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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Holyoak

Touching Lives in Ukraine - Part I

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

When you touch lives, something happens to your heart. And. . . when your hearts meet again, you pick up from where you left off.

In the fall of 2005, my husband and I joined a group of dentists and their wives, hygienists and volunteers and traveled 20 hours to Donetsk, Ukraine to provide dental care for children living at the Internat Orphanage, a boarding school for children ages 7 - 18. This was a wonderful opportunity to reach out and help children who desperately needed dental care.

Boyd Brady (Director of Sunny Smiles Organization) and George Diloyan headed up the whole project. With their leadership, we were able to have a very successful and rewarding trip.

Boyd Brady, Director of Sunny Smiles Foundation

George Diloyan with volunteer, Lucille.

George Diloyan, local resident, coordinated everything for us in Donetsk and without his help, the trip would have been much more difficult. He met us at the airport, reserved rooms at the local hotel and made arrangements with the orphanage to set up the dental clinic. (Update: A few years later, George moved to the US where he currently resides with his family.)

We flew into Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and continued on to Donetsk. After much scrutiny and examination of our many bags, we boarded a smaller aircraft and landed at the airport located 20 miles from Donetsk. Corruption prevails everywhere and especially at the airports, starting with bribes to get baggage through. At security I was asked, "How much will you give me?" Therefore, it was no surprise to find that items were taken out of some bags. One volunteer's bag got lost and another bag of dental equipment never arrived in Donetsk. (I was disgruntled to find that my gigantic bag of Peanut M & M's was taken from inside my bag. I guess it was just too tempting for sticky fingers but was grateful they didn't take my underwear!)

We flew into Kiev on our way to Donetsk.

Photo: Driving from the airport to Donetsk.

Everyone was excited to get settled in the hotel and prepare to set up a dental clinic at the boarding school. Children who lived in rural areas without schools, were sent to stay there during the school year. Little did we realize that this trip would become one of several more to Ukraine.

Before I share what we experienced, let's look more closely of the history of Ukraine and the location of Donetsk.

Donetsk, the most densely populated industrial city in eastern Ukraine, is located on the Kalmius River in the disputed region of Donbass, the coal mining region.

After World War II, the western part of Ukraine merged into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and the whole country became a part of the Soviet Union. Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

In 2014, Ukraine was controlled by pro-Russian separatists.

Pro-Russian separatists or "Russian-backed rebels" was a group of Ukrainians and trained military who formed a militia. They concentrated in Donetsk and Luhansk, two republics of Ukraine. (See map at right)

This group no longer wanted to be part of Ukraine and wanted to form a new state or a "new Russia". Actually, this movement can be compared to the confederacy of the southern states in America's Civil War.

On May 26, they seized the Donetsk Airport. On June 13, 2014, they shot down a Ukrainian transport plane carrying nine crew members and 40 paratroopers. Helicopters and as many as 10 Ukrainian aircraft were shot down but the greatest tragedy occurred July, 2014, when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, a civilian passenger plane carrying 298 passengers that rebels thought was carrying Ukraine military.

Chemical explosions and bombs caused damage to structures across Donetsk, destroying practically everything from buildings, aircraft, roads and trees.

All buildings that could be used as strongholds for the Ukrainian soldiers were completely destroyed and by the end, the airport was reduced to rubble when the concrete collapsed.

In December, 2015, Russian Federation Pres. Vladimir Putin moved Russian military into the disputed area of Donbass and Donetsk. The defense of the airport lasted for 242 days: from May 26, 2014 to January 22,2015. The Russian military occupation changed the dynamics of the city.

Our dear Ukrainian friends scrambled to move to safer locations. Buildings and homes were closed, businesses were shut down and I doubt the city will ever be the same again.

2014: Before and after attack at the airport

After: The airport reduced to rubble.

Now that you know a little of the history, it's time to move forward and share the positive we experienced in a city that is no longer what we knew it to be. My husband and I never realized that this trip would change our lives and would be the first of several more back to Ukraine. Thankfully, the time we spent in Donetsk occurred before all the devastation and I'm thankful for the good memories of walking to the orphanage from our hotel. Below are a few photos taken along the way.

Each morning workers swept the streets and sidewalks and raked up leaves and debris.

Ukraine is currently the poorest country in Europe because it is not with Russia. Ukrainians are only slightly richer than Moldovans. The economy is riddled by inefficiency and corruption.

Each day was an interesting walk from the hotel to the orphanage.

The babies were beautiful and this nanny allowed me to take their photos.

I was hoping to find an outfit to buy but they were very expensive!

Ukrainian women are very fashion conscious and walked everywhere in stiletto heels. Their success in life was judged by the clothes on their back so I certainly felt out of place in my jeans and sandals. It was obvious I wasn't from Ukraine.

Cobblestone streets and sidewalks are hard enough to walk on let alone in stiletto boots!

Because Donetsk was the center of the iron works and the steel industry, many iron works could be seen in various parks.

Shall we dance?

We were lucky to run across a couple having wedding photos taken.

Ukraine threw off its mantle of communism in the 1990's and religious worship and festivals no longer had to be under wrap. The predominant religion practiced by about half the population is Eastern Orthodoxy (Catholic).

The churches were beautiful with their golden domes which symbolize "heavenly glory". They are used to crown cathedrals or the main churches at monasteries and convents. These cathedrals are often dedicated to Christ or the Twelve Great Feasts, the 12 holidays celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church.

If only this old lock could talk!

Donetsk is situated on the Kalmius River and used for river transportation. Coke by-products are the basis of a chemical industry producing plastics. There were several heavy engineering works, and light and food industries. Manufacturing included clothing, cotton cloth, footwear, furniture, and refrigerators.

