Camp season stretched all the way into late September this year! Family camp was postponed, mainly because war prevented us from going to the cool, breezy seaside. Local camps were too hot until the fall. But the new dates made it possible for two more orphan-parented families to attend, including single dad Igor and his daughter. With many facilities closed, we were thankful to find a good place owned by Christians. At the last moment God brought everything together.
This was an especially youthful camp. All the parents were 22 or younger! Ten moms, five dads, and 12 kids attended, plus our staff and one volunteer from our Educational Outreach program. It was wonderful to see so many dads.
Swimming and sauna time were restful, and families bonded over ping pong, billiards, and crafts. Every other day the staff provided a special treat, like popcorn and mocktails, or fresh cotton candy eaten outside with sticky fingers.
At the heart of family camp is an invitation for families to build healthier relationships with each other and with God. In the morning, every parent listened closely during parenting lessons, and at night they learned about growing in the Christian life.
For the first time, our group included a single dad. Igor’s girlfriend died of complications from drug use. At first, he told us, he couldn’t imagine parenting by himself. For a while Igor’s daughter stayed with his sister, a Stop the Cycle mom with four children of her own. Then Igor brought her home. Now he finds joy in being a dad. Igor and two other dads spontaneously decided to sing with our worship team in the last service.
Last Bell surrounds orphaned parents like Igor with love and support. The special days of camp always lead to new ways we can serve our families.
Camp donors, thank you again for making it all possible!
After six months of exile, some of our refugees are back in Zhytomyr!
Our city was targeted early in the war. After a long reprieve, missiles again hit the outskirts in June. Since then, it’s been quiet. We’re around three hundred miles from the front lines.
Many of our moms continue enjoying the hospitality of a Christian community in the Netherlands, where they feel safe. But a few families decided the benefits of being at home outweighed the risks.
Our friends in the Netherlands chartered a van, adding to the list of their many kindnesses. They sang our families on their way with Psalm 121.
If you know the Kaplun family, you won’t be surprised that fearless Alona and her two kids are home! Alona and Sasha have been part of Last Bell’s community since its founding. Sasha works for a local missionary, and both of these former orphans are role models and volunteers. The kids couldn’t stop hugging their dad.
Lida and her little boy also returned. Lida’s husband is on the front lines, and she’s worried. Please keep praying for the safety of our soldiers.
One young mom returned to her fiancé, who’s also part of Last Bell’s community. Watch for their special story in our holiday letter!
All our orphan-parented families appreciate your prayers: those who remained in Zhytomyr, those in other countries, and those now returning to normal life in a country at war.
Camp donors: thank you again! Because of you, our students had a beautiful week in the mountains in August, and our family campers arrived home a few days ago. This break from the troubles of war was very welcome.
When we meet them, our students are working through teenage questions like Who am I? What’s my place in the world? And because they’re orphans, Will I fail because of my family history, or do I have a real future?
Camp can show our students how capable they really are. Staff member Katya shared these stories:
Rafting was a new experience for this group. Katya said “the fear was visible in their eyes” even before they started. But the staff paired them up and made sure they’d be safe. At the bottom, the students buzzed with stories about the thrills of their ride. Katya said it was “one of the most vivid memories of camp.”
Not all our students are strong or in good health, so our staff asked the organizers to find an easy hike. Partway up they realized their chosen trail was quite difficult. But every student reached the top! As they walked, our staff led a discussion encouraging our youth to persevere through challenges until they see the end results.
Another day was all about the culture and history of Ukraine. The leaders shared about Ukrainian ancestors, famous people from Ukraine, and all the progress in Ukrainian society. “We prepared traditional food together,” wrote Katya, and tried on traditional clothes “which were passed down from generation to generation.”
At camp, orphaned youth experience hourly attention and love, and they often open their hearts to God.
This trip helped our youth see themselves as beloved children of God who are truly capable of leading successful lives. Our staff shared this message not just in words, but by literally walking up a mountain beside them!
YOU made these foundational experiences possible. We’re so grateful.
In the past few weeks, we’ve shared the basics about two of our three main programs: Educational Outreach and Stop the Cycle.
During this time of destruction and loss, our third program seems like an especially hopeful endeavor. The Restoration Project is all about restoring and rebuilding.
In this program, a crew of orphanage graduates apprentices in the home renovation trade, working under staff foreman Sergei. The homes they restore belong to fellow orphans. So the Restoration Project meets two of orphaned young adults’ biggest needs: vocational skills and safe housing.
Last week, you saw our crew working on Sveta’s house. Making safe homes for orphaned youth is the crew’s central purpose. But they play many other roles! They’re our in-house maintenance crew and moving company, our furniture-builders, our handymen for small repairs, and our heavy lifters for boxes of war relief supplies. Sometimes, they even make repairs to the government-owned social dorm where many of our students live.
In Ukraine, even more than in the U.S., homes are passed down through families. Apartments are usually owned, not rented. Orphans face many other social and financial barriers to housing, and the situation will worsen as the war impacts Ukraine’s economy.
But our RP crew is in the business of helping people rebuild their broken lives. When you think of these young men, please pray, as Psalm 90:17 says, that God will “establish the work of their hands”!
