In the heat of the August 11, 2021 summer day, the beetles buzzed, and the cicadas sang lazily in the tall trees on the grounds of the Znamyanka Orphange. As the hot breeze stirred the leaves, the splash of color below swayed slowly. A mix of Ukrainian wildflowers, daisies, cosmos, beebalm, Sunflowers, roses, etc. all moved hypnotically in the breeze, as the birds scratched in the dry soil searching for worms.
Suddenly the door swung open, and the startled birds flew away, complaining loudly in the trees at the unforeseen disturbance. Squinting their eyes as they stepped out into the bright sunlight, several seminarians gingerly made their way down the ramp, pushing wheelchairs with smiling and squealing children in them. They were soon followed by the rest of the team members, as everyone emerged into the sunshine.
Having started the morning early with Morning Prayers, the team members had eaten a quick breakfast, and hurried to help feed the children. Knowing they would spend a few hours outdoors with the ones who are mobile, His Eminence Archbishop Daniel suggested that the team first make rounds through the building, to visit with those children who are bedbound.
Walking from one room to the next, the seminarians took a few moments to stop and talk, touch, and pray with the children who usually remain out of sight. While they had been prepared for this mission trip, and told that they would see severely disabled children, the young men were still moved to the core when they visited with children who spend their days lying in bed, unable to communicate, to play, or to do the simplest of tasks. Spotting the visitors, the children’s eyes recognized the guests, and even though they could not enunciate their joy, their eyes began to sparkle as they smiled toothless grins, making unrecognizable sounds.
Fighting back their own tears, the seminarians kneeled by each bed, taking the outstretched hands in their own, brushing back the hair from the children’s eyes, as they told them funny jokes and made them laugh.
Archbishop Daniel donned his epitrachelion and slowly made his way from bed to bed. He stopped by each child, who sensing the sacred moment quieted down and silently watched as His Eminence prayed over them, and sprinkled them with holy water, before moving on to the next child. He slowly moved from room to room, his voice echoing softly through the large hallways into the other rooms, where the children sat up in anticipation of his visit.
Having prayed with the children and taken care of their physical needs, it was now time to take them outside and allow them to have some fun. The seminarians took the children to the playground towards the back of the property where they played ball, hopscotch, and jumped rope. Hiding from the noonday heat, some of the children settled down at tables located under the shade of the tall trees and played with blocks and Legos.
As the lunch hour neared everyone retreated indoors, escaping the hot sun. As they still had some time before lunch was ready to be served, everyone gathered in the great room for a singalong. The seminarians, dressed in their Mission Team navy blue T-shirts stood up and sang first. The children clapped happily and begged for more. Sheepishly the young men sang a few more tunes before sitting down and joining the orphans in some Ukrainian folk songs. They were impressed with the children’s abilities, their sweet voices singing the words that generations of Ukrainian had sung before.
The laughter and music traveled down the hallway to the kitchen where the older children were assisting in the preparation of lunch. The orphanage not only provides rudimentary care and elementary schooling, but they also teach life skills. The children chopped cucumbers, baked bread, boiled potatoes, and prepared a salad.
Before long the children disappeared to their lunchroom, as the mission team members all gathered in the small kitchenette to enjoy their lunch, discuss the rest of the day’s plans, and prepared for tomorrow. Having enjoyed freshly fried cutlets, delicious salad, boiled potatoes, and carbonated water, the team members finished and one by one retreated to the game room to play a bit of ping-pong with the children who had gathered there.
As a cool breeze began to stir the tall grass, and made the curtains on the opened windows sway back and forth, a few of the seminarians decided to take some of the more mobile children on a short outing. While some of the young men remained behind, visiting with the bedbound orphans, the small group traveled out onto the road pushing wheelchairs. The young people laughed and joked along the street as they walked to the nearby shop where they enjoyed ice-cream cones, and cold soda pop. For the children this was an unprecedented treat, that they seldom enjoy.
The sun began to set, and the stars began to twinkle in the eastern sky as the children all nestled in their beds, closed their eyes, and happily relived the day’s activities. One by one the lights of the orphanage went off, and a peaceful quiet covered the orphanage property. The crickets chirped happily in the cool evening air, as the residents and guests of the orphanage closed their eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep. Soon the sun would be up, and the orphanage would once again reverberate with laughter and joy, as the Seminary Mission Trip of the UOC of USA continued its purpose of bringing love to the ends of the world, and helping those in need.