On our 15th anniversary (wow!), we’re looking back at 15 years of guidance from God, help from compassionate friends, and the growth of a beautiful community of orphanage graduates! This photo from 2006 includes youth, early staff members, friends from other ministries, and one founding board member. Even before the Shelter opened, Last Bell relationships were beginning. See any familiar faces?
2007 was a big year for Last Bell! We officially opened the doors of the Shelter, which for fourteen years has welcomed orphaned youth in many wonderful ways. We also hired Andrey (now Director Andrey) Pankyeyev and Oksana Pankyeyeva. And it was our first year of camp!
Last Bell was named after “last bell” ceremonies like this one at the end of the Ukrainian schoolyear. For orphans, the final last bell ceremony means aging out into a scary and unpredictable world with no support system. By 2008, Last Bell was consistently serving the graduates of the city orphanage and making sure youth knew they would not be alone after graduation.
In 2009, we took youth on this first “family vacation” (youth camp). We also added staff and a second small drop-in location to accommodate the many young people aging out of the city orphanage. Activities at both locations included Bible Study, English tutoring, independent living skills lessons, and shared meals. On the US side, we received the long-awaited 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, retroactive to 2006.
By 2010, a handful of our youth were moms. Without family support, these young moms needed a lot of practical help and parenting advice. We casually called this ministry “moms and babies,” which later became Stop the Cycle. A recent Stop the Cycle meeting was attended by 58 moms, 92 kids, and several dads!
2011 was a year of building relationships with youth and our community, and planning for the future. Our staff taught life skills lessons right in the city orphanage. And we began planning renovation on the Shelter building for residential care. So many of our youth needed housing!
2012 was another big year! In January, we opened the doors of our first Support Center, home to staff offices, legal help, and counseling. Then, the city orphanage (known as Orphanage #4) closed, and kids were moved to regional orphanages. Our intrepid staff, determined to keep meeting and mentoring new youth, began the work that would later become Educational Outreach. And the Shelter got a makeover!
In 2013, renovation was finally finished, and the Shelter became a residential facility. For the first three years, it was occupied by house parents and many recent orphanage graduates; later it would become crisis housing, primarily for Stop the Cycle moms. We’re so thankful for this warm, welcoming home – provided by the generosity of God’s people – where so many orphaned youth and moms have found a place to belong.
In 2014, a few of our youth studied for and received hairdressing/nail art certificates; we strengthened our relationship with a local moms’ organization, I Am Mom, which hosts our Stop the Cycle meetings; and our staff continued to mentor many orphanage graduates. So much was overshadowed, though, by the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the fighting at the Russian border. At least one of our young men was called to active duty, and many of our youth and staff knew they could be called up anytime. We appreciate your prayers about the ongoing conflict.
It’s hard to believe it was only six years ago, in 2015, that we officially introduced Educational Outreach! It’s become our primary way to connect with new orphanage graduates. Our staff offer life skills lessons at trade schools, then invite orphaned youth to the Day Center and youth activities, where they’re drawn into our caring community.
2016 was another big year at Last Bell! Our newest program, the Restoration Project, really took off, with our first crew of orphaned young men learning the building trade while they repaired the homes of their fellow orphans. Our youth “graduated” from the Shelter, which transitioned into crisis housing. Right away, staff member Yulia S. met a mom who was a perfect candidate for the Shelter. She needed immediate, substantial help to keep her family together, and the Shelter provided it.
By 2017, our facilities were bursting at the seams! We met over 150 new orphaned youth in 2017 alone. So we moved our support services into a new facility, the Day Center, with lots of room for offices and for bigger gatherings. As soon as our youth became comfortable with the new location, the rooms filled up.
In 2018, Last Bell hired Anya H. part-time. Anya was our second former orphan on staff, following the first, Yulia S., who came on board in 2017. That means over 10% of our staff is drawn from the community we serve, which is so important! We need the skills these women bring – Anya is a doctor, Yulia a nurse – and we value their voices and their vision for the future of orphaned youth in our city.
In 2019, after thirteen years of serving orphaned youth in Zhytomyr, we published our first Impact Report. We love showing off our staff’s hard work, and the lifelong work of our youth as they take hold of opportunities, change their own lives, and create new paths for their families. Our second Impact Report came out in 2021. It featured our new data-gathering on the impact of our programs. The data matched the stories: our model of long-term mentorship and practical help really works.
Nobody had planned for 2020! Like nonprofits everywhere, we quickly learned how to get creative about meeting needs. In January we rolled out our new Stop the Cycle mobile unit, which was perfect timing: even in the midst of a pandemic, we were able to meet the needs of orphan moms who live in the villages outside Zhytomyr.
That brings us to 2021 – and the future! We look forward to continuing to serve orphanage graduates in Zhytomyr for the next fifteen years and beyond. Thanks for walking alongside us with your support and prayers!