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A day in the life of our Ukrainian director

We know many of you are interested in the day-to-day life of our staff and community in a war zone. Recently, our Ministry Director, Andrey Pankyeyev, shared what the “new normal” looks like for him. 

“Every morning I wake up and start reading the news,” Andrey wrote. “Then I catch myself. First I need to read the Bible. I go to some stories in Exodus or Kings, and find places in the Psalms where David is lamenting to God. I find those stories are so similar to our situation now.”

After checking messages from staff members, church leadership, and mobile prayer groups, he touches base with relatives, neighbors, friends, and other ministries that may need help. He also tracks Last Bell’s vehicles: whether they’ll need repairs, or make deliveries that day, or need to be reserved for an upcoming trip. 

Andrey and Oksana Zooming with some of our refugees in the Netherlands

Next he heads to the store, or sends another team member, to stock up on groceries and hygiene supplies for deliveries. Then he checks the Shelter, Day Center, and our various storage areas to see if they need any repairs or problems solved. He might take care of those himself, or send a staff member or volunteer. 

It’s not uncommon for Ukrainians with day jobs in ministry to be church leaders. Andrey is the pastor of his small church, so his week includes sermon prep, leading a home group, and meeting with church leaders and ministry partners. The church recently had to give up renting its facility, so at the time of writing, Andrey was moving church belongings into storage.

Throughout the day, Andrey updates our Executive Director, Megan. “And a million other interesting things happen,” he wrote, listing birthday celebrations, meetings with Last Bell’s staff and directors, visiting relatives, transporting neighbors, and “driving, driving, driving.” He makes sure to rest at the end of the day before it all starts over again. 

Andrey and our staff need your prayers during these busy days immersed in the reality of war. Thank you for lifting them up to our merciful God!

Last Bell’s youth in the military

Though the active fighting is east of us, Zhytomyr’s military checkpoints, cement barriers, defensive preparations, and damaged buildings are a constant reminder of war. The horrors in the news feel immediate and close. Mariupol, under a terrible barrage of attacks that left 5,000 dead and 90% of the buildings damaged, is a two-day drive (the distance from Indianapolis to the East Coast). Bucha is only two hours away. 

Most of our young men are old enough for the draft, and some have volunteered. Recently we had opportunities to help two of these soldiers.

V.’s father lost his parental rights and his mother died; he grew up in orphanages. First he worked in the construction industry, then served in the army as a signalman. When the war began, he was called up, and serves at a checkpoint in Zhytomyr. He heard about Last Bell a few years ago, but just recently asked for help. One need was for an extra uniform; he had nothing to change into.

One of our staff members brought him a kettle, a food package, hygiene supplies, and a uniform and unloading vest. Sasha also spent time talking with him and encouraging him. We’ll stay in touch with V. to make sure his needs are met as he defends our city.

Staff member Oksana happened to see an Instagram photo of our guy R. in uniform. So she contacted him. He was stationed for a while, then sent to fight in a hot spot. A few days later she and Andrey met R. and his friends to deliver some supplies, including unloading vests. “These are vests with pockets for body armor,” Oksana explained. “During the war, we’re learning many new terms…”

They also brought tourniquets, medications, and some sweets. Thanks to the “coincidence” on Instagram, Oksana said, “God took care of R. and his friends just in time.”

So many vulnerable young men are on the front lines. Please pray for their protection, and for an end to the war that puts them in harm’s way. 

Update on our Netherlands group

Our group in the Netherlands has faced some challenges with their permission to stay where they are. They’re working on the necessary documents, and they’re hopeful about the outcome.

Meanwhile, recent days included some normalcy and steps toward healing. 

Sasha O.’s thirteenth birthday was April 10th. For two days, Yuliana said, everyone was busy with preparations, “so the children could feel some joy and have a childhood during this difficult time.” Sasha’s mom Natasha and Angela K. baked birthday cakes. Others made pizzas. Old and new friends celebrated together.

This Wednesday, the adults took part in a webinar conducted by a Ukrainian organization. The purpose of the webinar was to help parents communicate with their kids during wartime, understanding their behavior and helping them regulate their emotions. 

Prior to the trip out of Poland, one of Last Bell’s founders, Liz Zubko, met with the group and brought gifts and supplies, including a children’s curriculum for processing war trauma. Alona P. began using those materials with the kids while the adults were busy. 

Staff members Lena and Katya, their mothers, and staff member Sasha T.’s family are in the Netherlands as well. The two orphaned young women who came into Poland with Lena ultimately decided to go back to Ukraine. Please pray for all our orphaned youth; it’s hard to face life in a new country, and hard to live in a country at war. Our staff connects with all of them, counseling and encouraging.

