Once cited for deplorable conditions, Znamianka orphanage receives award

SHORT HILLS, N.J. - In recent years, Ukrainian orphanages have received considerable notoriety for their deplorable conditions and severe neglect of children. Reductions in government funding, lack of private sponsors and demoralized staff have combined to create an environment that in many cases falls below the standards of human decency.

In contrast to the usually bleak picture, a motivated orphanage director was recently awarded a certificate of achievement for dramatic improvements she has implemented at the Znamianka Orphanage for Disabled Children in the Svitlovodsk District of Kirovohrad Oblast.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Social Work acknowledged the fervent dedication and vision of Dr. Tatiana Valko, a diminutive but dynamic orphanage director who has leveraged support from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. and the Children of Chornobyl Relief Fund (CCRF) to create an effective rehabilitation center for the children in her care.

During a recent visit to the orphanage, CCRF's Director of Procurement Lisa Milanytch took note of some of the remarkable changes that Dr. Valko has put in place.

"At every turn, I witnessed renovations of the infrastructure, from new floors to newly painted walls. Each room was filled with interactive toys, building blocks that taught the children the seemingly simple task of holding an object, or puzzles that challenged their deductive reasoning. Colorful bean bags donated by CCRF provided comfortable sitting perches for the tots, and one of the rooms, set up as a classroom contained a cabinet of artwork created by the children," Ms. Milanytch reported.

According to Dr. Valko, the children become very patient and intense workers when presented with an activity to complete.

Ms. Milanytch braced herself for the worst possible conditions she might encounter in Znamianka. "I was expecting a bleak, dreary and cold situation, but what I experienced warmed my heart and gave me hope." She said she was surprised to find that "despite their many physical frailties and cognitive defects, the children laughed, played and delighted in the attention they received."

What was most impressive was the progress that several of the children had achieved through the rehabilitation center established by Dr. Valko. "One boy named Aloshka Varchak, whose hands had been severely crippled since birth, preventing him from grabbing any objects, now trailed behind me holding a bag of cookies." The nurses told Ms. Milanytch that since he first was able to work his grasping muscles, they seldom see him without something in his hands. A girl named Victoria Kopychenko who had been unable to stand because her legs were so twisted, was now able to walk on her own. The rehabilitation room contained equipment that converted it into a virtual indoor playground, and playing with this equipment helps to strengthen the children's underdeveloped muscles.

The Children of Chornobyl Relief Fund was invited to the Kirovohrad Oblast in Ukraine to visit the Znamianka orphanage in the winter of 1999. The delegation, led by CCRF co-founders Dr. Zenon and Nadia Matkiwsky and CCRF Vice-President Valerie Burachinsky, was deeply disturbed by the conditions in which the children were living at that time. They resolved to provide essential aid to the children.

The first shipment was delivered in January of 2000, when schoolchildren at the Landmark Academy in Ridgefield, Conn., provided CCRF with a large supply of Christmas toys, shoes and children's clothing for the orphanage. Under the leadership of Alexandra Palylyk, whose children attended the academy, the Christmas drive also provided a large supply of new winter jackets and parkas purchased and donated by Anita Monteith of Danbury, Conn.

Since then, CCRF, with the generous support of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the U.S.A. and Archbishop Antony, has delivered a large supply of other essential supplies, including new laundry equipment, bed sheets and linens, wheelchairs, specially designed diapers and rehabilitation equipment. Earlier this year, CCRF's office in Kyiv arranged for a Christmas pageant for the Znamianka orphans featuring a local theater troupe.

As she toured the facility in May, Ms. Milanytch said she was amazed by the contrast between what she saw, and the bleak images of the orphanage described to her by previous visitors. Besides the Western aid received, much of the progress at the orphanage can be attributed to the vision and determination of Dr. Valko, who has applied this aid for the maximum benefit of the children under her care.

Her most pressing new goal is to excavate a new well that could provide the orphanage with fresh water, and to install a heating system that would allow the orphanage to maintain control of its own thermostat in the children's dormitories. The UOC-U.S.A. has provided funds for preliminary testing for the well. Dr. Valko also dreams of procuring an outdoor playground for the children, supplying professional lab coats for the nurses, more paint for the hallways and hiring additional staff to care for the children.

The UOC-U.S.A. will be sending nine missionaries to Znamianka this summer to help with some of the capital improvements in the dormitories. As Ms. Milanytch departed Znamianka to visit other CCRF partner hospitals and clinics, Dr. Valko asked her to convey her sincere thanks to all those who had contributed so generously to improve the well being of the orphans in her care. "If there were more people like those [who support CCRF and the UOC-U.S.A.], the children would not be forgotten."

To support the Znamianka Orphanage or other hospitals and pediatric facilities sponsored by CCRF, tax-deductible donations may be sent to: Children of Chornobyl Relief Fund, 272 Old Short Hills Road, Short Hills, NJ 07078, or to the UOC-U.S.A. at the Consistory of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, P.O. Box 495, South Bound Brook, NJ 08880. For further information, readers may call (973) 376-5140 or (732) 356-0090.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 3, 2003, No. 31, Vol. LXXI

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