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Author: Emily

A video message from our Ukrainian staff

The war has been an incredible challenge. But with your support, our staff continued loving and serving orphaned youth in Zhytomyr.

In this video, you’ll hear directly from the three Ukrainians leading our team in Zhytomyr. As Andrey, Oksana, and Yulia share their hearts, please know how grateful we are for your prayers and your gifts this season. We wish we could sit down over a cup of tea with each of you!

With just ten days until the end of the year, will you make a gift to meet the needs of orphaned youth in 2023

A wartime love story

Tolik grew up in an orphanage. When we met, his wife had just divorced him and taken their baby. He needed hope. 
Olya’s mother abandoned her. When she became pregnant, her housing options all collapsed. Her abusive boyfriend kicked her out in the cold. When we met, social services was ready to send her baby to the orphanage.

At that critical moment, our staff intervened.

Tolik joined the Restoration Project crew, renovating orphans’ homes—including his own! Around the same time, Olya moved into Shelter Crisis Housing, a safe place to be a good mother.

Olya and Tolik both decided to follow Jesus. Soon after that, we found out they were dating.

At first, their relationship lacked maturity. But our staff began teaching them about their new faith and about healthy relationships. They were baptized on the same day. 

Just as Tolik was planning to propose, Russia invaded. In February, we helped Olya and her daughter Sasha evacuate. Tolik worked on humanitarian aid with the RP crew. 

Finally, in September, Olya felt safe to return. In October they were married! Now Tolik shares his renovated home with his wife and daughter.

Over the wedding weekend, two staff members were grieving their best friends’ son, who died on the front lines. Because of the war, most weddings are low-key right now. But it was still a deeply joyful occasion for our community, which loves Tolik and Olya.

This is a sweet romance, but it’s also a story about God’s love for those the world abandoned. It’s about God’s Kingdom expressed in the actions of His people—your gifts, and our staff’s care.

God sends the right people at the right time to “set the lonely in families.” We’re so thankful for your generosity! 

You can hold open the doors of hope for orphaned youth.

Dear friends, 

When I think about 2022, what would you guess is the first word that comes to mind? War, crisis, hatred, fear?  

Actually, the first word I think of is “faithfulness.”

When Russian invaders started to kill our people, when the streets emptied, when missiles shattered the peaceful silence, so many stayed to serve.

Our mission is to serve those who were once abandoned. Our staff was determined not to abandon them again. You prayed to God to spare our lives, to provide one more ounce of strength. And God helped us. We had everything we needed for life and ministry.

Most of our staff stayed in Zhytomyr. The day after the war began, we prayed, encouraged each other, and regrouped. Our next step was to send staff member Yuliana to Europe alongside some of our orphaned moms. Eventually, in the Netherlands, a group of believers served our moms through a “new Shelter.”

We never shut our doors to orphans, and even started to serve others: soldiers on the front lines, refugees in Ukraine, and neighbors facing a humanitarian crisis. This service showed God’s goodness to everyone who received help. 

New people stepped up in these months of war. As millions left the country, staff member Sasha crossed the border the other way. Now he works in our Day Center. Vova also joined the staff; every day for two weeks he drove refugees to the border of Ukraine. 

Like the Apostle Paul’s delight in his spiritual son Timothy, I’m delighted by the faithfulness of our staff. Working together, we direct all eyes to Jesus. 

We’re so thankful for your prayers and donations. Without your help, we would never have succeeded. Now, we ask you once again to join in our ministry with your contributions. Let’s continue faithfully serving our youth in 2023.

May God bless all of you,

Andrey Pankyeyev
Ministry Director

Repairing missile damage and finding hope: Vitya’s home

When Vitya was eight, his mother died. Later his father died. Vitya became a true orphan. Our staff taught life skills lessons at Vitya’s trade school last year, and invited him into our Educational Outreach program. He began visiting the Day Center and even brought his girlfriend.

