This month we have been hearing about the summer camps being carried out in Ukraine and the difference they've made in children's lives. Here's a story from a camp we held a few years back, which shows just how much of an impact these camps can have. It is told by one of our former staff in Ukraine.
In 2008 I was leading a Global Action humanitarian aid team distributing aid in in a village near Kerch (Eastern Crimea). While we were giving out aid in the centre of the village some people came out of their homes and thanked us profusely for what we were doing. ‘You are doing such a necessary job’, they said, ‘thank God that He brought you here’.
After thanking me, they then went on to tell me that there was a family near there that really needed our help. ‘You have to go and meet them’, they said. So we did.
We jumped into the car and drove a few miles down the road, where we came to an isolated house by the side of the road. We got out of the cars and stood in front of the house, which I can only describe as being in the worst condition that I have ever seen. My heart sunk as I saw the state that this house was in. It was broken down, cold and dirty. The windows were all broken. There was no water or electricity. Inside there was no furniture except for two broken plastic chairs and some dirty mattresses on the floor. Everything was covered with filth.
There were two twin sisters living in the house – Natasha and Sasha. Their father had hanged himself a few years earlier and their mother was an alcoholic. She was also a prostitute and was with a different man almost every night. She had no time for her kids.
I was so moved by what I saw that I immediately felt strongly that these children should be given the opportunity to come to our summer camp at the Hope Centre, which was only a few weeks away. At least there they could have 10 days away from the squalor of their home, and could be well fed and well looked after. I arranged the paperwork with some friends of the family and soon everything was set for the sisters to attend the next camp.
Over the next few weeks the girls expressed a lot of fear about attending the camp. They had never left their house before, were semi-feral and were terrified of other children. They never had played with toys before; instead of toys they played with cow manure.
When they first arrived at the Hope Centre we had to shave their heads, their hair was so full of lice. We burned their clothes and gave them fresh ones. They had a hot shower for the first time in their lives! They also used shampoo for the first time in their lives. It was a strange experience for them.
Being at the summer camps was quite difficult for them at first. Because of their peculiar upbringing, their strange behaviour meant that many of the other children laughed at them; but the staff and volunteers always stood up for them, and slowly encouraged the other children to accept them.
Over the next 3 years the girls attended summer camps each year. Slowly, bit by bit, they became more and more integrated into the community at the Hope Centre. While at the summer camps they heard for the first time about Jesus, accepted Him and received their first Bibles. Because of their impoverished upbringing they were very slow at grasping new concepts, but they always prayed very sincerely and loved singing the Bible songs.
For the last two years they have been unable to attend summer camps, but I have maintained my relationship with them and have often gone to check up on them. Towards the end of last year the government revoked their mother’s parental rights and they were taken into a state-run orphanage in Kiev.
At Christmas we went to visit the girls at their orphanage. Imagine our delight when the orphanage director told us that the girls had been leading Bible studies for all the kids at their orphanage! What a change in their lives! They were delighted to see us and introduced us to their new friends.
We did not see much change in their lives in 2008 when we first had them at our summer camp (although everyone agrees that the girls started to open up, step by step during this time). But who would have thought that these sisters would have become witnesses of God to other kids at their orphanage! It took 4-5 years for God to totally transform their lives.