Kalmius River

This was the Internat Ophanage and boarding school where we set up the dental clinic on Sunday so we could get started early Monday morning. There are many orphanages in Ukraine and parents who are no longer to care for their children drop them off at various orphanages.

Photo: Setting up supplies in the clinic.

We took portable units along with many bags crammed full of dental supplies.

Because none of the dentists could speak Russian, some key words were posted on the wall to help them better communicate with their patients. Most of the dental work consisted of filling cavities, cleaning teeth and pulling a few teeth that couldn't be saved or fixed.

  • Both Russian and Ukrainian are languages spoken in Ukraine.

  • Ukraine is the biggest country in Europe and stretches from Russia in the east to Poland in the west, with the Black Sea running along its southern border.

  • Ukraine is nearly three times the size of the UK and beats the second biggest country, France, by over 19,000 square miles.

  • The state is divided into 24 regions (oblasts).

Children waited patiently for dental evaluation and charting.

We brought bubbles, small toys, hard candy and other items to entertain the children while waiting and to reward them with after dental work was completed.

Curious children crowded outside the building whenever there was a break.

Dr. Garth answered questions and an LDS missionary interpreted.

The children were excellent patients.

The children became our little shadows and I would have given

anything to bring some of them back home with me.

In addition to assisting my husband, I was asked to document the trip as a photographer. That made my experience even more enjoyable because it gave me the opportunity to meet children from two other orphanages and help distribute amenity kits we took over.

Amenity kits consisting of towels, wash cloths, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and lotion were donated by commercial airlines from the US to distribute to children. To say the least, the children were thrilled! Items we take for granted became cherished possessions to these children. It helped me realize we needed to plan another trip and take clothes and items they desperately needed. This was when the seed to return was planted in my heart.

Cousins Norma and Russ (at right) worked on a patient from the orphanage.

It was a joy to see the children as they waited and lined up to come to the clinic and were anxious to meet the American dentists and their helpers.

We took candy, small toys, gifts and crocheted hats to distribute to the children. Winters are very cold and the children were thrilled to receive anything we had to give them.

Even though they couldn't speak English, their smiles spoke a million words.

Marina playing Jacks with friends.

Children were taught proper dental hygiene. Marina, the 14 year old blond girl in the background, along with her older sister and younger brother also boarded at the school. Her light from within made her stand out and immediately we took a liking to her. Even though she couldn't speak English, we were drawn to each other and always looked around to find her each day. I never realized at that time the impact she would have on our lives in the future.

Helping these children was so life-changing, and our hearts ached to return so a plan was put in place for Body Brady and me to go back during the holidays and to take Christmas gifts the Internat and two other orphanages.

Because I knew in advance that I would be introduced to a family of famous violinists, I brought the music I had arranged for a trio of violinists. We had the opportunity to perform together at a church meeting on Sunday. They were so talented and they were known all over Ukraine for their talents.

Family of violinists I performed with.

Little did I realize that 5 years later I would be asked to write orchestrations that would be performed in concert at the Ukraine Palace in August, 2010 in Kiev.

The Palace Ukraine seats 4,000 people.

Our trip came to a close when the staff and children gathered for one last goodbye and a big sendoff.

Chef at the orphanage

The children entertained us with dancing.

The children were especially excited because everyone was served juice and a sweet roll, a special treat they never usually get.

Photo of entire group taken just before we left.

Right after this group photo, we had a few minutes before boarding our bus and some of the children wanted to show us their rooms and the inside of the orphanage. We were not allowed to go into the orphanage but we quickly took advantage of this opportunity before we had to leave.

The children stole our hearts and it was hard to say goodbye as we had grown attached to them.

The expression on this little girl's face says a lot. Each child had a small bed and a very small space in a locker. When this little girl showed us her belongings, they consisted of a small plastic shopping bag with only a few items. That tugged at my heart! What could we do in the future to help them? What did they need most? We became very attached to some of the children and it was difficult to say goodbye.

Living conditions were tough with squatting toilets, a small tube used to shower with and no heat during the winter months. Nothing was private and my heart dropped to see the lack of privacy they had.

The squatting toilets were deplorable and buckets were used to flush.

Tubs for bathing.

A very narrow plastic tube was used for a shower.

Before we knew it, it was time to say our final goodbye. This photo was taken sitting inside the bus looking out. Tears were shed from both sides of the glass and as we drove away the lump in my throat was so big I couldn't speak. I knew then that this would not be the last time we would see these children. When Boyd said he was making a trip to take Christmas gifts, I was thrilled and offered to go along because I had already planned on returning.

In addition to the dental needs of the orphanage, we donated funds which were left to help improve the living conditions in the Internat. We had plans to have a regular flushing toilet installed as well as other things to improve their living situation. I need to mention that on previous humanitarian trips, Boyd Brady raised funds to have new bunk beds and lockers made for the children. We may not be able to change the world, but it is important that we do something.

In closing, I want to conclude this entry with an adorable song my 9 year old granddaughter wrote this past year. I loved the message so much that I wrote an arrangement and it was published on For such a young girl, her words are powerful. Here are her words:

I matter because I’m me.

You matter because you’re you

I like books

You like bikes

I like to swim

You like to hike.

Like a box of crayons,

We come in different colors

But when we blend together

Everybody matters!

I matter because I’m me

You matter because you’re you.

I like red

You like blue

I like green

And so do you.

Like a box of crayons,

We come in different colors

But when we blend together

Everybody matters

But when we blend together

Everybody matters!!

This photo was taken at one of the three orphanages I visited on our trip.

If you would like to listen to Holland singing with her dad accompanying on the guitar, go to and search for the title, I Matter Because I'm Me then click Listen.

Helen Keller said:

"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."

To be continued. . . . .

Part II will focus on my return trip to Ukraine to celebrate Christmas

with the children and to take gifts to three orphanages.

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