Overnight, the military base near Zhytomyr fell under attack again. A siren sounded this morning, so our Shelter families huddled together in the storage room on the bottom floor.
Everyone is overwhelmed and exhausted, and this situation could continue for many days.
We appreciate your prayers for our youth, families, and staff during this time. The Psalmist declares that God is faithful to His people, and we invite you to pray these powerful words of protection and justice over our community:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “You are my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely He will deliver you
from the snare of the fowler,
and from the deadly plague.
He will cover you with His feathers;
under His wings you will find refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the calamity that destroys at noon.
Though a thousand may fall at your side,
and ten thousand at your right hand,
no harm will come near you.
We will continue to update you if the situation changes. Thank you, friends, for being with us during this time.
Even as our worst fears have unfolded, we are trusting God, who works all things together for those who love Him.
On the ground in Ukraine, the situation is changing hour to hour. Any news we send will be quickly outdated; but we want to share as much as we can so you’ll know how to pray.
Our staff are safe right now. They’re overwhelmed and fatigued, but staying strong. They’re coming together for prayer and for comfort, and they’re committed to the well-being of orphaned students and families as well as their own children.
Zhytomyr is not seeing active fighting at the moment, but it is not safe. Many members of staff are staying at the Shelter or Day Center, as well as orphaned youth or families who feel unsafe in their homes. People are avoiding high-rise buildings that might become targets. Staff and local friends have heard shelling.
Zhytomyr is less than a hundred miles from Kyiv, and may be an important way-station for the Russian military as they try to take over the capital. Russian occupation of Kyiv may only be a couple of days away. Those who want to cross the border into Poland face long hungry waits, and any extra housing in the western part of Ukraine is full of refugees from active war zones.
Please keep praying for Ukraine and for our people as they listen to God’s leading:
For Putin’s plans to be thwarted, and for Ukraine to remain an independent nation;
For the leaders of our country, and for world leaders as they respond to the crisis;
For Last Bell leadership as they make plans and decisions;
For the shedding of blood to be minimal;
For wisdom for our staff as they determine how best to care for our youth, many of whom are absolutely dependent on our support;
For protection for orphaned youth and other vulnerable people in our city and in our country;
For God’s supernatural “peace that passes all understanding.”
Today the paper local to Last Bell’s Indianapolis location, IndyStar, published a great article about the situation, including a brief conversation with our Executive Director Megan Hershey:
And Stop the Cycle director Oksana sent this message to share with all of you:
“It’s the end of February 25, and we’re getting ready for bed… In many cities of Ukraine (even in western Ukraine) sirens sounded, people were in bomb shelters, shots were heard, in some there were fierce battles. And in Zhytomyr all day today there was silence, there wasn’t a single siren (only a few automatic bursts during the detention of saboteurs). It seems that thousands of angels surrounded Zhytomyr today. All this thanks to the prayers of many of our friends! Thank you, dear friends. Please continue to pray for our restful sleep and the following days. God is with us!”
We’ll continue to update you as we have further news. Thank you for “praying without ceasing” on behalf of our youth.
The time we’ve most feared has arrived. As many of you know, the Russian invasion began overnight with explosions all around Ukraine, including what we believe to be a military base in Zhytomyr.
For the last month we have been preparing as much as we can, stocking up on hygiene supplies and dry and canned goods for our youth and families who might need them.
So far our staff and youth in Zhytomyr are safe, and yet overwhelmed at the news they woke up to this morning. As a day turns to night in Ukraine, please pray for peace in their hearts, for their safety, for wisdom to know how to proceed. Please pray for our orphaned students, and for the moms and their children in the Shelter. Please pray for our staff. Lord, have mercy and give them strength.
Our Ukrainian staff and youth are at this moment gathering to pray, as we are here in the United States as well. Please join us in asking for God’s intervention throughout this day and the days to come.
Thank you for all your messages of concern and for your prayers. We will update you as soon as we know more.