Please pray, too, for our Netherlands group. Pray for our mighty God to soften the heart of the mayor forcing this new move. And pray for our moms, for the strength to pack up and move again, for peace from the Holy Spirit, for wisdom as they comfort their children.

While Easter in Eastern Europe is April 24th, we know our friends in the U.S. are celebrating Easter this weekend. We serve a risen Savior who has already triumphed over death and the powers of this world, and we put our trust in Him during each new development. 

Thank you for praying and for trusting God along with us! 

Grieving and working in community; how you can pray right now

During this crisis, all our friends are coming together. We’re giving and receiving help, sharing joys and losses, exchanging news, and praying. 

Recently we offered help to Zhytomyr’s Social Services. They sent us information on eight families with children, all in difficult life circumstances. We were able to bring food and other supplies to all the families. 

We’ve continued reaching out to our own community as well. In the second half of March, we delivered food, hygiene kits, clothes, diapers, and baby food to thirteen more orphan-parented families. Vehicles, drivers, and fuel are vital resources right now! Many thanks to our donors who make these deliveries possible.

Some of the baby food we distributed was brought to us by Christian friends evacuating from a town near Kyiv. They ran a rehabilitation center for elderly homeless people and those with addictions, which was totally destroyed by Russian forces. One grandmother was killed, while others survived by hiding in neighbors’ basements. 

Our own city may be relatively safe, but we feel the devastation of our neighbors. Staff member Oksana shared two urgent prayer requests: first for the city of Mariupol, under siege by Russian troops and vastly outnumbered. She also shared this request:

“Please pray that in areas where there are no hostilities (including ours), sowing and agricultural work will begin. [For farmers to] have fuel for agricultural machinery, since the Russians bombed many oil depots… The harvest in Ukraine determines not only whether there will be famine here, but also in many other countries… (11% of world grain exports and 50% of sunflower oil are accounted for by Ukraine).”

As you pray for Ukraine’s present difficulties, please pray also for relief from the long-term consequences of war. Thank you for being part of our caring and praying community!

An uneasy quiet in Zhytomyr

You’ve likely seen the reports coming in about atrocities all over Ukraine: photos of those killed riding a bicycle, walking along the street, just going about their day. It’s beyond heartbreaking; it’s shocking. It feels unbelievable that our fellow human beings could willingly cause so much anguish and suffering.

We grieve for our country and pray for those who’ve lost loved ones in such terrible ways. We also want to let you know how our own beloved city of Zhytomyr is faring a month into the war.

In the early days, Zhytomyr was hit by shelling and other attacks. A maternity hospital was hit, one military target blown up, and a residential area destroyed. Some civilians have been killed

The maternity hospital in 2021; photo by our part-time photographer Masha.
Masha’s video of damage to a local school and the church behind.

Early last week, Zhytomyr residents heard two explosions. Russian missiles were intercepted by Ukraine and blown up in the skies overhead. But with that one exception, it’s been quiet for about three weeks. 

We don’t know why our city hasn’t been targeted recently, but we’re thankful. Our staff even opened the Day Center, our drop-in center for orphaned youth, for some regular hours. Director Andrey said, “We feel it’s necessary for youth to spend time there and feel secure.” Two-thirds of our pre-war staff remain in Ukraine, meeting needs every way they can. 

We know you’re covering our city in prayer, along with our staff and our vulnerable youth and families. Thank you for standing with us!

Leaving Poland behind: the next step in resettlement

Our refugees at the retreat center in Poland are getting ready for another big change: they’re all moving to the Netherlands, following the two families who’ve gone already. They anticipated a longer stay in Poland. But like so many, they’re leaving to make room for others. 

Hundreds of thousands of families across Eastern Europe are making the same decision. Of Ukraine’s 44 million people, about 10 million are now displaced; four million of those have fled across the border. That’s a million new refugees per week. Our close neighbors are simply overwhelmed. At one entry point, signs read, “Don’t go to the big cities. Have faith in small towns.” The cities are bursting.

We’re so grateful for the retreat center. But it’s far from public transportation, schools, hospitals, churches, and other resources. And some of our moms may need to start working; many spouses in Ukraine aren’t receiving paychecks. Our families need more permanent homes.

Director Andrey met a group of Christians in the Netherlands through a church-planting ministry in Zhytomyr. Now they’re offering a full spectrum of support for our group: help with housing, school registration, job hunting, and church community. In the midst of tragedy, their friendship is a great gift. 

There are many other strands in the safety net catching our youth and families, including your financial gifts and prayers. Thank you! 

Above: the river in Zhytomyr, last year. One of many beautiful places left behind.

