I am home from a month in Italy serving a Ukrainian orphanage. This second month was different than the first. My initial month, I had arrived within 48 hours of their arrival. The kids were exhausted from their evacuation, in a new environment, and excited to be somewhere new and safe. As time has gone on, the kids have settled in and the excitement for the locals in Italy has worn off. This includes the media. At first, the communities nearby were very helpful and always around aiding in donations and trying to entertain the kids. Having the media around was important to encourage funding for this small rural town. Unfortunately, on my return, I became aware of their less-than-ideal living conditions. The media was no longer interested in their group. The town is frustrated with how the kids are running around. This town is a quiet place centered around senior citizens and a low-key lifestyle.
On the day of our arrival in Italy, I arrived with 6 suitcases. Cramming them into a tiny Fiat was a challenge within itself and quite comical. Their location in Italy requires mini sized vehicles, due to the narrow roads (our one lane is a two lane there) with steep inclines with very sharp turns on the switchbacks. We left the airport and started our near two-hour drive to the kids. On the drive, we received a message from the orphanage director. She asked us if we would stop to see them prior to checking into our apartment and we drove straight to them. Illia, my soon-to-be son, was outside waiting for my arrival. I was greeted with hugs. And not just from him. One little boy screamed by name, came running full speed, and gave me the biggest hug. Several other kids came up and were yelling into their hotel “Anna,” to notify other kids that I was back. It was the best feeling to see such a warm welcome back.
As we got settled, we saw things in Italy had changed the 6 weeks I was away. The kids came up to us and complained about being hungry and saying the food tasted bad. They also complained about being hot and uncomfortable. The weather is very warm and humid with poor air quality. Their skin and lips are chapped, and the kids seemed to be in winter clothes. On day 9, I saw that my soon-to-be-son was still wearing the same outfit that I gave him on my arrival. He told me he was showering, but I couldn’t understand why he kept wearing the same clothes. He was embarrassed to tell me that his only other summer outfit was stolen, and he had no more clothes. He also was wearing a pair of crocks that were 3-4 sizes too big, and the athletic shoes I bought him in April were so worn out from all their walking that he wore the sole out. We learned that they were being served spoiled food and even getting sick off of it. There was no medication or first aid for the kids. I had been going through band aids and Neosporin quickly; I came prepared and had them in my backpack. The kids knew I would help their “ouches” so, I was constantly fixing them up. The kids were lacking clothes, socks, underwear, and shoes. They had no sun protection.
Our congregation collected enough socks and underwear for almost a pair for each child. They were so grateful. You guys also helped in the creation of gift bags for the caregivers. I made gift bags of slippers (culturally slippers are important), lotion, Ukrainian sweets (I picked up in Tacoma), and other goodies. Along with clothing for children and caregivers, we were also able to help with basic foods, medications, hygiene products, sun protection, and first aid supplies.
The kids all knew that this wasn’t from me, this was a gift from my church. They understood that people cared about them and wanted to help them. Illia was so proud of it too. He understood what these donations were. I had video chatted him after church services and he saw the display and I shared with him what our church was trying to do. He helped me bring all the bags into his hotel. Kids were running to help carry them all in and were sneaking peaks and all chatting about them. Their excitement was so cute to watch. I could tell it meant a lot to Illia that our church cared and was trying to help. Many of these kids have never been cared about, loved on, or shown faith.
When my month was at an end, I left knowing I was now able to make a difference. Daily snacks were being provided to the kids in the afternoon. Twice weekly grocery deliveries were planned for produce and dairy. This was all because of our congregation. That first day when I had the donations ready to go, it opened the door to finding out what these kids needed. I communicated that our church was ready to help in whatever way we could with the donations we got. That ended up being an answered prayer for them. I have now taken over as the Italy coordinator for the orphanage and am scheduling any volunteer wanting to help, food deliveries, English classes, and daily tasks. I felt God’s calling to help this orphanage. My heart has grown, my perspective forever changed, and I am so thankful that God lead me down this path to be their voice. I only pray for the day these kids can go back to a country that is at peace and they all can find families to love on them.