The Ukrainian idiom “no circle, no yard” means “no house, no home.” You’ll see it below, and it represents so well the situation of many of our youth. Nadia Shanyuk was a social orphan with limited help from family, but a lot of determination. She sent us this unprompted testimony, titling it “Success Story.” Thanks for helping us walk alongside social orphans like Nadia!
Edited for brevity and clarity.
Special testimony from Nadia Shanyuk
My story is not that I’ve reached some pinnacle. It’s that I found the strength to change my life.
Ten years ago I came to Zhytomyr and entered the university. I was not the best student. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t enter the fifth year (a requirement for that career path). I confused the day of the entrance exam. Yes, it happens…
Later I find out I’m pregnant. I was shocked. With my bilateral hip dislocation, knee osteoarthritis, and several other diagnoses, I heard repeatedly that I couldn’t get pregnant, and if I did, the chances of having a child were very small. “Either your health or your child,” said the doctor, “So go get an abortion at once. You don’t have a job, a family, a husband, and you’re even disabled – how will you give birth?”
I wasn’t yet a believer, but I promised myself and God that after my child’s birth I’d thank Him every day for the happiness of being a mother.
I won’t go into the details of the difficult pregnancy, but after hearing the words ‘healthy girl,’ everything that came before was forgotten.
A year passed. We lived with my aunt and uncle (I called them parents). A year later, I decided to enter a master’s program. We moved to Zhytomyr. Eva was one year old, and I didn’t work or have my own house.
This was the pivotal moment. In Zhytomyr, Eva and I were admitted to the Shelter, run by Last Bell. At the Shelter, I learned about raising a child and about God.
I found my church, I found support. I studied, and for Eva there were godparents, friends, and everyone to whom I could entrust my child.
I repented and accepted Jesus. Later I was baptized, and I was called to the Sunday School leaders’ team. Then Young Moms started in Zhytomyr, and I’m on the team. Even though I wrote all this, I don’t believe it!
My success comes from my faith in God. Only with Him could I become a beautiful daughter, a caring mother, a volunteer, and a kindergarten teacher. And my success is my child, in whom I have invested all of myself for almost six years.
This story is about an orphan girl, a person with a disability, a single mother (though I don’t like these labels), who had, as they say, no circle and no yard, who was still able to raise a child, study, work, volunteer, and serve in church. I write not to put myself forward, but to say that nothing is impossible for God.
Nadia’s dream is to establish a center for children with special educational needs. She finished her testimony with Psalm 36:4: “Rejoice in the Lord, and He will fulfill the desires of your heart.”
Many of you have asked about the situation with Russia. We know you’re already praying and we’re so grateful for your support. This message from Director Andrey includes an update about how the situation affects our ministry and our youth, as well as our response and a special invitation to pray.
These are uncertain times. But we are certain of God’s faithfulness, and certain of the ministry He has called us to. Our Shelter and Day Center remain open; our Restoration Project crew keeps renovating; and our staff continues meeting with orphaned youth one-to-one and addressing their physical needs.
We do ask for your prayers for peace at our borders, and for our youth—for their safety, for their day-to-day struggles, and for open hearts to God’s love.
What do orphaned youth need most? Adults who love them, spend time with them, and show up in crises. Good advice about how to have relationships, live in society, and make plans for the future. And they need to hear that God loves them. They’re more likely to accept this message from people who meet their needs, demonstrating human love day in and day out!
Two of orphanage graduates’ most pressing needs are for safe housing and secure work. The Restoration Project meets this challenge in a unique way, through building renovation: a crew of orphaned youth apprentice in the building trade while renovating the homes of fellow orphans. Crew members gain job skills, and orphaned youth gain safe homes.
But the Restoration Project doesn’t limit help to individual houses. Our crew goes wherever orphanage graduates need them.
The crew has a special connection to our Shelter Crisis Housing facility, where they eat breakfast with husband-wife team Sergei (RP foreman) and Anya (Shelter house manager). They also study the Bible together at the Shelter before starting the work day.
