Hope and Homes helps orphans in Ukraine

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

VYSHHOROD, Ukraine - Liudmyla and Viktor Bostan never considered that their small three-room apartment, which contained barely enough living space for them and their only child, should stop them from adopting a homeless orphan or two.

They wanted to help these needy children, and somehow things would work out.

In the course of three years the couple took in two brothers at first, and then a sister and a brother, and finally one more child. The kids, all of whom had come from families destroyed by drugs, alcohol or death, needed constant care and much love.

Viktor, 40, a pastor of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and Liudmyla, 36, on leave from her job at a printing house, had become increasingly concerned, however, because their combined monthly income of less than $50 (U.S.) a month barely paid for the children's food and milk. Sometimes they could not stretch the money to the end of the month.

They had discussed seriously a move to his folks' village in the Chernivtsi Oblast of Ukraine, where the kids would have more room and basic food was more affordable.

They realized that even with the move they would not be able to give the kids everything, but that they could afford to offer them the essentials. But they never swayed from their belief that they had done the right thing in adopting the five children.

"They would have a roof over their heads, and someone would be there to hug them and pat them on the back," said Mr. Bostan, in explaining why he and his wife had decided to adopt, even with their miserly incomes.

Lack of space, however, remained a serious problem. Then, what they can only describe as a miracle occurred.

The Bostans never expected that on a March morning in 1998 a stranger would knock on their door in Vyshhorod and then offer to build them a new home and change their lives.

But there stood Bohdan Rymarenko, international coordinator for Hope and Homes for Children, a non-profit, charitable organization headquartered in Salisbury, England, that works to better the plight of orphans around the world. He explained that the Bostans had been chosen as one of the organization's first projects in Ukraine.

"It was God's will. Such a gift - things like that don't just happen," said Mrs. Bostan, as she sat on a couch in the sparsely decorated second-floor living room of her new home just outside of Kyiv.

A formal interview with Mr. Rymarenko and with agency workers of Ukraine's Council on Family and Youth, associated with the ministry of the same name, followed the initial meeting. In August 1998 construction began on their new home, which was completed in November.

By December the Bostan family had settled into a five-bedroom, two-story brick structure with a basement and garage located on the fringes of Vyshhorod, meters from the Kyiv city limit. The home was built for about $25,000, the upper limit of what Hope and Homes for Children provides for the construction of each dwelling. In this case the funding was augmented with money from the local government administration.

Hope and Homes for Children also has provided the Bostans with new furniture, a stove and a washing machine. A refrigerator is expected by the summer.

Homes instead of orphanages

Mr. Rymarenko had arrived in Ukraine in 1996 to develop a pilot project to build family-type homes for orphans. The idea was based on the notion held by Hope and Homes for Children that private homes, and not orphanages, provide a better environment for child development, a concept widely accepted in Europe and the U.S., which has done away with orphanages during the last 50 years.

In Ukraine, in orphanages, children are grouped by age, which splits up siblings. They have limited access to the outside world because most basic facilities, such as a school, playground and cafeteria, are located on the premises.

The average cost of raising a child is more expensive in a government institution, about $75 a month per child, and, the children don't get their most basic needs fulfilled anyway.

"It doesn't make sense economically," said Mr. Rymarenko. "You also have the difficulty of the child not experiencing love."

Mr. Rymarenko made contact and developed a dialogue with the Ministry of Family and Youth (the ministry has recently been downgraded to a state committee), a government body that had been established only several years ago, and as such has been free of much of the ingrained bureaucratic mindset that hinders the effectiveness of other ministries.

At the urging of then Minister of Family and Youth Valentyna Dovzhenko, Hope and Homes for Children agreed to work with the Council on Family and Youth and to develop four initial projects in the Kyiv region: an addition to the already large house owned by a family in Brovary that had been taking in children for years; a home for a family in Obukhiv, Kyiv Oblast; a project in Bila Tserkva; and the Bostan's home in Vyshhorod, located just north of Kyiv.

The concept of family-type homes for orphans is not new to Ukraine. Since 1988, when Ukrainian law was changed to allow for individual care of orphans, some 70 such homes have been built. The family in Brovary, for whom Hope and Homes for Children built a $3,000 addition, is on its third generation of children.

However, lack of government funding had curtailed the further development of such programs.

Hope and Homes steps in

That's where Hope and Homes for Children, which originally came to Ukraine to help Chornobyl victims, has stepped in to help.

In addition to the four already completed projects, which will house almost 40 orphans, the organization has agreed recently with the Symferopol city administration to build three homes in the Crimean city by the end of the summer. It plans to build three more homes on a yearly basis in Crimea for the next three years. In addition, plans are being laid for the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts, as well.

Mr. Rymarenko's organization, which has a database of some 7,000 financial supporters, primarily in the United Kingdom, has sufficient financing for Ukraine to build five other homes in the next year.

To provide much-needed medical and other support for the orphans, Hope and Homes for Children is working with the European Children's Trust. The trust will organize the needed family support groups and medical and psychological aid.

However, with nearly 16,000 children in 89 government orphanages, according to 1998 statistics of the Ministry of Education, Mr. Rymarenko and his organization have much work ahead of them if they plan to transform the current system.

