When Gennady and Mina Podgaisky walk down the streets of Kiev, Ukraine, they notice the children that most people don’t – the children who cling to hot water pipes for warmth when it’s a frigid minus 20 degrees outside. The children who eat most of their meals from a dumpster. The children who sniff glue so they don’t have to think about how cold, hungry or lonely they are.
These are the street children of Ukraine, and they number in the thousands – as many as 24,000 when the Podgaiskys moved to Ukraine in 2002 to start their ministry as then newly-appointed Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel. The more they learned about this overwhelming crisis, the more they worried for the children of Kiev. And then God turned their tears into drops of hope.
“We asked, ‘What can we do? How can we address this huge problem?’” Gennady said. “We knew we’d be just a drop in the bucket, but we started being that drop.”
More than a decade later that “drop” has rippled out among Kiev’s orphaned, abandoned and runaway children through life-changing ministries – three foster care homes, transformational teaching tools, powerful partnerships and other ways of sharing Christ’s love.
“These are the most neglected children of Ukraine, and we are being the presence of Christ among them,” Mina said.
A village of hope
Like most things, the Podgaiskys’ ministry started small. To any child on the street who looked hungry, they gave food. They soon discovered that other Christians were doing the same thing through small feeding stations in urban basements and cafeterias.
Providing food was important, but it would always be just a drop in the bucket of an overwhelming crisis. So the Podgaiskys helped form a coalition of Christians committed to addressing the crisis at its root. Feeding stations turned into shelters where street children could linger to wash clothes, bathe, learn to read, study the Bible or receive medical care for common street wounds.
For children who wanted to leave the streets, the Podgaiskys and Ukrainian Baptists wanted to do even more. They envisioned a place where orphans could live with a loving family that would nurture, teach and care for them while also sharing God’s love. About a year later their dream became reality. Amid 17 wooded acres less than an hour from Kiev, the Village of Hope was born as a community for Christian families raising foster children.
With the help of CBF of North Carolina, the Christian Cooperation Center purchased the property, which had been a children’s pioneer summer camp facility until the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster forced its close. With the help of hundreds of volunteers from CBFNC and Fellowship partner churches, the rundown campground was transformed, providing cottage homes for several families.
Among the children living at Village of Hope are three siblings born to a single mother who often locked them at home without supervision or food. By the time the government removed the children from the mother’s custody, they were severely malnourished and suffering from polio.
Victor Kulbich, who directs the Ukrainian Christian Cooperation Center that started Village of Hope, said future village plans include building more cottages so more families can provide loving homes for children.
For every child who learns of God’s love at Village of Hope, there are thousands more who roam Kiev’s streets as part of a generation of children born amid an economic disaster. After Ukraine gained independence in 1991, the economy collapsed. Many people lost their jobs, leading to despair, alcohol and drug use, poverty and domestic abuse.
As a result, many children have been abandoned by parents struggling with poverty, alcoholism or drug abuse. While some children go to government-run orphanages, others take to the streets, finding community among other orphans and runaways.
Amid city slums, children and teenagers sniff glue, sell sex and do whatever it takes to survive. They never learn life skills that will one day enable them to leave the streets. Even among those who graduate from orphanages, up to 70 percent eventually turn to prostitution, drug use or crime.
“Children growing up in orphanages [don’t learn] the skills we know from being raised in families. When they come out of an orphanage, the world they enter really is a strange world for them,” said Galina Schaefer, who joined Mina and other Christians to develop a life skills training manual for orphans.
In 2005, this group began meeting twice a week to develop a life skills manual that equips volunteers to teach basic life skills. Utilized among more than 5,000 children so far, the manual includes 48 lessons that use crafts, games and the Bible to teach valuable life skills.
“It teaches orphans how to live independently, as well as reaches them with the gospel of Christ,” said Mina, who travels frequently to train volunteers how to use the resource.
A changing crisis
Adding to the challenges faced by street children is the rising spread of HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, which has the highest prevalence of HIV in all of Europe, according to UNICEF.
The growing crisis is no more vividly seen than in a Kiev hospital, where babies, toddlers and older children with HIV are treated in a single room. In Ukraine, parents accompany children to the hospital to do all non-medical care, such as changing diapers, helping the child out of bed or bringing extra food. But since most of these children are orphans, they weren’t receiving that vital care.
“The kids were just sitting in a bed all day,” said Marianna Peipon, who started Ukraine Medical Outreach with her husband, a pediatrician.
The ministry now pays for two people to serve the room as a parent would. The broken bathroom has been fixed so children can bathe. And people like the Podgaiskys, who they met through the local Christian coalition, provide children with clothes, toys, school supplies and an opportunity to attend camp at the Village of Hope.
One 11-year-old girl has been living in the hospital for four years because of her need for dialysis. Her mom died. Her dad can’t be found. And her aunt lives too far away to provide that much needed daily care. Until this ministry learned about her, she had never been to school.
“Teachers were afraid of her because she’s HIV positive,” Peipon said. “People are still afraid. They don’t want to be around [people with HIV] because they don’t understand how you get it.”
Podgaiskys are not only drops of hope among street children but also among adults and families living in an economically-challenged society. Every week they host a Bible study in their home, where they share the gospel with people like Oxana, who then shared Christ with her entire family. The Podgaiskys offer counseling for couples, and they both reach out to struggling families – hopefully preventing a crisis that would send more children to the streets.
But they can’t be there without Fellowship Baptists, who give to the CBF Offering for Global Missions that provides financial support for the Podgaiskys and their life-changing ministry.
“With your help and lots of prayers, we see radical changes. The number of street children has been drastically reduced,” Gennady said. “But we cannot continue what we’re doing without your help.”
This year’s Offering goal of $4.8 million is the amount needed to keep 130 CBF field personnel like the Podgaiskys on the mission field, fulfilling the mission that God has placed on their lives.
“We are being the presence of Christ,” Mina said. “Christ loves children, and I love children. And it is through His love in me that I’m able to love other kids that are having a hard time in life.”
Please support the CBF Offering for Global Missions. You may make a financial gift here.
About the Podgaiskys
Since being commissioned as CBF field personnel in 2002, Gennady and Mina have lived in Ukraine with their three children – Bogdan, Mark and Ana Marie. Both Gennady, born in Russia, and Mina, born in Mexico, earned a Master of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.