The orphaned youth in residence at the Shelter, mostly young moms and their families, often benefit from the crew’s work. Not long ago, they made this little table for the Shelter nursery:
And just last week, they installed a new hood over the Shelter’s oven:
Director Andrey and our staff have developed relationships with many social organizations in our city. Some orphaned youth live in “social dorms” – government housing for those in need, usually with a time limit. The dorms often aren’t in the greatest condition. Earlier this week, the RP crew repaired some dorm walls and built an awning over an outside door.
Many orphaned residents of this social dorm come to our Day Center for help and friendship. This awning was an easy way to say “You are loved and your life matters” – a reminder they will see every day!
Even as we watch the Russian border, our staff continue to invest in the lives of orphaned youth – who continue doing the hard work of learning and healing.
Shelter resident Yana M. lived in three abusive and neglectful homes before she found our ministry.
Yana was born in the far southwest of Ukraine; later her family moved to a village outside of Zhytomyr. After her brother was born, her parents began drinking heavily and fighting.
Yana desperately wanted to leave home, where she didn’t feel supported or loved. She dreamed of having a happy family. At age fifteen, she married a man eleven years older. After she became pregnant, her husband began drinking, neglecting his family and home. Even after their second child was born, he didn’t look for a job, living on the money they received for their children. Yana endured for three years, but finally filed for divorce.
Soon she tried again with someone new. For the first two years, she and her children were treated well. She had another baby. Then the pattern repeated. For a time she endured the drinking, humiliation, and physical abuse. But her abusive partner was reported to social services, so she was at risk of losing her children.
After a brief stay at a center for moms in Zhytomyr, she had nowhere to go. So the center’s director contacted our Oksana Pankyeyeva. In June of last year, Yana moved into the Shelter.
“I am infinitely grateful to God and the people who have completely changed our lives – leaders and sponsors from America,” Yana said. “Thanks for this opportunity for the children to be with me. That is the most important thing. We live in a house with all the amenities. The children and I have never experienced this…. It’s just incredible. During this period of residence, I can save money for the future and plan a future for myself and my children. Thanks again to Last Bell for everything you do for us.”
Yana’s kids have been through a lot. But thanks to your support, N. (11), A. (10), and Z. (6) will have the safe home they need. Yana is breaking her family’s cycle in our loving community. We appreciate your prayers as they all learn how to be a healthy family!
At our Stop the Cycle Christmas party, Last Bell’s “next generation” – the children of orphaned parents – received so many beautiful gifts:
Time with aunts and uncles…
A quiet place where Mom can take a sleeping baby, or a grandma who helps when Mom is busy…
Learning about Jesus and praying together…
A place to move and play with friends…
And be part of the show…
Presents from people who care about you (thanks to Samaritan’s Purse for the shoeboxes!)…
Hugs and laughter for everybody, including Mom and single friends…
And always a place where you belong…
We were thrilled to see 50 families with 100 children at our gathering. But the support doesn’t end with the holidays. All year these young moms receive practical help like groceries, diapers, medical advocacy, and more, plus parenting classes and mentorship to help them become good parents.
Every day they’re stopping the cycle of abuse and abandonment in their families, and making a better life for their children – a hard job! Thank you for praying and supporting them.
In 2021, your support blessed more than 600 orphanage graduates.
You helped us serve young moms through a Young Lives group, and maintain a full Shelter program, launching several moms into independence where they live out the Christian parenting values that were nurtured in them.
You provided supplies for our Restoration Project, and gave our crew a livable wage and marketable skills for the future.
You held open the doors of our Day Center, which filled up with trade school youth desperate not just for help with urgent needs but to belong in a joyful community.
And all that investment does make an impact! When we evaluated 36 of our incoming students in 2018, 29 were unable to support themselves and at risk of abject poverty. Only seven had reached economic “sustainable wellness.” Just three years later, 24 are economically stable. Those numbers represent real young men and women who can be hopeful about the future, thanks to your support.
What about the other students who are still struggling? Our vision is to see the END of the generational orphan cycle in our city! So, in the next three years, we plan to begin addressing the complex gaps our youth experience in vocation and housing, increase the number of students graduating from Educational Outreach, and provide safe housing for every Shelter graduate.