Photos: wartime activities with orphaned youth

Even in the midst of war, our mission in the city of Zhytomyr remains the same: to love and serve orphaned youth. In a crisis it’s so important for vulnerable teenagers to be encouraged and reassured by adults who care about them. One day this week, several Educational Outreach staff members met with orphaned students for a class about first aid.

Another day, staff member Vasya photographed these rare moments of normalcy with orphaned students. First they went grocery shopping together, then two students baked something special for everyone.

We’ve had many opportunities to meet immediate needs. A young woman we met when she was a student is now the mother of a baby and toddler. She asked for help, so Anya put together a box of necessities, plus a couple of surprises for the kids.

Though our youth and families are in many different places now, our staff is finding creative ways to stay in touch, offer encouragement, and help. This week has been quiet in Zhytomyr (few attacks or air raid sirens). Thank you for praying protection over our city and everyone here. 

Testimonies from evacuated families

In our next newsletter, we’ll give a more thorough update about some of our youth still in Zhytomyr. But we wanted to pause and share these encouraging stories from our evacuated families. We’re so thankful for God’s care for them through the compassion of global neighbors! 

We’ve heard about other evacuees in crowded conditions. “Many [not from Last Bell] are already being evicted,” staff member Oksana said. “But God very much blesses us.” Two weeks ago, Oksana organized resettlement for a Last Bell group of 17 in Romania. Nastia from that group shared:

“[The family] lives on a farm in the mountains. They’ve sheltered us in very good conditions. They asked people for dictionaries, to learn the language… I’m just happy that we’re doing well, and that we have you. Thank you!”

Oksana also organized settlement for a Last Bell group of 37 in Latvia. From a social center there, Zoryana shared,

“The most important thing is that we’re safe. We’re simple people, and very grateful for what we have. The curator from Riga wrote and offered to show us the city and take the children to the zoo. Such good people that my heart rejoices… My father God always takes care of me and my family.”

Zoryana and her kids
A family in Latvia shows their good living conditions

Remember Inga? She’s in a social center in Latvia as well. She shared,

“We were warmly welcomed and treated to the simplicity, kindness, and humanity of the Latvians. We were resettled in different rooms in the care of special caregivers, and provided with everything, like help with paperwork… The children were given a lot of toys. We can surely manage here, for the sake of our relatives and for a peaceful Ukraine. Thank you to all who support and help us!”

Inga’s kids in Latvia

Tanya from the Romania group shared:

“I’m very lucky… I’m with a young family. They have a son the same age as mine. They love us very much, they help us… They gave us clothes and shoes, take us to restaurants… I don’t even know how to thank them. I pray for their family and for ours, and for peace in Ukraine.” 

Tanya added, “I really want to go home.” 

As you pray for our displaced families, God is providing. Thank you!

Peace in the midst of displacement

So far, we’ve helped about 150 people evacuate. Some went to Poland and other neighbors, others as far as Germany, Austria, and Sweden. About 20 are orphaned students. Many are single moms with their children. Some were at the center of Last Bell’s community, beloved volunteers and friends.

This week, three families left the retreat center in Poland for more permanent situations. One mom was joined by her husband (exempt from the draft), and they’re taking their daughter to Austria. “Thank you to everyone who prayed for me,” she said. “I felt it.”

Oksana O., Natasha K., and their children are moving to the Netherlands where they have support from family and church friends. Oksana volunteered at Stop the Cycle summer camps; Natasha (right photo, center) taught children at church and volunteered at an orphanage. She’s outspoken about the way Shelter changed her life, and about her faith.

This parting was especially difficult for Yuliana; Oksana and Natasha had been her helpers in Poland. But after two days of prayer, God gave her peace. “My relationship with God here in the midst of trials and tribulations is something incredible. Here my heart especially knows the breadth, depth, and height of my heavenly Father’s love!”

Natasha’s little girl told Yuliana, “Don’t cry, I’ll come right back and pick you up… You yourself said God wants us to be all right!”

As you pray for the safety and practical needs of our community, we ask you also to pray fervently for their faith to be sustained—for this peace that comes only from God. 

Visiting village councils in Poland

Director Andrey recently shared a list of all the great services Last Bell isn’t able to provide right now – no life skills lessons in trade schools, no counseling about education, no Stop the Cycle meetings, no home renovations for orphanage graduates. 

But he also shared the new ways we’re supporting our youth and families in the middle of a war. We’re evacuating people, of course. We’re also providing medications and meals, doing laundry at the Shelter, helping our refugees find housing, sorting and distributing humanitarian aid, checking on those in the city and in villages, bringing supplies to youth in social dorms, and helping our people in many other ways. 

