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Director Andrey’s story

Director Andrey’s story is a good illustration of how difficult circumstances are in Ukraine right now. Evacuating isn’t as simple as packing up a suitcase and driving to the border. With over two million people who have fled the country thus far and many still trying to leave, every form of transportation is overwhelmed, drivers are busy every hour outside of curfew, every bed is filled on the way to the borders, and everyone is exhausted. 

“The problem we faced,” Andrey wrote, “was that my aunt and her family live in the city of Cherkasy” (normally about five hours from Zhytomyr). “We though it would be quite easy for them to come to Zhytomyr so we could all go to the Polish border together.” At first, no one would take them. Finally, for a fee, someone took Andrey’s aunt, cousin, and cousin’s child to a nearby train station. 

“There, by God’s providence, they were able to squeeze into the train and ride for four hours standing, just as we saw in movies about World War II. Then they were transferred to another train, with no toilet. They suffered, the child became ill and began to cough heavily.” They were on that train for sixteen hours.

Andrey and his mother, along with other refugees in their vehicle, picked them up in Lviv, a completely different part of the country from their original plan. 

“When we arrived at the train station, we saw again a picture of WWII – crowds of people nervously running from the central entrance, filling every inch of the station square. Volunteers cooked on the street and distributed food to confused people fleeing the bombings in eastern Ukraine.”

Finally all together, they drove to the Polish border. But before that, as they slowly drove through the packed streets of Lviv, a desperate woman approached Andrey’s car. She asked Andrey to pick up her friend. 

“To go where?” Andrey asked. 

“At least to the station, to anywhere,” she said. 

By chance they had a vacancy in the car, so of course they picked her up and took her to the border with them. “Now they are there [in Poland],” Andrey said, “and my wife and children are here in my native Ukraine. We pray they will be preserved there by the Lord, and we will survive here and wait for the time we’ll meet again. Meanwhile we have a lot of work to do.”

As our staff works day and night in Ukraine, we’re thankful for your partnership in the same work through your gifts and prayers and so many other offerings.

Pray for Inga’s evacuation; youth giving back

Many of you will remember Stop the Cycle mom Inga, with Oksana in these photos from 2020:

Today Oksana and Andrey are picking up Inga and her two children, as well as Inga’s niece and a neighbor, and bringing them back to the Shelter. Two former orphans – Shelter staff member and resident doctor Anya and volunteer/part-time photographer Masha – are making food and preparing the Shelter for them. Tomorrow, Inga’s family will begin evacuating. Please pray for safety and for all the logistics for Inga, that her needs and her family’s needs will be met. 

Yesterday, we promised two stories: one about Andrey’s experience getting his mother and some of her family members out of the country, and photos of our youth helping in Zhytomyr. Tomorrow we’ll share Andrey’s story.

Most of our work right now is helping prepare evacuees and taking care of our youth and families who are still in Zhytomyr. But people are already beginning to clean up some of the damage from shelling and bombing, when they’re able. A church attended by some of our staff and youth was damaged recently. Some of our guys who receive help from Last Bell wanted to give back, so they came and did some physically challenging cleanup work.

One piece of good news: former Last Bell staff member Nastia, who moved to California with her husband a few years ago, flew to Poland to help Yuliana and our moms. She arrived today. Everybody was so glad to see her!

Even as we evacuate people, deliver groceries and hygiene kits, visit with and encourage our youth, and meet all kinds of other wartime needs, our leadership is prayerfully considering the near future of Last Bell’s work. Our heart is always to serve orphaned youth and families. As we determine how God is leading us to fulfill that mission in these new, drastically different circumstances, we’ll let you know. Watch for an email later this week with some thoughts from our leadership team. 

Thank you for giving, praying, and reaching out. 

A weekend in a country at war

Our first group of evacuees reached their final destination on Saturday. After a long bus ride, and some tears from exhausted little ones, they’re now at a beautiful retreat center in several small houses. Many refugees are only able to stay in place for 14 days, but the director of the retreat center said our group could stay as long as they needed to. “We greet you warmly and consider you our family,” he told them.

Yuliana expressed how much God has been taking care of them, even in the little things. Her little boy is allergic to most bath soap, and before she could buy special expensive soap for him, a volunteer gave her some. Yesterday the kids made some artwork to say thank you to their hosts and to process some of the things they’ve seen.

We’re so thankful for these wonderful hosts in Poland, and for all the volunteers who have so warmly welcomed our moms and kids!

Our group that left Saturday has safely arrived in Latvia, praise God! We don’t have photos yet but they’re also in a beautiful place, with people we know. 

In Romania, our moms are in a tent camp (below, left), working on documents so they can receive better services there. Please pray for quick processing so they can move on to more permanent housing.