After the death of his parents, Vitya remained the sole owner of a partial house that was previously used as a barn. It was in terrible shape.

Then the war began, and a bomb was dropped near Vitya’s home. Many people died, and one of Vitya’s neighbors went to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. The impact cracked Vitya’s ceiling and shattered his dishes. He found a bomb fragment in his yard. 

 But in the middle of the destructiveness of war, our Restoration Project crew is always ready to make something new. 

Vitya made a few repairs himself, but couldn’t do the rest on his own. So our crew decided to help.

What could have been a disaster soon turned into an opportunity.

Vitya worked hard alongside the guys. Now, he’s RP’s newest crew member. After renovating his own home, Vitya will make homes safe for other orphaned youth and families. 

The Restoration Project is starting its eighth year! Though the crew members rotate out every few years, we keep seeing new depth and maturity. Recently Sasha was teaching Vitya how to lay tiles.

So much is possible in a loving community. Our orphaned young men are learning skills and developing the confidence to pass them on. Thank you for supporting this work! 

Learning life skills in a bomb shelter

Every year, teens age out of orphanages all over the Zhytomyr region. Many of them come to trade schools in our city, the regional capital. You can read more about what school is like for orphans here.

For many years, we’ve met these new orphaned youth in their trade schools. Each autumn, our staff teaches life skills classes right in their dorms. Then we invite them to the Day Center, begin mentorship, and meet all kinds of needs.

This year, the war changed everything.

Martial law meant many students began the year online. When missiles hit Zhytomyr, even more went online. We couldn’t meet them because we couldn’t gather at their schools.

Our staff continued working with orphaned students they knew already. The Day Center provided hot lunches, crafts, games, and conversations about important topics. We took youth to doctors and dentists, distributed groceries and hygiene kits, and hosted home groups. And we brought tea, snacks, and conversation to a social dorm where 30 of our youth live. 

Finally, in late October, we held our first trade school gathering—in the bomb shelter of a school basement. “As soon as we entered the institution, the anxiety began,” wrote staff member Katya. “But that didn’t stop us, and we met three new orphan girls.” 

Thank you for helping us welcome these young women into our community, even as air raid sirens are sounding. Because of your support, they’ve taken the first step toward a hopeful future.  

Moms sharing life (and potatoes) at the Shelter

At camp this summer, Natasha was our youngest mom with the smallest baby. Little Yuliana was just a month old! 

Natasha began attending our Day Center in 2021, where staff member Katya befriended her. Then Natasha dropped out of contact for a while. When we found out Natasha was pregnant, Katya renewed their relationship. We welcomed her into our Stop the Cycle program, which serves orphaned youth who’ve become parents.

After the baby was born, Katya and Stop the Cycle director Oksana visited with diapers, groceries, and other supplies. Natasha lived in her boyfriend’s village house, which was in poor condition and far from the city—not a healthy home for a baby. Natasha’s legal guardians in the same village didn’t offer any help with her newborn. 

Soon after the first visit, it was time for family camp! “Thank God Natasha and Yuliana were with us at camp,” Oksana wrote, “where we all became friends, where we talked a lot about the responsibilities of parents.”

In part because of her positive camp experience, Natasha accepted our invitation to stay at the Shelter for a week. At sixteen, Natasha’s already a very good homemaker, and brought potatoes, carrots, and beets to share. (Her garden produced 70 pounds of potatoes!) She joined a friendly group of Shelter moms who work hard, help each other, and love attending church together. 

That week, Natasha made some long-overdue doctors’ visits. But we hoped she’d want to experience all the Shelter has to offer. She liked it so much, she soon asked to stay for the winter. 

Orphaned moms like Natasha often have no one to turn to. But because of your support, our Shelter doors remain open, even in these uncertain times. Thank you!

