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 
http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page
(Click on pictures to enlarge)

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Since its inception in 2001, the Mennonite Centre in Molochansk has been active in supporting many aspects of community life - for example, health care, music, culture, sports, education, assisting farmers and aiding churches.  Many stories could be told in each of these categories.  Here are a few that came to our attention this week.

Six years ago we became aware of a young couple who had a dream; a desire to start farming.  With the aid of a small loan they were able to purchase two hectares of land and plant 7000 strawberry plants.  Denis tilled the soil by hand and together with his wife Svieta, harvested their first crop.  They worked very hard and their vision grew.  The following year they also planted garlic.  When we returned to Ukraine in the fall of 2012, we took a visitor from Canada (also a farmer) to see this initiative.  The outcome - Denis was gifted with a rototiller.  See blog November 11, 2012.  We'll never forget his reaction - exuberant gratitude.

This piece of equipment has enabled them to expand. Over time they have increased their property, some of it leased, and have planted fruit trees, raspberries, blackberries and spring vegetables.

Three years ago they constructed a green house.  Now they can get strawberries to market in advance of other growers. Their income does not yet provide livelihood through the year but they are optimistic and continue to work hard.  Denis has a vision to eventually farm 20 hectares.

Earlier this week we received an invitation to come and visit at 2 in the afternoon.  We certainly were not expecting a meal.  Denis had a BBQ going and we were invited into their little house, which he is gradually restoring.  The floor is uneven, thin linoleum over dirt.

After being served a delicious meal Denis and Svieta shared a bit of their life.  This enterprising couple have their schedule all worked out.  Svieta gets up at 4 a.m. and goes out to the strawberry field.  No daylight saving time here.  Denis wakens at 6, readies their two daughters for school which begins at 8 and is quite a distance away, loads the strawberries, drops the girls off then heads to the market in town. They hire pickers, but find them unreliable.  Too often, upon receiving their wages, they spend it on vodka and don't show up for several days.  

Denis and Svieta have identified a niche and with a little help have been willing to work hard to make their dream come true.  It was a delight to see what a little "seed money" can accomplish.  In the words of Ben Stobbe, the chairman of our board,  "We give a rototiller to till the soil that may well contain our DNA.  And from that soil comes life and nourishment for Ukrainians."  This couple is making a valuable contribution to the community as well as to the church.  Svieta is a wonderful singer and a faithful member of the worship team.  

Another example.  About the time the Mennonite Centre came into being, a baby girl was born to another Svieta and Edik (now one of our night watchmen).  It was soon discovered the Alyona was severely hearing impaired.  Over the years the Mennonite Centre has provided hearing aides which require replacing every three years.  Alyona is now 16. She has been attending a special school in the neighbouring city of Vassilyevka.
Paying tuition plus room and board is a big expense for the family.  Alyona and her older sister Svieta, who is studying to be a feltcher (nurse practitioner), are both Mennonite Centre scholarship recipients.

Alyona does not have intelligible speech but she is a whiz at translating using her phone by typing in a sentence and asking for translation.  We held an interesting half hour conversation.  She dreams of one day being a massage therapist .

This year the Mennonite Centre has provided scholarships to 40 students, 8 medical students, 10 young people studying education,   3 law students, a music student, and others.  Students are required to submit their grades and reapply annually.  Most of them study 4-5 years.  By investing in young people, enabling and equipping them to get a good education, we hope that they will be able to give back to their communities and build a stronger Ukraine.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to 
http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page

Friday, May 20, 2016


It's the beautiful month of May - the season of irises and peonies, flowers in bloom everywhere.
Gardens are flourishing.  So far there has been enough rain and the rich Ukrainian soil promises a good harvest, barring hail or drought.

When we left Ukraine in the summer of 2013,  there was no indication of the changes and trauma lying ahead for this country.  There had been so much hope for a better future.  The intervening years have been difficult, however we see a people resilient, young people with dreams and goals for their future.  Many older people struggling even more now, due to small pensions and escalating prices.  The devaluation of the hryvnia has been a huge blow.  In the villages many people are barely subsisting, ever more dependent on a few chickens, their gardens and root cellars.  In 2005 when we first came to volunteer at the Mennonite Centre the hryvnia was exchanging 5 to a US dollar.  In 2013 it was 8.  Today the exchange rate is 25.24.

This is the first week of our eighth term as North American directors at the Centre.  We work together with Oksana, our very capable Ukrainian director, listening to people's needs and requests and ascertaining where and in which way we can best be of help before we send proposals to our North American board.
Each time we return we feel drawn back to the village of Rybalovka, Rudy's father's birthplace, then known as Fischau.
The road leading to this village is in dreadful shape, certainly no funds in the budget for road repairs.  We have become acquainted with a couple living next door to the spot where the village school once stood in Mennonite times.  We've often bought a little honey from them.  The lady told us sadly that they no longer keep bees, but would we buy at least 40 eggs?  Of course we bought eggs, beautiful honey brown extra-large ones.  She shared her woes with us.  Their pensions are so meagre.  There used to be a little store in the village - but no longer.  Everything is so expensive.  There is very little to look forward to.

About 7 kilometres farther south lies the village of Svetlodolinsk, formerly Lichtenau. 
A compilation of Harry's experiences
 in Ukraine

We met with the mayor and several other local dignitaries.  The major issue at hand is the repair of their school bus, which was donated by Harry Giesbrecht in 2003.  Harry, recently deceased, was a board member of FOMCU.  Svetlodolinsk was his birth village.  His family was expelled from the region in 1933 and eventually emigrated to Canada in 1948.  Harry became a successful engineer and took special interest in the affairs of this village.  When it became know that children were walking up to 7 kilometres to school and that some had been attacked y wolves, he purchased a bus.  All these years it has been used to transport children to three schools servicing number of outlying villages.
Bus repair shop
Schools stagger their opening times to accommodate the number of students and the travel time.  The bus is also used for field trips, regional competitions and outings for seniors.  Alas, not so long ago the bus broke down and is now in process of a major motor overhaul.  We have agreed to fund this venture.  It will take the mechanic the major part of the summer to get this work done.  Wages and parts will amount to $400.  A mechanic will have work for the summer and children will have a safe way of getting to school again in fall.

Some years ago we were told that the villages would soon be dying out.  This, however, does not appear to be the case everywhere.  The mayor told us that families are having 3-4 children and that there is now a waiting list for admission to kindergartens.  Most of these village families are engaged in some form of agriculture; there is also the railway, a grain elevator, small stores and a cheese factory offering some employment.

Historically the third Thursday of May has been known as Vyshyvanka Day.  Vyshyvanka is the colloquial name for the embroidered national costume of Ukraine.  Every region can be identified by its own vyshyvanka.


Apparently this event has gained much more prominence since the war; it is a symbol
of national identity and patriotism.  Young and old participated in the colourful parade winding through town, eventually stopping at the Palace of Culture (Zentralschule in Mennonite times).
These sweet little ones were thrilled to pose
Katja, Oksana's daughter in centre

We joined the crowd of spectators, listening to many speeches and watching delightful folk dancing.  It was wonderful to witness people's enthusiasm and self-identification.

The Mennonite Centre has been and continues to be a beacon of hope.  Our doors are always open to those in need.  Each day has it's interests and challenges.  We thank God the Giver of all good gifts and our generous donors, that we have these gifts to share.  We want to do this work responsibly and without prejudice to the very needy in this part of the world.

For more information on the work of the Mennonite Centre, please go to 
http://www.mennonitecentre.ca/  Also check out Mennonite Centre Ukraine Facebook page