We heard from staff member Lena, who evacuated to Poland with her mother and three of our orphaned students. This week they visited the village council for information about the documents they’ll need for an extended stay:

Yuliana’s group visited their village council this week for the same reason, and the council stocked the car with clothes and toys. The kids also had their first day at the local school. All the moms worried – Yuliana said it was like sending the kids off to school for the very first time – but everyone was fine. The teachers and students were all welcoming and gave them backpacks full of treats. We’re so grateful for the kind hearts in this village!

As our community is increasingly separated geographically, we appreciate your faithful prayers for the very different needs of those still in Zhytomyr and those who have evacuated. Thank you for holding it all and bringing it all before God. 

Two orphanage graduates meeting wartime needs

Oksana wrote, “Do our friends know that everything is closed now?” She listed factories, small businesses, hairdressers, theaters, schools, kindergartens, and more. Grocery stores and pharmacies close by 5 PM. Bosses withhold wages. “There is no normal life, only war.”

In the villages, the shelves are empty because deliveries have ceased. We’ve distributed food and supplies to nineteen families, and we’re thankful this is still possible. 

Nina, an orphanage graduate, called us recently. Her village was out of medications, diapers, and baby food. After we told Nina where to find diapers, she collected documents from all eight moms in the village, found a car, and picked up diapers for all the children. Then our team brought food, children’s medications, and other supplies. “We left everything to Nina,” Oksana said. “She will distribute to those in need.” So, through one orphanage graduate, a whole village is receiving help. 

Former orphan and staff member Yuliana was a nurse for many years. Now she’s overseeing our first evacuees in Poland. Recently many at the retreat center were sick, and Yuliana became nurse-in-residence for a couple of very tiring days.

Thanks to another recent evacuation, Yuliana’s job will be getting easier. Staff member Lena V. drove with two orphaned students into Poland. We’re thankful for their safety, and for the car Lena brought, which a volunteer delivered to Yuliana. It will be a huge help at the rural retreat center.

Yuliana was also encouraged by Sunday’s church service at the retreat center. The whole volunteer team came, including a Christian friend from Zhytomyr. Many from the retreat center attended. “Even when it seems you will soon fall for lack of strength,” Yuliana said, “God gives strength and restores spiritually and physically.”

L: volunteer Nastia took Yuliana’s family out for pizza as a break from her nursing work.
R: new and old friends at the church service on Sunday.

So many of our staff members are now far out of their comfort zones. No one had trained for war, evacuation, or meeting needs in another country and language. Please pray for them as they take on new roles, both in unfamiliar places and at home where the familiar has become unfamiliar and dangerous.

Thank you for your unflagging support and prayers.

scene of bridge over a river

Strategy update from leadership team

Dear Friends,

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, we’ve faced an immense humanitarian crisis with many unknown days ahead. Our response is adapting to meet our people’s most pressing needs: safety, emergency care, and emotional and spiritual guidance. Our community is now spread across Eastern Europe, and we’re bracing for the long-haul of rebuilding lives devastated by war.  

As we’ve kept you updated on our frontline stories, we’ve been grateful that you care so deeply about the people of Ukraine. You have responded with an astounding amount of kindness, desperate prayer, and financial support. Your compassion inspires us and reminds us of God’s kindness amid the darkness so many of our Ukrainian friends are facing. For a moment, we want to step away from the front lines of the war and share the big picture – our strategy for this moment in time. 

Here’s an overview of how our Last Bell team will prioritize our work in the days ahead – our Strategic Objectives:

  1. Secure the safety of our people still in Zhytomyr (including 11 of our staff members) by identifying alternative supply routes from the west, so our people’s basic needs can be met even if supply lines are cut off.  
  2. Evacuate any of our youth, families, volunteers, or staff who want to leave Zhytomyr using our staff drivers, vans, and partner resources.
  3. Continue to secure housing and supply connections for our people entering border countries, especially housing options that will last six months to a year. 
  4. Identify continued risk from Russian military movements.
  5. With help from friends in the U.S., gather financial resources to quickly fund war relief needs on the ground in Ukraine and western Europe.
  6. Care for our staff through encouragement, prayer time, connections to virtual trauma counseling, and overall emotional and spiritual support in this time of deep grief.

The immediate and long-term needs for our Last Bell community are substantial. As a reminder, you can give to our relief fund by clicking on the Donate button at the top of this page.

All of our operational costs are covered, so please know that 100% of the funds you give now will go directly to the crisis relief needs of our youth, staff, and volunteers. 

On behalf of the leadership team and those we love and serve in Ukraine,

Megan Hershey
Executive Director

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