that the birthday person brings the cake.
Linden trees
If our eyes are open we find beauty all around us.  Nature has a way of camouflaging the ugly.  Flowers are everywhere -each week new ones appear. Trees are in blossom.  I recall my mother talking about "Lindenblüten Tee"  - used as a remedy for coughs and colds.

Wall to wall oil in the Tokmak grocery store
The first sunflowers are appearing and soon vast fields will transform into gold, eventually appearing on store shelves like this.

Leaving will be sad.  Each time we leave a little more of ourselves behind. We have tried to be enablers and encouragers.  Again we express our gratitude to all those who are continuing to make this work possible by your support, prayers and donations.  "Spasibo Bolshoi!"

In addition to supporting what has already been referred to in previous blogs during the past five weeks the Mennonite Centre has funded the following:

1.  Doctor visits - three doctors come to the Centre at appointed times of  
     the week. People can book appointments and receive free medical care.
2.  Glasses project funded initially by a donation from Bakerview MB 
     Church.  To date we've given out 1400 pairs of glasses.  These are eye  
     specific, costing us under $5/pair - this includes cost of the optometrist visit.
3.  An MRI  for a cancer patient.
4.  Surgery to correct a hip fracture six years ago, which hasn't healed properly 
5.  Team uniforms - for Ukrainian School sports team enabling them to 
     compete in Zaporizhia
6.  New windows for school in the former Mennonite village of Lichtenau -       
     now Svetlodolinsk
7.  Four ultraviolet lamps for the Tokmak lab.         
8.  Medication for a child suffering from meningitis.
9.  Treatment for a child diagnosed with encephalitis.
10. Printer for a village school.
11. Games for children spending summer in Sanatorium.     

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page

(Click on pictures to enlarge)

Tuesday, June 14, 2016


Two years have passed since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.   The United Nations Human Rights Commission says, "the conflict in eastern Ukraine remains volatile and continues to have a serious impact on human rights. The conflict is far from over and should not fall off the radar screen of the international community."  Even today there are reports of casualties.  We've been asked how this affects those living here, about 200 km. west of the conflict zone.  All people want here is to live in peace.  Many don't listen to the news any longer.

In the villages life goes on as usual.  So far weather has been wonderful for gardens, it seems you can watch growth progressing from day to day.  Early fruits have been abundant.  If people have a few chickens and geese they appear to manage.

People are however expressing fears as to what the winter might bring.  Gas, water and electricity prices are expected to rise significantly. The average pensioner's monthly salary is 1300  UAH - approximately $60-65 CND.

There are two schools in our town, the Russian School and the Ukrainian School. Yesterday morning we were invited to the Russian School to meet children participating in a summer language camp conducted in English.  The principal, Marina Romanova, is a friend of ours. The children ranged from 7 to 10 years.  We told them a few stories of early Canadian history and geography and then taught them two round songs related to our stories. They all participated in singing and it was a whole lot of fun.  This took place in a language lab that the Mennonite Centre funded for the school this year.  Each desk has controls and students listen on headphones as they learn.  Pupils study in Russian, also learn Ukrainian, English and German.

Rita with her daughter and grandson, her house in the back-
ground, a windmill and the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk
In the afternoon we set out across country on a pleasurable adventure.  Adventure, because driving the roads through former Mennonite villages is always an adventure due to the road conditions.  Pleasurable, because we were on a mission to deliver a photograph of a painting to the daughter of Rita Pankratz.  In 2011 Rita was one of the last remaining Mennonite women living in south eastern Ukraine. We visited her in October of that year; took the photograph of Rita sitting in this picture. She told us how she and her two small children had been banished to Siberia - "it was so far north there was always snow there." For 10 long years she felled trees, until one day she heard that her husband was still alive and she was finally able to return home. We joined in as she sang "Ich warte auf den Heiland bis Er kommt" (I'm waiting for the Lord until He comes).  She was 93 years old and a month later passed into her heavenly home.
Thanks to artist Ray Dirks we had permission to make a photographic copy of his composite painting.  The original is one of 26 large paintings comprising "Along the Road to Freedom," an exhibition honouring "Mennonite Women of Courage and Faith." We presented this to Rita's daughter who was moved to tears of gratitude.  She lives in the family home with her two children in the former Mennonite village of Alexanderkrone.  Both children are studying on Mennonite Centre scholarships.

