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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

The new normal (for now)

Two long weeks ago, this was the scene at our Day Center:

Now, not even those students’ schools and dormitories are safe. Oksana and our photographer recently dropped by this bombed-out school in our city:

We did receive encouraging news from our group in Poland, who are settling in there and beginning to create routines. Several of the moms, kids, and individuals decided to gather for a Bible hour every day. After the first meeting staff member Yuliana shared, 

“I prepared a message, but didn’t even have time to read, because so many of our girls were willing. I listened to Natalka [Kalchuk] and I shed tears, understanding how God had prepared her through leadership school, and how she was so gifted with words that it touched many hearts. It was like hearing a whole sermon today… 

“Many girls are praying for Ukraine, for their loved ones who stayed at home and have been sitting in basements for several days. We were joined by two unbelieving women and one believer… Everyone who joined our group listened to everything and even sang praises with us.”

We’re in day 15 of a war that threatens the lives of millions, and a refugee crisis in surrounding countries. It can be overwhelming, even to watch and read about. We ask you, friends, to stay the course with us, and we know you will. Please keep praying for everyone involved: for those huddled in their apartments, waiting for the next air raid siren; for those crowding into trains trying to evacuate; for the drivers on their fifth or tenth evacuation run to the border; for those trying to comfort their children after suddenly leaving home; for those staying to serve and risking their lives in so many ways. 

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