I like the unfolding of a good story and I like the ending in it’s proper place, after the beginning. But as a recovering rule-follower, I’m feelin’ a little radical these days so I’m gonna bust out the ending first.
Our last day in Ukraine, we left camp and drove about an hour outside of Zhytomyr. After turning onto a gravel road and travelling a couple of more miles, we unloaded in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
I did an emotional health-and-wellness check and steeled myself for yet another unknown as we parked just outside the compound. The administrator greeted us, he was a gold-toothed man dressed in shady business casual and long overdue for a shower. We began the tour of a facility perched proudly on beams of contradiction and illusion.
He showed us a modern laundry facility boasting children well clothed and covered in cozy beds at night, as well as a brand new bathing facility stocked with cheery towels and lines of loofahs telling the story of sweet smelling peeps scrubbed and tubbed.
Outside of the buildings and lining the walkways, were hundreds of flowers in an insolent chorus proclaiming happiness and love for everyone.
As we continued our tour, someone pointed out a stork’s nest atop a storage bin. Later, I learned that storks nests can be four to six feet in diameter, and weigh up to 550 pounds. Who knew?
Nests had lined the road leading up to the orphanage as well. There were dozens of them, like images from a fairy tale. But this story read more like a tweaked out house-of-mirrors with a twisted nightmare ending.
………..in a land far, far away, off a dirt road, where flowers mock and towels deceive and children don’t cry, perched high on a grain bin sat a stork’s nest overlooking a compound where children are deliberately dropped, not delivered………….
After the facilities tour, we were allowed to enter the Isolation House for the most challenged boys. The boys welcomed us warmly, while the sharp odor of soiled bedding betrayed our glowing tour by the administrator. One sweet child buried his head in my chest and I was smitten.
I looked behind me and a little boy who looked to be around 5 (I learned later he was closer to 8) started to koala-climb up the nearest leg. The tenderness of this child’s apparent age turned my stomach.
So many contradictory messages were being served simultaneously that I quickly came up with mental rules to keep away the crazy. On a shady level, I could accommodate for helpless babies in this facility. Surely they would be cared for and treated well, bathed and hugged. I could also reasonably allow for older children who could be a bit more responsible for their own needs.
But preschoolers and primary aged children need interaction and snuggles and direction and snacks and juice and walks and outings and crafts and someone who is completely invested in them to tuck them in at night and sing songs during storms and I had absolutely no emotional resources to reconcile this little boy, who wanted nothing more than to be held, in this seemingly God-forsaken place. And this was my breaking point.
My heart declared war on the propaganda and instantly, in a forever kind of way, the battle was declared a draw. There was nothing to reconcile the incongruities and I quit trying.
The children were disheveled wearing meal crusted clothing seven seasons too small. Many of them sported the inevitable cuts and bruises of childhood but there was nothing childlike about this place. They didn’t have personal belongings, there were no toys and heaven only knew what they did all day. Before we left, the boys were herded into a turfed corral with minimal shade from the sun. There was scaffolding in place for more shade, but it stands bare, still open to the elements.
I think what made me the most angry was the scurry of activity from staff that I’m certain were called in to make the place look alive. Three, 3, THREE people were painting a fence. I can’t nail down the words to scoff loudly enough my disdain for workers painting fences, and weeding gardens, and mowing grass, and filing paperwork while children are poorly clothed, dirty and sick!
There were members of my team who were positive as they expressed a hope that all of the resources available were actually being used to help the boys, and I really admire their outlook. That hope has radically improved Romaniv in the last five years. I mean let’s look at the bright side, they’re not chained to beds for 12 hours a day anymore. I didn’t leave there with anything near their level of hope.
In the Isolation House, I had witnessed a boy sitting on a bed, legs tucked to his chest, arms around his knees, rocking back and forth. I’m not sure if he was able to walk, but he was acutely ill in addition to his congenital condition. I mean, he had the flu or something!
His face was pale and as I spoke to him and rubbed his shoulders, he began to heave inconspicuously. Then, he opened his mouth and vomited straight down his shirt into his lap. He didn’t cry and or even have an emotional or audible response to his discomfort as he learned long ago that his cries wouldn’t be addressed. Several of us looked to the nurse who finally realized that we thought she should do something. So, she dabbed his lips with a tissue leaving the layer of vomit all over his clothing.
I ravaged through the back forty of my reasoning to come up with some piece of information to reconcile the needs of these children being blatantly ignored. Over and over I came up with the mental equivalent of the Not Responding message from Windows.
We spent the remainder of our time at Romaniv singing and playing with the residents. A group of boys, enamoured by their own pictures on our phones, surrounded us and several kissed my screen when they caught glimpses of themselves, the picture below is one of those boys.
Though it’s not up to the American Code of Moms association standards, I didn’t wash that phone for days. I loved that their faces were smashed up against my screen and it just seemed so wrong to wipe it off. I’m ok breaking with the ACM on this one. It didn’t matter to me what kind of funk I encountered, no way was I sanitizing that phone.
As I loaded into the van, I knew that my emotions did not lined up with the reality of our experience that day. I’m one of those people who can be so present in a situation that I am easily overcome by it. I can be equally absent at times, all up in my own head. But I have very few experiences I can recall where I’ve needed to construct a bomb shelter around pieces of my heart already shattered to keep them from being completely pulverized. It was complete emotional overload, so I constructed some concrete walls, barred the door and walked away from the orphanage.
I’ve been strategically working on separating my emotions from my physical circumstances. Not burying them by any means, but just peeling them apart from the situation and standing back to look at the circumstance as a whole experience rather than isolating one facet behind a whole wall of feelings.
Looking back I can see that my choice to not clean the phone paralleled the silencing my emotions. If I would have kept them on the surface, my feelings were so raw and messy that they would have spilled all over the rest of the trip. Similar to flash freezing food, I tried to preserve my feelings in a darkened place so I could honor their origin later when I would have the time to give them the reverence that those children deserved.
I’m writing this at home on a Thursday, sipping my coffee with my little world carrying on nicely as I begin to process the emotions of that day at Romaniv and the reality of Andrei, Yura, Gena and Misha which is both current and continual.
I’m reminded that it’s Thursday afternoon in Ukraine. On Thursdays MTU goes into the orphanage and loves all over those boys with games, songs, stories and instruction. The boys who are able to function in a group environment take field-trips and have formed long-lasting relationships with the volunteers from MTU. And most of all they know that they have a Father. And in that there is Hope…….
‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:40
And when you see ME you find strength to face the day.
Thank you for joining me as I share this ongoing series about the journey my son and I took to Zhytomer, Ukraine with Mission to Ukraine.
I’ll be here next week to share about our outrageous travel experiences. If you sign up to follow my blog, you’ll have this series sent directly to your inbox AND I’ll let you know which airline you should never EVER fly!
See pictures from our trip and hear the song that encouraged me in Ukraine here.
The introduction to this series that talks about the three things I learned is over here.
If you’d like to sponsor and orphan from Romaniv, you’ll find more information here.
You can find out more about Mission To Ukraine and their ministries at the orphanage here.