Last week we hosted 22 MEDA representatives (Mennonite Economic Development Associates) at the Centre - delegates from Germany, Switzerland, France and Netherlands. Their objective is helping farmers unleash their potential to earn a livelihood and enrich their communities.  They are specifically involved in a Horticultural Business Development Project in several regions of southern Ukraine,  helping to develop domestic
and export markets. Ira, our cook at the Centre, outdid herself again preparing a delicious meal.  The main course was a pork cutlet smothered in all things delicious.  In addition borscht was served as an appetizer and blinchiki, for dessert.  (cottage cheese rolled in pancakes and simmered in a honey/butter sauce - utterly yummy!)

A few more days to go and a few more things to do.  It is hard to believe that our time in Ukraine is soon drawing to a close.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page

Saturday, June 11, 2016


The Mennonite Family Centre is a charitable organization that has been providing support to seniors in Zaporizhia for the past 15 years. Boris Letkemann, a Ukrainian Mennonite, manages this Centre.  He was directly involved in the restoration of the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk 16 years ago. Boris is also a member of the Ukrainian board of directors of the Molochansk Mennonite Centre.  We stopped in to see him at the Family Centre on Tuesday.  During the week 40 seniors come for meals and socialization.  Not only are they served breakfast and lunch, they get to take leftovers home.  We heard strains of "Gott ist die Liebe" coming from an adjacent room and joined in the singing.  What a delight to hear this traditional Mennonite hymn sung in three languages.
Boris standing in doorway
Boris has a staff of 15 trained home support workers who visit 152 seniors in the city as well as outlying villages, helping with bathing, cleaning etc.  He says it is a difficult time right now, but is optimistic about the future.  He says we have to be patient, "goodness changes people."

We visited School #66 and spoke with the principal, Nikolai.  There are 300 students in his school. Beginning next school year three classes will integrate children with disabilities. Each class will have a teaching assistant. This is ground-breaking in Ukraine.  Ukrainians have had a tendency to hide these children.  Of the 150 schools in the Zaporizhia district this is the only one that agreed to integration.  He says other students will learn compassion.  Parents are very grateful.  The school will be needing a wheelchair ramp and a toilet on the first floor.  Nikolai is asking for some help.

Promotei is an organization helping families with  autistic, cerebral palsy and Down's Syndrome children.  This summer Promotei has been granted access to a camp facility on Chortitza Island, a beautiful park-like setting along the Dnieper River.

We visited them there and watched them engaging in races and games.  they have devoted young teachers who are patient and loving.  We have helped  Promotei with various needs.

The shore of the Dnieper

Alexandra, wife of pastor in Nikolaipole
Olga Rubel discussing issues with Luba
We have 9 representatives in outlying areas who provide basic medical emergency aid to their villagers.  They know all the inhabitants and keep accurate records of their transactions.  It was a pleasure to reconnect with Alexandra and Luba, to relay our gratitude for their care and devotion.

This day was an emotional experience as I stood again on the soil of my ancestors.  Almost one hundred years ago Nikolaipole, known then as Nikolaifeld, gave harbour to my grandmother and her 7 children, one of them my mother, when they fled the anarchists.  My grandfather didn't survive.  The Mennonite church and school in this village still remain standing.  We have provided some assistance to this school.  The population of the village has decreased and the principal mentioned that it might only be a matter of time when some schools will be amalgamated.

Tomorrow we're back in Molochansk again.

Friday, June 10, 2016


Andrew and Katie in front of the window
Our second day began with a visit to the MCC Ukraine office in Zaporizhia, meeting with staff and directors Andrew and Katie Geddert, a young couple who speak fluent Russian.  MCC partners with a number of organizations, including our own, working in development, health and education, helping people to restore their documents, particularly those who fled and have had to leave everything behind.  They say here, "without documents, you aren't considered a person."  They also help young people leaving orphanages integrate into society.  Many of these children are not prepared to live in the community.  Some have been found living underground in sewer systems.  There is a movement afoot called "Ukraine Without Orphans."  It is said that if every church would adopt one orphan there would no longer be a need for orphanages.  Another organization called "Safe Kids" works in building strong families to avoid institutionalization.  In response to the conflict in Ukraine, MCC is putting together a plan for peace building - exchanging ideas with other countries, i.e. Serbia, Croatia.  Peace building experts will be meeting in Zaporizhia.  On a local level they have developed three levels of workshops, helping people reflect on their communication and learning conflict transformation.  They desire to maintain unity with the several hundred Protestant churches in Donetsk People's Republic.  Crossing the border checkpoints can take from 5-24 hours.  No trains are going through.  There have been occasions of shelling.

We met with another IDP family from Crimea who left everything behind during the vote when things got dangerous.  She was pregnant at the time.  They grew roses for the market and were successful beekeepers.  A friend offered them sanctuary and some work in their greenhouses.  They are industrious people and dream of starting their own business again.  They have developed a detailed business plan, however will need help getting started.