Photos: The joy of family camp

Camp season stretched all the way into late September this year! Family camp was postponed, mainly because war prevented us from going to the cool, breezy seaside. Local camps were too hot until the fall. But the new dates made it possible for two more orphan-parented families to attend, including single dad Igor and his daughter. With many facilities closed, we were thankful to find a good place owned by Christians. At the last moment God brought everything together.

This was an especially youthful camp. All the parents were 22 or younger! Ten moms, five dads, and 12 kids attended, plus our staff and one volunteer from our Educational Outreach program. It was wonderful to see so many dads.

Swimming and sauna time were restful, and families bonded over ping pong, billiards, and crafts. Every other day the staff provided a special treat, like popcorn and mocktails, or fresh cotton candy eaten outside with sticky fingers. 

At the heart of family camp is an invitation for families to build healthier relationships with each other and with God. In the morning, every parent listened closely during parenting lessons, and at night they learned about growing in the Christian life.

For the first time, our group included a single dad. Igor’s girlfriend died of complications from drug use. At first, he told us, he couldn’t imagine parenting by himself. For a while Igor’s daughter stayed with his sister, a Stop the Cycle mom with four children of her own. Then Igor brought her home. Now he finds joy in being a dad. Igor and two other dads spontaneously decided to sing with our worship team in the last service. 

Last Bell surrounds orphaned parents like Igor with love and support. The special days of camp always lead to new ways we can serve our families.

Camp donors, thank you again for making it all possible!

So many hugs! Our refugees begin returning home

After six months of exile, some of our refugees are back in Zhytomyr! 

Our city was targeted early in the war. After a long reprieve, missiles again hit the outskirts in June. Since then, it’s been quiet. We’re around three hundred miles from the front lines.

Many of our moms continue enjoying the hospitality of a Christian community in the Netherlands, where they feel safe. But a few families decided the benefits of being at home outweighed the risks.

Our friends in the Netherlands chartered a van, adding to the list of their many kindnesses. They sang our families on their way with Psalm 121.

If you know the Kaplun family, you won’t be surprised that fearless Alona and her two kids are home! Alona and Sasha have been part of Last Bell’s community since its founding. Sasha works for a local missionary, and both of these former orphans are role models and volunteers. The kids couldn’t stop hugging their dad.

Lida and her little boy also returned. Lida’s husband is on the front lines, and she’s worried. Please keep praying for the safety of our soldiers. 

One young mom returned to her fiancé, who’s also part of Last Bell’s community. Watch for their special story in our holiday letter!

All our orphan-parented families appreciate your prayers: those who remained in Zhytomyr, those in other countries, and those now returning to normal life in a country at war.

Making it to the top with orphaned youth: Educational Outreach camp

Camp donors: thank you again! Because of you, our students had a beautiful week in the mountains in August, and our family campers arrived home a few days ago. This break from the troubles of war was very welcome.

When we meet them, our students are working through teenage questions like Who am I? What’s my place in the world? And because they’re orphans, Will I fail because of my family history, or do I have a real future?

Camp can show our students how capable they really are. Staff member Katya shared these stories:

A young woman sits in a blue kayak-style raft in a blue helmet and orange life vest. She smiles slightly into the camera.

Rafting was a new experience for this group. Katya said “the fear was visible in their eyes” even before they started. But the staff paired them up and made sure they’d be safe. At the bottom, the students buzzed with stories about the thrills of their ride. Katya said it was “one of the most vivid memories of camp.”

Two young men sit on the ground with backpacks, their knees pulled up. One smiles at the camera. Other people with backpacks are behind them, and the woods behind the people.

Not all our students are strong or in good health, so our staff asked the organizers to find an easy hike. Partway up they realized their chosen trail was quite difficult. But every student reached the top! As they walked, our staff led a discussion encouraging our youth to persevere through challenges until they see the end results.

A young man in sunglasses, inside a low open park shelter, shows the camera a small brown clay pot.

