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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Holyoak

Touching Lives and Hearts - Part II

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Jan. 7, 2006 Boyd Brady and I returned to Ukraine to deliver gifts to three orphanages and celebrate Christmas.

Traditionally, Ukrainian Christmas festivities start on Christmas Eve, which is celebrated January 6 according to the Julian calendar. Nearly all Eastern Orthodox churches use the Julian calendar to establish the dates of movable feasts such as Easter and the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars is 13 days. Returning in January was convenient as we were able to celebrate Christmases in the US with our own families.

On our previous October trip, I had become so attached to the children that returning to take gifts was one way to give back to those who had so little.

When Ukrainian parents are unable to financially care for their children, they can drop them at orphanages to stay for a few months or even years. An estimated 250 children enter the orphanage system each day, with many more living on the streets. There are 90,000 children in the child welfare system in Ukraine and of those only about 6,000 are truly orphaned.

Most of the children we had come to know and love at the Internat were not orphans. However, when a child turns 18, they are turned out to live on their own with only a few Ukrainian hryvnia (equivalent of $2 US). Statistics show that within 2 years of leaving the orphanage, 80% of orphan graduates in Ukraine become involved in drugs, crime, prostitution, in jail, or even commit suicide. It's a terrible situation!

As soon as we returned from our October trip, we started making preparations. Friends and families were excited to help and donated money and clothing that we could take back to the children. Our goal was to give each child new underwear, socks, pajamas, a teddy bear and other small essentials.

Everything had to be taken out of packages and laundered to avoid paying fees to get new clothing through customs.

I bought 100 teddy bears and compressed the air out them so that they would fit in one huge duffle bag. Every child needs something to hug and who doesn't love teddy bears?

A church woman's organization made dozens of fleece ponchos and provided toiletries for the girls and amenity kits. Between Boyd and I, we took the 4 of the largest duffle bags allowed to check as well as our carry-ons. My carry on consisted of only a few things for myself and nothing more.

From the moment we checked our bags at Delta Airlines in Phoenix until we arrived in Donetsk, I felt like angels were watching over us. Some bags were over weight but when a sympathetic ticket agent learned the purpose of our trip, he let them through without charging us extra. Luckily I had a box of See's chocolates in my carry on so I pulled it out and said, "Happy holidays!" I'll never forget our "hi-five" and smiles of relief once we knew our bags were checked in and we could head towards our boarding gate. We were on our way and this was a dream come true! Garth couldn't take off work from his dental practice and because I had grown up with Boyd's family from Boise, Idaho, I felt comfortable traveling with him. As an antique dealer, he had made many trips previously to Ukraine so this was not anything new to him.

Ukraine security checking the weight of bags.

It was a long flight with a couple of connections but the next challenge was getting through customs in Kiev and then security at the airport in Donetsk. We held our breaths when questioned about the purpose of our trip and thankfully all our bags were allowed to go through.

We were so happy to see George waiting at the Donetsk airport and couldn't wait to get to the Internat orphanage.

It was dark, dismal and the streets were barren and it certainly didn't look like Christmas.

I couldn't believe that women wore boots with stiletto heals in the winter.

It was freezing in Donetsk but our hearts warmed immediately when we saw this group of smiling children waiting to greet us. I felt like my heart was going to burst! Marina and others had decided to forego their holiday vacation at home with their families to welcome us back. I will never forget my excitement and the thrill of seeing them again.

Marina and her close friend, Katya and her 10 year old sister, Nastya, had families but the other children were orphans. At that moment, Boyd and I decided we would book a room at the hotel for the three girls to stay at the hotel rather than the Internat as we had a lot to do and we could use their help. We explained that they would be our Christmas elves. We needed them to help us sort and organize all the gifts we had brought to distribute to the children. We gave each an elf hat and they became official elves.

The hotel where we stayed. (Photo from fall trip)

The girls were beyond thrilled! They had never been in a hotel, let alone stayed in one. The first night they didn't sleep much because they were busy taking long baths, dancing to loud music, jumping on the beds, watching TV and having the time of their lives!

It was wonderful to have some one-on-one with these beautiful girls. They made me miss our four daughters and grandchildren.

George brought bags of fresh tangerines and candy which we sorted for each child.

We were a great team (Boyd, Kathleen & George)

with three beautiful girls as helpers.

We had such a good time organizing all the gifts. That is one memory

that will be forever etched in my mind as I loved every second of our time together.

Strewn all over the beds were items unpacked from our bags that needed to be organized. I was obviously dead on my feet in this photo but the girls were having so much fun we couldn't yet retire. They are seen hugging teddy bears I had brought and got first pick and the colors they wanted.

The next day we took the girls shopping and bought them each a new outfit. Then we went to a restaurant for a good meal and said they could order anything they wanted.

The girls had never even been inside nor eaten in a restaurant

so you can imagine their excitement and I am sure they felt like princesses.

Of course, George was the center of attention for these teenage girls.

He was single, charming, and someone they respected and looked up to.