Another area of Mennonite Centre involvement in Zaporizhia is providing information and support for youth in making healthy lifestyle choices. UNICEF  states that Ukraine has one of the highest rates of increase of HIV/AIDS in Europe.  The war has unravelled much of Ukraine's progress in halting this disease, especially in the east. We visited a clinic "Friendly to Youth" connected to the Children's Oblast Hospital.  People can come for free diagnosis and treatment.  Among other supports we have provided educational signage, Wi-Fi, and test kits. There were many expressions of gratitude.

Thursday, June 9, 2016


Homeless gather behind walls in an abandoned property
 on a busy street
Yuri and his hair stylist wife
Early Sunday morning we travelled to Zaporizhia, arriving in time to join a group of homeless people who were gathering to receive a warm meal.  Yuri, a former alcoholic and drug addict, organizes these meals.  He was eager to tell us about his renewed life, becoming a Christian, being healed of his addictions and about the people he is now helping.  In one corner we saw people sleeping on the ground, on another corner empty bottles collected by helpers to be returned to a brewery for money.  In yet another corner Yuri proudly pointed out his Jewish wife giving free haircuts.  People lined up to receive their food.  Yuri read scripture and prayed and the meal was dished out.  Yuri told the story of starting with 8 hryvnia and now helping homeless in three locations.  FOMCU has been providing some aid.  All in all, an amazing scene.

We met a young mom, Vika, who with her infant daughter fled Donetsk during the war.  She is grateful for any help she can receive.  She left with a bright smile, holding a teddy bear, a gift for her little one.

Vika is one of the almost a million IDPs, internally displaced persons, in Ukraine.  United Nations Human Rights Commission states that "after 2 years of conflict the situation in eastern Ukraine remains volatile and continues to have a severe impact on human rights, especially for those living near territories controlled by armed groups.  The crisis is far from over and should not fall off the radar screen of the international community."
Later that morning we met up with Yuri again at a two-hour church service.  He had somehow found time to change his clothes.

In the afternoon we were invited to a birthday party at the home of Vladimir and Ina and told this story.  They have one daughter who married a Turk and have a beautiful little granddaughter.  It was a great sorrow when this family moved to Turkey.  Vladimir is a plumber working at an orphanage.  One day he noticed a little girl who was the image of his granddaughter. Vladimir and Ina decided to adopt her, and in the process found out there were three more siblings, two in another orphanage and another 18 and on her own.  Soon these also became part of the family.  They then discovered that another son Sergei had remained in an orphanage in Donetsk. The Mennonite Centre helped them navigate the system to bring this little boy out of the People's Republic of Donetsk and reunite the family.  From falling in love with one little orphan girl, this couple has now embraced 5 children.   When we arrived we were told that nine year old Sergei had invited all the neighbouring children for cake and that they were now playing in the neighbourhood.  There was plenty of cake remaining which we enjoyed with the parents.  The house is still in the process of remodelling to accommodate this large family.  Again we were able to provide some assistance.

Olga Rubel oversees that work in the Zaporizhia area.  She has made contact with the people, knows the territory, the roads to take and discerns the needs.  It's a pleasure to work together.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page

Saturday, June 4, 2016


As we've been travelling through the country-side and former Mennonite villages this week, there have been photo opportunities around each bend of the road.  Fields of flax and mustard have sprung into bloom - blue and yellow - colours of the Ukrainian national flag.  Sunflowers are just beginning to develop.  As each crop matures the landscape transforms.  We remember our parents nostalgically recalling the beauties of
                                                                     their former homeland.

Anita Toews, new board member from USA
There have been other transformations.  When we were here 3 years ago, a former Mennonite church in the village of Schönsee was in the process of restoration (see blog July 16, 2013).  We were able to provide some assistance.  Today this is a thriving Greek Catholic sanctuary for several villages in the area.  We met Father Taras there, a young priest from western Ukraine.  He told us that he had studied 3 years at the university and another 6 at seminary.  He is married and has a young child.
With him was Baba Ustina, known regionally as their "Mother Theresa," a warm-hearted friendly woman who can neither read or write, however is gifted in establishing relationships and helping people in need.  She was the first to envision the possible restoration of the church and started hacking down trees that were growing through the roof.

Father Taras is also responsible for a new church plant in Tokmak.  This much smaller Greek Catholic cathedral has been constructed using old Mennonite red clay bricks recovered from ruins, and laying them according to the old Mennonite pattern, alternating long and short.