Another day was all about the culture and history of Ukraine. The leaders shared about Ukrainian ancestors, famous people from Ukraine, and all the progress in Ukrainian society. “We prepared traditional food together,” wrote Katya, and tried on traditional clothes “which were passed down from generation to generation.”

At camp, orphaned youth experience hourly attention and love, and they often open their hearts to God.

This trip helped our youth see themselves as beloved children of God who are truly capable of leading successful lives. Our staff shared this message not just in words, but by literally walking up a mountain beside them!

YOU made these foundational experiences possible. We’re so grateful.

Rebuilding homes, rebuilding lives: Last Bell’s Restoration Project

In the past few weeks, we’ve shared the basics about two of our three main programs: Educational Outreach and Stop the Cycle.

During this time of destruction and loss, our third program seems like an especially hopeful endeavor. The Restoration Project is all about restoring and rebuilding. 

In this program, a crew of orphanage graduates apprentices in the home renovation trade, working under staff foreman Sergei. The homes they restore belong to fellow orphans. So the Restoration Project meets two of orphaned young adults’ biggest needs: vocational skills and safe housing.

Last week, you saw our crew working on Sveta’s house. Making safe homes for orphaned youth is the crew’s central purpose. But they play many other roles! They’re our in-house maintenance crew and moving company, our furniture-builders, our handymen for small repairs, and our heavy lifters for boxes of war relief supplies. Sometimes, they even make repairs to the government-owned social dorm where many of our students live.

In Ukraine, even more than in the U.S., homes are passed down through families. Apartments are usually owned, not rented. Orphans face many other social and financial barriers to housing, and the situation will worsen as the war impacts Ukraine’s economy. 

But our RP crew is in the business of helping people rebuild their broken lives. When you think of these young men, please pray, as Psalm 90:17 says, that God will “establish the work of their hands”!

Our refugee kids start school in the Netherlands

Six months ago, many of our moms evacuated Ukraine with their children. First, they traveled to Poland. A month later, they left Poland for the Netherlands, where they were welcomed by a generous Christian community in the town of Vriezenveen.

Now the kids are starting a new school year in this new country. 

Many of you will remember Nadia. A few years ago, Nadia and her daughter Eva were part of our crisis housing program, the Shelter. During Nadia’s stay, she worked hard and completed her Master’s of Education. Nadia and her daughter are now refugees in Vriezenveen.

Nadia has been chaperoning our youngest group of kids as they take the bus to school. They had the new experience of spending 45 minutes to get to a school 10 minutes away, since the bus picked up so many children! 

This younger group is in a single class, all learning Dutch together. “The children like school,” Nadia reported. “They return home tired and happy, with a lot of news, and new foreign words for their mothers.”

This week, the older kids started high school in another city. They have a long bike commute. The high schoolers are in regular classrooms, since they’ve learned basic Dutch already. 

“The children miss home, friends, and schools where there’s no language barrier,” Nadia said. We’re very thankful for everyone in the Dutch schools making this transition easier.

Thank you for your prayers for our refugee families, as they face new challenges every day!

Home repairs for a war widow

Several months ago, we wrote about Sveta, whose husband’s war-related death was the first in our community. He was killed on active duty. At the time, Sveta had just learned she was pregnant with their second child.

In the months since, our staff have visited Sveta several times. Oksana Pankyeyeva, director of our Stop the Cycle program, shared this photo in June. Oksana told Sveta there were a lot of people praying for her, and Sveta said she could very much feel our prayers.

Many orphaned youth struggle to find safe housing, and orphans who become parents are no exception. Sveta’s home was in need of some work, so our Restoration Project crew stepped in to help. In early August, the crew began taking off wallpaper, priming the walls, and puttying. 

Naturally, Sveta was devastated by the recent loss of her husband, the father of her children. Last Bell’s staff are Sveta’s support system, walking alongside her, ready to meet any needs that arise. Thank you for helping us surround Sveta with a loving community in her time of grief.