We were excited to get started and give out the gifts. The children at the Internat were asked to line up according to their age and instructed to pick one item from each stack. It doesn't get much better than watching children's excitement and listening to their laughter.

It became a little chaotic as the children lined up to pick out their own shopping bags and one item from each stack. I made bookmarks to remind them of our previous dental trip in October and it seemed like even the smallest items were treasures to the children.

Each child received a poncho and as well as other needed essentials.

The interior of the orphanage was freezing and it didn't feel like there was any heat. The outside temperatures were close to zero so I was glad I had brought warm boots and clothing because I was cold inside.

New pajamas for everyone.

The children loved their new pajamas and warm socks and

couldn't wait to put them on along with the new ponchos.

Gratitude is action!

During the celebration, St. Nick visited and there was a lot of traditional dancing by the girls.

Marina and Nastya sang and started the dancing.

Children loved dressing in traditional Ukraine outfits.

After much celebration at the Internat, it was time to go to the Sanitarian, our next stop.

In the meantime, the children were having fun playing kazoos we had given them.

NEXT STOP: The Sanitorium

Our bags were full of gifts for the next orphanage.

The Sanitorium was where children with medical issues were staying to be evaluated. They were staying there temporarily. Many years ago, the Sanitorium was a mental hospital.

George donned the St. Nick outfit and more celebrations began.

Boyd introduced us to the director and she introduced us to the children. The children at all three orphanages knew Boyd and welcomed him with giant hugs.

The family of violinists performed and I was asked to play some piano music.

A kiss for St. Nick?

Below: Photos from the interior of the Sanitorian.

The metal bunk beds were those Boyd had custom built with funds donated previously and was always looking for ways to improve the conditions in the orphanages.

This orphanage was crowded with many beds in the room.

A peak in the kitchen.

The cooks.

The cooks had prepared a very tasty meal for us and the children were served separately.

We were served a type of pancake along with fries, pickles,

breaded meat and stuffed eggs.

The children were served a tangerine and a variety of hard candy.

I was fascinated with the decor.

This teenage girl at the Sanitorium asked to have her photo taken separately from the other children. After returning from the trip, this photo was found among the many digital ones taken and we were astounded!

We asked ourselves, "What is that image in the background that is overlapping the girl's shoulder?" The upper left side also shows another image and is NOT a window. Skeptics would say, "That photo was altered or fake!" I personally believe the image could be of a girl who was treated many years back when the Sanitorium was used for psychiatric purposes and the image could be a ghost. It also seems like the girl is dressed in a straight jacket and it's interesting how it overlaps her shoulder. You be the judge but this is most unusual photo I have EVER seen in my life and I have it framed in my office.

The children at this orphanage had better living conditions because parents from the

US who had adopted orphans had donated funds.

They had better bathrooms and even two small sit-down toilets rather than squatting holes. Their bedroom was meticulously kept. The photos below were taken during our previous trip to this orphanage.

The director, below, took great pride in overseeing the care of these

adorable children, many whom were adoptable.

The children loved the beanie animals we brought for them.

One person donated her entire collection that had taken her years to gather.

We took small stuffed toys and candy for the younger children.

George was a great St. Nick!

By the end of the day we were exhausted but retired that night knowing we had brought a little joy into the lives of children. The days that followed were busy as we visited more of Boyd's friends and attended a Christmas concert in a big concert hall.

We sat in balcony seats and the girls were thrilled!

Many groups performed.

Several choirs performed as well as the family of violinists.

This famous violinist family was known all over Ukraine.

We enjoyed a beautiful evening and celebrations of Christmas.

One day we decided to surprise the children at the Internat and take them to McDonalds for lunch. Keep in mind, even though this fast-food place is famous, none of the children had even stepped foot inside because they had no money.

We found them snuggled in their fleece ponchos, new pajamas, new socks and slippers. When George said, "Get ready, we are taking you to McDonalds for lunch!" everyone squealed with delight.

"McDonalds, here we come!"

We loaded them into a van and soon were off because it was too cold to walk. We had made previous arrangements so workers were ready to give them free balloons upon their arrival.

I doubt this was a meal they will every forget.

Their smiles said a lot.

As the week came to a close, we had a wonderful surprise when we returned to our hotel with the girls. Marina's parents had taken a bus from where they lived in the country to visit for the day. It was already afternoon and since it was a 4 hour ride back, we surprised them and said we would pay for them to stay that night at the hotel. After we booked them a room, we went to dinner and when we found out it was their anniversary, we ordered their favorite dessert.

The next morning was Sunday so we went to church for a special Christmas program. It was especially wonderful as children dressed up to reenact the nativity. Marina said her mom was very religious and read her Bible daily so we asked if her parents would like to attend the Christmas program at our church and agreed to meet us there.

The church Christmas program was lovely.

As scriptures were read, the children acted out their parts.

What sweet faces of these children.

The Christmas program at the LDS church was very special.

It was the sweetest nativity program as the children acted out their parts.

The little lambs were adorable!