Your compassionate partnership makes all of this possible!
At Last Bell’s beginning, there was no guarantee of success, just high hopes and assurance from God. But after fifteen years, I see many orphanage graduates in Zhytomyr responding to God’s love and changing the path of their lives.
It was through years of friendship that Natasha Kalchuk’s heart was changed. “While living the life of an abandoned orphan,” she shared, “I got pregnant and had a daughter, Arina. In the fall of 2016 Last Bell offered a place at the Shelter, since my home was in a state of emergency…”
Her only income was child support from the government – $30/month.
“I started hearing about God, about how He cares for us… I didn’t want to get into that,” Natasha said. But slowly her eyes were opened. “I thought, this is not just an accident! I realized that the Lord had plans for me, and I didn’t have the right to ruin them.” In 2017, Natasha became a Christian and was baptized.
Arina (left) with a Christmas backpack last year
Soon, her old life called her back. She returned to her family’s house and drinking with old friends. But she felt empty, and worried she would die there. Praise God, she returned to the Shelter!
Then she really began to grow. Now she teaches preschool at church and assists with an orphanage soccer ministry. She repaired many family relationships. “I talk to [my brother] about devoting his life to Christ, since He has changed the path of my life so dramatically… I am so thankful for everyone who was patient with me!”
This wouldn’t be possible without our faithfulness and your faithfulness. This long-term ministry requires long-term relationships. For sure this fruit wouldn’t become real without you, dear friends, your prayers and financial support. Will you make a gift to help orphanage graduates before the end of the year?
Let’s press on in the good work of God! More good fruit is ahead of us, even more than we dream about!
I hear so many stories about the impact of your gifts on former orphans in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. You can hear the joy in Director Andrey’s voice as he talks about the fruit of fifteen years of ministry:
Just this year we’ve shared about students who received beds and pillows, tuition for dental assistant school, and help with eye surgery; about young men learning to be dads at Stop the Cycle camp, and young moms welcomed into the safety of Shelter Crisis Housing. You might even remember hearing about a young man who was so happy with his new job and home that he threw a “thank you” party for his Last Bell friends.
I know your generous hearts have been touched by stories of hope in Zhytomyr’s orphan community. Will you make a gift to help orphaned youth before the end of the year?
I’ll add my voice to Andrey’s: Together, let’s help these young people thrive.
Last Bell was founded after a couple of board members formed close relationships with a group of teenage girls at Orphanage #4 in Zhytomyr (now closed). Ira Didukh was one of those girls, so we’ve known her for a long time! Now Ira is married and has a daughter. But she still needs extended family support.
Recently, there was a fire in the apartment building where Ira’s family lives. Thankfully, it was several floors below her apartment. But after the fire, the firefighters informed Ira that her balcony was unsafe. If it collapsed and hurt people, her family would be responsible. At the time, Ira’s husband (also an orphan) was left without a regular job, only earning enough to pay utilities and buy groceries. So Ira turned to director Andrey.
Our Restoration Project crew was ready to help! Thanks to your generosity, we we were able to pay for supplies as well as the hours of our crew’s labor. Besides being safer, the new balcony will be better for storage, which is how most Ukrainians use balcony space.
As the crew worked, foreman Sergei noticed that Ira was doing some other repairs in the apartment. She had watched videos online about how to remove tiles, clean ceilings, and paste wallpaper correctly, and she had taken the first steps. But due to her family’s finances – and the lack of an extended family to help – these projects would have taken years.
Our staff was so pleased to see Ira working to improve her own situation, and decided to help her out. When we called Ira to give her the news, she was moved to tears! She said it would have taken her a long time to do this work on her own. Later she wrote a note to the staff saying she couldn’t believe they were helping her, since she’d graduated so long ago, and to say thank you.
We’re able to make long-term commitments to orphanage graduates thanks to YOUR support and your prayers. It takes all of us to make a loving community for our youth. Thanks for being a part of it!