Both of these churches have been planted by Father Peter, a missionary from the Czech Republic.  He has planted 36 churches, 15 of these in Ukraine.  We met up with him in the city of Melitopol where he is currently headquartered.  In addition to daily church services, he provides meals for war refugees and runs a rehab program helping released prisoners integrate into society.  A recent example is a 31 year old who was into drugs, gambling and gang-related activities.  Worry was destroying his mother's health.  She decided to take a two day pilgrimage walk from Melitopol to Schönsee, along the way praying for her son.  Within a month he came to Father Peter asking for help and said, "I give you my word, I will become holy."  His relapses have become less frequent and he is now one of a team helping to build the church.  
Father Peter sharing the Bread of Life
Father Peter told us that each time he feels desperate, on his knees calling out to God, God points him to the Mennonites.  The Mennonite Centre has committed to providing some support for a year.  We asked him where next, what his vision is.  Without hesitation he said, "going to heaven."

Allegedly the Boldt mansion
But not so soon.  We know that he still has plans. This building is a former Mennonite house in Molochansk.  Only the walls are left standing.  His next project is restoring this building and planting another church. Buildings are transformed in order to bring transformation to lives of needy people.  We are pleased to be part of the process and grateful to all those who make this work possible.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page
(Click on pictures to enlarge)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Today is the mid-point of our stay in Ukraine.  We continue to enjoy the beauty of the season and the surrounding landscape, nature itself camouflaging many things that have fallen into non-function and disrepair.
Lush gardens due to plenty of rain
The rain also obscures the depth of the potholes
Wild poppies and purple larkspur line the roadsides.  Early potatoes and cucumbers are being harvested. There are still fresh strawberries.  Olga Simeonovna, our former receptionist, has a cherry tree in her yard.  We've eaten our fill.

It has been a week of celebrations marking the end of the school year. We accepted invitations to four different events.  We know that Ukrainians love to celebrate and this year was no disappointment.  On Friday we attended the "Last Bell" at the Russian school.  It is a traditional ceremony full of pomp and circumstance celebrated after all studies are finished, but before final exams.
Graduates are dressed in a school uniform similar to what they wore when they entered first grade - the girls wearing white aprons over dark dresses and white bows in their hair.  The event began at 8 a.m. and lasted a full two hours.  The student body, relatives and teachers gathered around the plaza in front of the school.  There was singing, dancing, many speeches and symbolic traditions such as releasing balloons and also doves into the air.


Rudy was asked to say a few words to the graduates.  The celebration concluded with a first grader on the shoulder of a graduate circling the school ground ringing a bell.  This is the last bell - the torch is being passed to a new generation.  We hope that these beautiful young people will have opportunities to "soar" when they leave school.  It may well be in their power to help bring about change however there are very few local opportunities.  It has been our privilege this year to provide all the necessary technical equipment for a 15 student language lab.  The state pays teacher's salaries but little else in terms of upgrades, repairs, new innovations.  A lot lies on the shoulders of parents.

Students are taught academics in the mornings, 8:30-12:30.  In the afternoons they have the option of attending a music school, sports school, or craft school.  These institutions receive very little government funding, parents again have to subsidize.  We were invited to attend the final concerts of the Tokmak and Molochansk music schools and were so impressed.
Tokmak Music School
Molochansk Music School
Ukrainian children love to perform.  They are taught rhythm and music almost as soon as they learn to walk and talk.  They are such graceful dancers.  Their teachers sew all their costumes.  On occasion they have requested our help to purchase fabric.  We have made it possible for them to enter competitions where they have often excelled.
Prishib Orphanage graduation
Another organization we have helped over the years is the Prishib orphanage located near Molochansk.  We are told that typically 20% are orphans whose parents have died and 80% are social orphans - having been abandoned, parents living in poverty unable to care for them often due to alcohol and drug abuse.  We attended the graduation ceremony of 11 young people.  These must leave the orphanage at age 17.  Some will go on to trade school.  Statistics for successful community living are not very encouraging.

This morning the Molochansk Music School band came to the Mennonite Centre to entertain seniors that come for lunches twice a week - the final concert of their school year.

It was a bright sunny day.  The band set up in our yard and played for an hour to a very appreciative audience.  Many of the senior band members have graduated and left, therefore the current band is young, but enthusiastic.  Over the years we have provided most of the instruments for this band, allowing them to do well in regional competitions.  It was a joy to hear them perform.  Our gratitude to those who have donated to enrich the lives of these young people who are already making a positive impact in their community.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page
(Click on pictures to enlarge)