Below, on the right, is a photo of Stop the Cycle mom Tanya holding her boy, beside one of the organizers in Romania. Tanya shared, “The day after our departure, my husband called and said a bomb had fallen in the area where we live. I understand that we came here for a reason… It’s much better, my child is calm and I’m calm.”

We’re continuing to meet needs in Zhytomyr as well: getting moms and orphaned youth ready for evacuation, passing out much-needed groceries and other supplies to orphaned students and others in our community, and spending time with our youth just so they know they’re not alone. Two girls have had birthdays since the invasion began, but they’ve agreed to celebrate properly when things are peaceful again. 

We’re grateful for some good news from evacuees, and we’re glad to be a resource for our community in such a difficult time. In Zhytomyr there are air raids almost daily, and today there was another big explosion. Life is precarious and dangerous, and the situation just gets worse every day. Please pray for safety for our staff and youth still in the city. 

Watch for more stories tomorrow: we’ll share about Director Andrey’s experiences getting his mother and other family out of the country, and a story about our youth helping out in the midst of the destruction. 

Thank you for your many donations, which are at this very moment keeping vulnerable people safe, warm, and fed. Thank you for continuing to pray for all our people and for Ukraine. 

Those who’ve evacuated, those left behind

The photos and videos coming out of Ukraine, including our city of Zhytomyr, are horrifying. Destruction, debris, gaping holes in buildings, damage to schools, hospitals, churches. Residents of Zhytomyr have been killed in these attacks. 

The Shelter was once a warm, welcoming home for orphaned moms in crisis. Now, it’s just a staging ground for evacuations. Director Andrey recorded this sober tour of an emptied-out Shelter building, children’s stuffed animals and toys still displayed on beds and shelves:

We continue to meet the needs of students and others orphaned youth who are still in the city. We’re handing out supplies any time we’re able to meet up with our youth. And we’re continuing to stay in touch by phone or video chat with students we aren’t able to see in person.

We’re also starting to receive a few photos from staff member Yulia S., who’s with the first group of evacuees to Poland. Now that they’ve made it safely across the border, they’re able to rest, cook, and take the kids out to play. The Polish people are taking good care of them, and they’ll be moving to a retreat house soon.

Two groups began evacuating yesterday, headed for two different countries. Please pray for their safety on the road and for quick, smooth border crossings. We also appreciate your prayers for those who are still in Zhytomyr, either staying for now or waiting to be evacuated. 

Thank you for your donations, your prayers, and your fervent messages of support. We know you are with us. 

young dad on couch with baby

How you can pray

Our staff, orphaned youth, and families need your prayers. Please pray:

  • For Putin’s plans to be thwarted and for fighting to end. It may seem impossible, but all things are possible with God.
  • For the protection of soldiers and civilians who remain in Ukraine.
  • For protection over our city of Zhytomyr, including our staff, and our own orphaned students, young adult orphans, and orphan-parented families who are still there. 
  • For the “peace that passes all understanding” for all those still in danger.
  • For comfort, the settling of anxious hearts, and smooth travel and transitions for our staff and youth who’ve evacuated, and for all refugees. 
  • For safe travel through our country and safe border crossings for those evacuating even now.
  • For our board, U.S. staff, and Ukrainian staff to make wise decisions.
  • For housing and other logistical needs to be met; for the right connections at the right time.
  • For those who are anxious and suffering to be drawn to God’s love, and for Christians to be strong in their faith and take comfort from Emmanuel, God With Us.

Shelter evacuations begin

This morning, we sent our first group of evacuees toward the border of Poland. We needed to get our moms and their kids out of a city increasingly under attack. Three vans have left with many of our Shelter moms, as well as some other Stop the Cycle graduate families. 

Please pray for these families as they drive, and pray for a safe border crossing. The husbands and fathers who are helping them drive will need to turn around and come back before they cross. A friend is ready to receive them on the other side, and they do have a place to stay for now. We’re hearing that the Polish people are taking care of all immediate needs, so for now our moms will be able to hold back the money they’ve so carefully saved while at the Shelter.

This is devastating for our families. They’re terrified, grieving, and exhausted. Please pray for them. And please pray for Yuliana S., who will be taking them over the border. She is the only staff member who will be crossing, so the responsibility is falling very heavily on her young shoulders. She is evacuating with her children and, like so many others, leaving her husband behind. Some of our older families evacuating are also leaving behind husbands and dads.

Many of our other staff members are staying together at the Shelter, and continuing to meet the needs of other families and orphaned students. A handful of staff members have evacuated with their children to a safer region of the country. 