Six months ago, many of our moms evacuated Ukraine with their children. First, they traveled to Poland. A month later, they left Poland for the Netherlands, where they were welcomed by a generous Christian community in the town of Vriezenveen.
Now the kids are starting a new school year in this new country.
Many of you will remember Nadia. A few years ago, Nadia and her daughter Eva were part of our crisis housing program, the Shelter. During Nadia’s stay, she worked hard and completed her Master’s of Education. Nadia and her daughter are now refugees in Vriezenveen.
Nadia has been chaperoning our youngest group of kids as they take the bus to school. They had the new experience of spending 45 minutes to get to a school 10 minutes away, since the bus picked up so many children!
This younger group is in a single class, all learning Dutch together. “The children like school,” Nadia reported. “They return home tired and happy, with a lot of news, and new foreign words for their mothers.”
This week, the older kids started high school in another city. They have a long bike commute. The high schoolers are in regular classrooms, since they’ve learned basic Dutch already.
“The children miss home, friends, and schools where there’s no language barrier,” Nadia said. We’re very thankful for everyone in the Dutch schools making this transition easier.
Thank you for your prayers for our refugee families, as they face new challenges every day!
Several months ago, we wrote about Sveta, whose husband’s war-related death was the first in our community. He was killed on active duty. At the time, Sveta had just learned she was pregnant with their second child.
In the months since, our staff have visited Sveta several times. Oksana Pankyeyeva, director of our Stop the Cycle program, shared this photo in June. Oksana told Sveta there were a lot of people praying for her, and Sveta said she could very much feel our prayers.
Many orphaned youth struggle to find safe housing, and orphans who become parents are no exception. Sveta’s home was in need of some work, so our Restoration Project crew stepped in to help. In early August, the crew began taking off wallpaper, priming the walls, and puttying.
Naturally, Sveta was devastated by the recent loss of her husband, the father of her children. Last Bell’s staff are Sveta’s support system, walking alongside her, ready to meet any needs that arise. Thank you for helping us surround Sveta with a loving community in her time of grief.
After the war began, we made the hard choice of pausing some services. From February until June, our moms’ group wasn’t able to meet.
When Ukrainian teens age out of state care, they enter a bewildering new world without support. Many then become young parents, and family life can be overwhelming. Without intervention, orphans’ children often become orphans themselves.
Stop the Cycle is Last Bell’s support program for orphaned parents, mostly single moms. Counseling, crisis housing, and home visits help our families stay together and healthy. We host a special family camp every summer. (Thanks again to our camp donors!)
But monthly meetings are the heart of Stop the Cycle. Moms make friends, learn about parenting, and take home bags of food and diapers. After four long months, in late June our group was reunited. Staff and parents talked together about helping children manage their stress in a crisis.
We had another Stop the Cycle meeting in August. Again it was wonderful to see everyone after so many months apart!
Most moms graduate from our program after two or three years. But they’re still part of our community. They stay in touch with staff, and sometimes visit the Shelter, our crisis housing facility. Often moms spend a few nights with us, doing errands in the city or just catching up.
Thank you for praying for and supporting our orphaned youth in every new chapter of young adulthood!
When the invasion began, you met the challenge of a humanitarian crisis with an outpouring of gifts. And you’ve been giving ever since. We want to share how your generosity has provided for the real needs of our community in Ukraine.
The breakdown here shows our war relief expenditures through June 1, 2022 – about 14 weeks. There are three primary spending categories:
The largest portion went to transportation. We purchased a new van during evacuations; your gifts also paid for hundreds of gallons of fuel for evacuations and multiple trips every week to deliver humanitarian aid around our region. This category also includes vehicle parts and repairs, as well as transportation for pastors and Christian friends serving in military units.
HUMANITARIAN AID SUPPLIES: $42,000
Almost a third of your donations purchased groceries, diapers, hygiene kits, food, clothing, footwear, and medications. Our team broke down bulk items, made family-sized packages, and shipped or delivered them. The recipients included our own orphaned youth and families; low-income families impacted by war; and displaced families who’ve fled the fighting farther east.
FIRST AID AND PROTECTIVE EQUIPMENT: $41,000
The rest benefited those defending Ukraine, including orphaned young adults. In addition to regular military, Zhytomyr’s “territorial guard” serves at the checkpoints and barricades that protect our city and villages. We supplied first aid, such as first aid kits, tourniquets, hemostatic bandages, and medications; protective equipment like knee pads, footwear, bulletproof vests, helmets, and sleeping gear; and miscellaneous supplies like flashlights, duct tape, tools, and walkie-talkies.
TOTAL WAR RELIEF SPENDING AS OF JUNE 1: $132,000
All of your gifts have kept our community safe, fed, and clothed. When we’re discouraged by the ongoing devastation of this crisis, we’re encouraged by how many of you have reached out to help. Thank you!
