Guest blog by Emily Millikan
Emily Millikan is a thoughtful and tremendously talented young writer from whom I expect great things: stories, essays, novels. This was originally posted on the LastBell Ministries blog. Last Bell serves and creates community for orphanage graduates in Zhytomyr, Ukraine.
I recently spoke with staff members Yulia Los and Lena Voznyuk via video call. I’d received an email from Lena about our Educational Outreach team visiting a group of orphans with disabilities who’d been transferred away from Zhytomyr, and I was looking for context. I asked, “What’s it like for orphans with disabilities in Ukraine?”
What I learned broke my heart.
A little background: I’ve worked for the last eight years in the disability community north of Boston. I spent five years at a group home, where the younger women had studied side-by-side with their peers in public schools, then attended boarding schools to learn independent living skills. At 22, they moved into our group home, staffed largely by caring people who helped them keep learning, find jobs, pursue their interests and hobbies, and invest in their community. They visited with their families regularly; people around town knew and enjoyed friendships with them.
In the U.S. we still have a lot of work to do, but I see movement toward the full inclusion of all people in our civic life, and lively, passionate conversation about the subject (search online for “Nothing about us without us”!).
You can imagine my dismay upon learning about Ukraine’s system, still heavy with post-Soviet prejudices and apathy. The situation for orphans is dire, but it’s much worse for orphans with disabilities.
Orphans with physical disabilities apply for trade school as teenagers, after they graduate from the orphanage. If they get in, they may or may not be able to study a trade they can physically manage. After the first trade school, they’re transferred to another one, in a different city… then another… then another… until they’re 35. Then they’re given a small government stipend, but not enough to live on without help; and of course they’ve been isolated from daily social life for 35 years. Many simply go to a retirement home.
When their applications for trade school are denied, they have no options at all. They spend the rest of their lives in a retirement home.
Orphans in Ukraine who are categorized as having intellectual disabilities – which in the U.S. would include a range of diagnoses and identities, such as Autism, Down Syndrome, or severe learning disabilities – simply live in an orphanage their whole lives. (For an understanding of the conditions, and what some Christians are doing to reach out, read this article about our friends at Mission to Ukraine.)
It’s easy to see why orphans with disabilities in Ukraine would believe their fellow citizens are ashamed of them and want to keep them hidden. It’s so important for loving adults to befriend these young people! Last Bell is helping many young orphans with disabilities because of our connections to Zhytomyr’s trade schools.
We’ve shared more than one story about orphanage graduates with disabilities in Zhytomyr, both on our blog, and on Facebook, in photos that include orphans from many different trade schools around the city.
Our beloved group of orphans with disabilities was recently uprooted from Zhytomyr, just as we were getting to know them, and moved to Kharkiv, eight hours away. This is the second or third trade school for some. In the end, they’ll have studied multiple trades they can’t use.
Recently, Nastya and Lena set aside a day and took a train to visit and support these precious young people, who miss Last Bell very much and feel very alone. One young lady was so distressed that she became suicidal, and had to go to the hospital. Nastya and Lena were able to visit her there.
Then they went together on a sight-seeing tour around the city and to visit the dorm rooms. Nastya and Lena were treated to tea and introduced to the group’s new classmates.
These young people were very attached to our staff. Thankfully, through some friends, Lena and Nastya were able to find Christians in Kharkiv who minister to orphans. While in Kharkiv, they met and introduced them to our youth, so they won’t be alone in a new city!
Of course, Lena and Nastya will stay in touch through phone calls and the internet. Lena says, “My big wish is for orphans never to feel abandoned and lonely!”