One bright note: staff member Lillia gave birth to a baby girl this morning! She was supposed to go to the maternity hospital that was shelled today, but felt a small voice telling her to go to a different hospital. 

Today’s events mark a new stage of this disaster, with some of our people in Zhytomyr and some trying to get to safety. The separation is very hard. We’re so thankful for your continued prayers for all our people, and we’ll send more updates as we receive them. 

The Last Bell Team

Updates from staff

Dear friends, 

Even as I write, an army base near Zhytomyr has been hit by bombs. When the air raid sirens go off, everyone in the Shelter and Day Center takes cover, and we all pray. We’re thankful none of our staff or youth or friends were hurt this time. But the war feels very close. Sometimes it’s in the skies right over our people. 

Even as the circumstances feel immediate and dire, we know that God is with us. Our staff continue to reach out to orphaned students and our families, bringing hope wherever they go. 

One of our Stop the Cycle moms had fled from a bombing near Kyiv, and didn’t have time to pack up enough medication, diapers, or baby food for her child. We invited her to the Shelter to pick up supplies. 

Staff couple Sasha and Yuliana have been staying at the Shelter to support our moms, in spite of their own exhaustion. The Shelter is open to anyone who’s anxious and needs support, whether to spend the night or just to drop by. Many youth are dropping by the Day Center as well.

Earlier today, Andrey and Oksana drove to a village in the direction of Kyiv, which required going through nine Ukrainian military checkpoints. “Every time it’s a little scary,” shared Oksana. “Severe people with weapons stop us, check documents, check the car.” They explained their mission and were able to pass through, delivering supplies to three Stop the Cycle families and one student who needed epilepsy medication. 

At one point in recent days, a couple of our men on staff distributed some water and pillows to Ukrainian soldiers building barricades nearby.

Lena Voznyuk shared, “We always tell our guys that we’ll be there. That Last Bell is their family, and we won’t leave them. Now is the time to prove it, and show them the love God gives!”

Lena is making sure that students receive the hygiene kits and groceries they need, and she welcomes anyone to visit the Day Center for encouragement. She and our other staff members are also calling and video chatting with our youth who’ve fled to the villages and feel vulnerable and alone.

Over the next few days, you may see our communications slow down. Please be assured that if there’s any important news related to our people or our ministry, we will send it out right away. No email means the new, uneasy status quo is holding and we’re focusing our U.S. time and energy on supporting our Ukrainian staff and youth. We always appreciate your prayers for safety for our whole community, for the peace that comes only from God, for miraculous protection of Ukraine’s citizens, and for a miraculous halt to Russia’s plans of domination. 

There may be days when we don’t send out a new email but do share news on social media. You can connect with us on Facebook here and on Instagram here

A crisis always binds a community together. We have seen over the past week that we’re so rich in friends. Thank you for your emails, messages, donations, and offers of help. We know you’re praying day and night, and we’re glad to have such wonderful ministry partners. 

In the shelter of the Father’s wings,

Megan Hershey
Executive Director

Ministry updates in the midst of war

Please note that for the duration of the war, our stories may be delayed by a few days, with some information removed from online publication, for the safety of our staff, youth, and families.


Dear friends, 

We’re thankful to report that at the moment, everyone is still safe. It has been a harrowing few days, but our staff and youth and families are staying together, helping each other, and praying. 

Every evening in the Shelter, residents and staff gather to pray for our country:

Every day, the attacks draw closer and become more serious. But our staff members continue to carry out our primary mission: to love and serve orphanage graduates.

All the grocery stores and pharmacies in Zhytomyr have run out of baby formula and baby food. We were able to buy some extras before the crisis, which is now a huge help to our moms. We’re taking groceries to orphaned students, helping with transportation needs, and supporting families in other ways as we stay in close communication with them.

We’re so thankful and encouraged by your donations, and all your emails, calls, and texts to say you’re praying. We want to extend a special welcome to those who’ve given for the first time this week. We’re so grateful you’ve reached out to help Zhytomyr’s most vulnerable youth and families. Right now, all new donations are going straight to humanitarian aid for our community.

Please keep praying! Join people all over the world who are crying out to the God of love on behalf of the country we love. We will continue to update you as we have news. 

With gratitude and trust,

The Last Bell Team

Sheltering in the storage room, trusting in God

Dear friends, 

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. 

Megan Hershey
Executive Director

Invasion, Day 2

Dear friends, 

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:

‘Tragic and surreal’: Ukrainian Americans watch former homes turn into war zones

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 Last Bell Team 

Please pray for our community in Ukraine

Friends,

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. 

Megan Hershey

Executive Director

Success for single mom with “no circle, no yard”

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.”

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Loving and restoring orphanage graduates toward life and community.

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