In 2019, one of the dads almost left camp. But our staff convinced him to stay, and later he said camp strengthened his relationship with his family. After that, he regularly attended Stop the Cycle meetings.`
Last year, ministry director Andrey drove one vanful of youth to camp, including a young man named Valera. At a gas station, Valera began having a seizure. Andrey shared about what followed:
“After the seizure I lifted him up, helped him walk to the van, put him in the front seat, buckled him, and left him to sleep. As we continued driving, I was looking at him and crying. I was so sorry this boy had been left by his parents….
“At camp he was always close to me, helping with the multimedia equipment. He was very excited because he had responsibilities.
“After camp he started to attend our church. After a time he lost interest; he forgets a lot of things because of his illness. But I believe camp boosted his relationship with the leaders at Last Bell.”
Camp always gives young people like Valera time away from the pressures of daily life, which are often overwhelming for orphans.This year, camp also gives them time away from war. Someone always chooses a “purposeful life” during these quiet days. Will your donation send that person to camp?
Good news! A friend of Last Bell has generously offered a matching grant of $5,000 for camp costs this year.
Starting today, every dollar up to $5,000 will be doubled to make an even bigger impact.
The cost for one camper (or camper’s child) is about $250. That includes fuel for transportation, housing, meals, snacks, crafts, and other needs. It also covers costs for staff, who will be leading, encouraging, listening to, and praying with our orphaned youth and moms.
Your gift today will give our youth and our families a week in a beautiful natural setting, away from the threat of missiles. In the middle of all the fear and anxiety about recent events, our staff will share the hope they have in Jesus.
Many of you have already been giving to our war relief fund. Thank you for considering this new need as well! We’re so grateful.
In the summer, it’s been our tradition to load up vans with orphaned youth and drive to the beach or mountains. The war is ever-present, and a neighboring city was recently attacked. But since Zhytomyr and western Ukraine are currently peaceful, we can dream about and plan for these special retreats.
For some youth, camp is their first 24/7 time with caring adults. Everybody swims, hikes, swings in hammocks, plays, and rests together. In the evening, our youth often open up with personal stories for the first time.
Camp is even more important this year. Our community needs time away from military barriers, the threat of missiles, and reminders of war. At camp they can talk through everything with our staff, and learn how to find meaning in all the events of their lives through the good news of Jesus.
Our staff needs this time away, too. It will be healthy for everyone to slow down, enjoy God’s creation, and hear God’s guidance for whatever the next months may bring.
In 2022, we’re considering new forms of camp, expanding outward into the new needs created by war. Meanwhile, we’re starting with what we know: camps for orphaned students and orphan-parented families.
Educational Outreach Camp
Location: Carpathian Mountains (western Ukraine, near Romania and Poland)
Dates: Late August
40 youth, 10 staff members/leaders
Stop the Cycle Family Camp
Location: A Christian campground in the Zhytomyr region
Over five million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia invaded, most of them women and children. Nearly 100 of Last Bell’s community members are now navigating life as refugees. From the moment of evacuation, they lived desperate questions every day: Can we safely cross the Polish border? Where will we stay? How will we afford basic necessities in an advanced European economy? How will my child go to school? How do we become official refugees and receive subsidies?
In my travels in May, I was able to witness firsthand the life of our diaspora. When our van drove up to the property in the city of Vriezenveen, The Netherlands, forty moms and kids greeted us with clapping and tears. They were so eager to see Oksana and Andrey face to face. The red Last Bell van obviously represented home and all that had been left behind when missiles began falling in Zhytomyr.
In the Netherlands, we reconnected with our moms and built relationships with our new Dutch friends. They’ve given up resources, time, and even their own comfort to take in our people. During our visit, they kept giving. After church on Sunday, one of the “birdies” (mentors to our refugee moms) warmly invited us over for tea and strawberry pie. In another town, the mentors again greeted us with dessert!
All our new friends were ready to sit around a table and share a meal, working hard to understand each other even with a language barrier. In Vriezenveen, we held a big evening of thanksgiving for the volunteers – giving gifts, eating together, and thanking God for these relationships. They are shining light in the darkness.
It was an honor to share a table with L. He’s a businessman, born and raised in Vriezenveen. When the war in Ukraine began, L. was praying and asking God how he could personally respond to the suffering he saw on the news. When he knew what God wanted him to do, he acted immediately. On a refugee website, he posted his availability to host a large group. Staff member Yuliana found his post just as their Poland location was getting too crowded. Leon and his family and friends chartered a bus for our group and quickly put together housing on family land. Their welcome was a healing salve for our moms and kids: Christian community, help applying for refugee status, engaging opportunities, bikes for kids to ride to school, and the most wonderful gift – our refugees’ “birdies.”
That evening at dinner, L. shared his heart, and I witnessed the Body of Christ responding to this war. In that same holy space, I listened as our moms weighed the most difficult decision: should they return to Zhytomyr, where they would be at home, sleeping in their own beds—a risk to their lives and their children’s lives—or settle more permanently in this foreign place?
In the midst of these questions, we’re so thankful that our refugee moms and kids are together, both our group in Vriezenveen and smaller groups elsewhere. Those community clusters are essential for their well-being. In Vriezenveen, the mentors are a vital part of their nourishment. And we’re thankful for the 700 euros/month from the Netherlands that helps each family meet their basic needs.
During this time of suffering the last few months, God’s people showed up!