Mr. Rymarenko, who is of Ukrainian heritage, grew up in New York City and now lives in Spain, has no illusions that the work will be easy. Nor does he expect his England-based organization to do it alone.

He said he is quite satisfied with the support given by the State Committee on Family and Youth and the local government administrations that have been involved thus far. "We have confidence in our partners here," said Mr. Rymarenko.

Candidates for new large homes are identified by field offices of the state committee, who are then interviewed by its officials and Mr. Rymarenko. After a family is approved, the municipal or village administration is asked to donate land and whatever construction materials are available. The rest needed to construct a house is supplied by Hope and Homes for Children.

The State Committee on Family and Youth provides a minimal salary equal to a teacher's monthly pay to the foster parents, most of whom, unlike the Bostans, do not adopt the children, primarily because once a child is adopted the parents no longer are eligible to receive the government subsidy.

The state committee also subsidizes food and clothing for the children. But the subsidies are never a sure bet in a country whose economic situation is precarious at best.

"Whether they get the subsidies is another matter," explained Mr. Rymarenko.

In addition, the organization encourages the families to develop garden plots and provides small livestock, where possible.

The foster parents face more than a shortage of cash. Many of the kids they take in have been psychologically and physically abused.

"These are difficult children. This is not an easy situation," explained Mr. Rymarenko. "When you take a child from an orphanage it takes a good year before the child adapts. For the first four months the child may hoard and protect his food. He talks little. Many need psychological help."

Shattered families

In the case of the Bostans, all five of their adopted children came from shattered families.

Maksym, the first child they chose, who will soon be 4 years old, didn't sit or stand at 14 months. His brother, Vladyslav, didn't walk, even though he was nearly 2 1/2 years old. Vladyslav also couldn't feed himself.

"He only knew of tea and bread," explained Mrs. Bostan.

After the two brothers had adapted to their new environment and with their development approaching that of other kids their age, the Bostans decided to take in another pair.

This time they chose a brother and sister whose parents had been shot to death in their presence. Pavlyk was 3 1/2 years old at the time; his sister, Daryna, was a year younger.

"They didn't speak due to the shock. Neither would smile. They would wake up in the middle of the night screaming. Daryna, in particular, was prone to hysteria," Mrs. Bostan said.

The last child, Bohdan, was taken from his drug-addicted mother after birth and had to go through days of drug withdrawal.

But after a year living in a secure family environment with lots of hugs and kisses, the nightmares and the agony have subsided. The five children have come out of their psychological shells, play with their other brothers and sisters, laugh and, of course, argue.

The Bostans admit that they have gone through crisis periods during which they seriously questioned their decisions to adopt. "At first it was difficult. We had to teach ourselves. We didn't have psychologists to help," said Mr. Bostan. "With the first children, there were moments when we were ready to give up."

Mrs. Bostan said that today they do not regret their decision, which she said was made after a family meeting three years ago involving the couple and their 17-year-old daughter, Maya. "We had a desire to do something good in our lives," explained Mrs. Bostan.

Although many of the Bostan's neighbors at first believed that Liudmyla and Viktor were opportunists, and had taken the children in knowing that this was a sure way to get a large and comfortable home built for themselves, Mr. Rymarenko explained that all the families were chosen at least in part because they had already shown that they were willing to provide homes for orphans even in difficult circumstances.

"The families that we have gotten involved with did not realize that someone might build them a large house in the future," said Mr. Rymarenko. "They got into it for the right reason."

"A blessed thing"

Today, the Bostans neighbors agree that the work that Viktor and Liudmyla are doing is special.

"They are doing a blessed thing. They are truly good people," said Oksana Anischuk as she walked along a crumbling asphalt road in this dreary town.

Mrs. Bostan told of a recent encounter with an old man on the street, who recognized them and bowed his head before them. "He started crying," explained Mrs. Bostan. "He told us that he, too, was an orphan once and that he understood the hope that a private home held out."

Mr. Rymarenko maintains that one of the unique aspects of the work of Hope and Homes for Children is its ability to direct 80 percent of its donor money toward individual projects, which is done by maintaining a minimal administrative structure.

In addition to Ukraine, the organization is developing projects in the Sudan and in Romania and is continuing its presence in Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Albania, Serbia and Croatia.

The orphan aid organization was started by Col. Mark Cook, who was a commander of the British contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Croatia during the Serbian-Croatian war. He led an effort, supported by local villagers, to rebuild an orphanage destroyed by bombing during the war that had housed 60 children. Deeply affected by the plight of the children, he left the military and in 1994 began Hope and Homes for Children with his wife.

Initially, their work involved simply giving aid to orphans and orphanages, but that has changed as they have shifted their efforts to moving children into private homes. The work they have begun in Ukraine is a new horizon for them. "Ukraine is the vanguard," explained Mr. Rymarenko.

Because donor money is always in short supply, Mr. Rymarenko says he is looking for support from Ukrainian diaspora organizations, to become sponsors of individual homes for Ukrainian families who have taken in orphans. Mr. Rymarenko emphasized that all money goes directly from Hope and Homes for Children to the needy families. For more information, call Mr. Rymarenko in Spain at (34) (629) 359-349 or fax him at (34) (93) 310-07-27.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 9, 1999, No. 19, Vol. LXVII

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