As our Mercy Projects team from the UK stepped off our plane at Kiev airport we were hit by a blast of intense heat, as Ukraine was experiencing the hottest summer for decades, with temperatures over 100F most days.
The next day we boarded a train from Kiev to Konotop, headed for the Hearts of Love Centre. This is where wed be running a summer camp for special needs and at risk children for the third year in a row as part of the charity Im the UK Director for Mercy Projects International.
The journey was challenging to say the least trying to squeeze our heavy luggage, full of resources and toys for the children, into a packed carriage with no air conditioning.
But when we finally arrived in Konotop we knew the journey had been worthwhile as we were met by the amazing team who run the Hearts of Love Centre. For some of us whod been before this was a very special reunion with the centres staff particularly their director Lena Yushenko, who weve formed a close bond with over the years.
Hearts of Love Centre Director Lena Yushenko with one of little girls who received a walker from the Mercy Projects team.
Arriving at the centre our team of 12 packed into our bedrooms which would be our home and base for the summer camp for the next week and that evening we were relieved to unpack all our heavy bags full of craft materials, special sensory toys and sports equipment in preparation for the camp.
The next day as the children arrived for the beginning of the camp it was so special to recognise so many familiar faces from the previous years wed been here. To kick off the camp some of the children with special needs performed Ukrainian dances in traditional costumes and then one of the young girls officially welcomed us by presenting one of our team members with a customary plate of bread with a bowl of salt in the middle.
Throughout the rest of the day we began our program of activities for the 38 children with worship, Bible stories, puppet shows, crafts, games and sports.
What made the camp all the more special this year was many of the special needs children who normally spend so much time in isolation in their homes were transported to the centre to take part even though some of them couldnt even walk. But the greatest highlight on the first day was giving a little girl a walker. She normally struggles to walk properly but within seconds she was racing around the centre with her newly found mobility.
Struggling through the unbearable heat, where it was 42C in the shade one day, we did everything we could to stay cool with fans on overload and plenty of water games and we even went swimming in the nearby lake. Despite this both the children and our team continued to have a life-changing week with many tears and laughter.
Half way through the camp I stepped back one afternoon and just observed all the wonderful activities happening at the same time and also looked at all the resources and equipment wed been able to fundraise and pay for over the past two years since Mercy Projects International and the other charity I work for ASSIST Europe began supporting the Hearts of Love Centre. I was struggling to hold back the tears as I stood amazed at what God had done with how Hed provided for us to help with new playground equipment, a basketball hoop, new fencing and now two brand new pergola shelters.
It was ironic then in the midst of this heat wave, when the centres director Lena told me about the struggles they face during the harsh winters there. Sometimes with the increasing gas prices theyre forced to turn some of the heating down and just have to huddle together under blankets to get through the winter. At this point I felt extremely challenged to do everything I can to raise all the support needed to keep the centre running throughout the year.
Lena and her team provide an education for several special needs kids who otherwise would be forced to learn in isolation as theyre not able to go to regular school. They also provide computer lessons, craft classes, dance lessons, fashion shows and birthday and Christmas parties. The Hearts of Love Centre is like an oasis for so many traumatised families, whose lives have been completely transformed by the love of Christ displayed in this place.
But the greatest highlight of the week came on the last two days of the camp when we made invited the children to give their lives to Jesus. Out of the 38 children nearly half of them made commitments and when we invited some of them to come to the front and pray out loud for the first time there was hardly a dry eye in the room. We were able to give all of the children whod made commitments new Bibles and the centre will be following them up with new Bible classes in the coming months.
Then came the hardest part of the week saying goodbye to the children and the staff at the centre. Its always amazing how Gods love overcomes all cultural, class and language barriers on trips like these. And while we came with so many things to give to the children we received so much more back.
Even though some of the special needs children had been particularly demanding both physically and emotionally we had grown to love them dearly. At the final concert several of the children dedicated each of their performances to each of our Mercy Project team members. Team member Ryan Warren had spent most of the week trying to control one particularly disruptive boy called Amir. But when Amir read a poem to him, you could see the bond that had grown between them.
So as we left behind these precious children at the Hearts of Love Centre we know the work there will continue, but my prayer is that we can support Lena and her team, particularly through the approaching harsh winter months.