Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas in Ukraine...Part 1

For those who are wondering how Christmas is celebrated in Ukraine, you are going to have to wait a bit longer.  You see, Ukraine follows a different calendar from the West, so Christmas is on January 7th.  For now you'll just get to see and hear how this American celebrated Christmas on December 25th and the surrounding days. 

Christmas morning at our apartment began with a Facetime chat with mom while opening her gifts to us.  Then Sveta was off to work and I baked a pan of cookies and took them to share with our friends at rehab.  Typically, cookies in Ukraine are store-bought and quite different from our fresh-baked varieties, but everyone really seemed to like them.  Sveta freed herself from afternoon patients so we headed home to cook a delicious Christmas meal together and then relax for the evening. 

Our Christmas decorations and gifts

Gotta have a red sweater on for Christmas!

We switched to pajama pants and t-shirts for our meal. 
See my mom in the background?
On Friday evening we had a small dinner party with two of our fellow therapists, Alla and Ira.  We enjoyed taco soup and homemade tortilla chips (this is a potato chip society, but since tortillas are now sold consistently in the stores I get to enjoy making tortilla chips and introducing them to my friends!).  We also introduced our friends the idea of a cookie exchange.  Unfortunately Alla had no time to make cookies, but Ira came over and I shared one of my recipes with her and helped her make her first batch of cookies.  All of our cookies were delicious and the evening of fellowship and fun was a blessing!  
We had plenty of cookies left over so on Saturday we packed some bags and headed out to share them with friends with disabilities.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the new tastes and we enjoyed our visits!
On Sunday afternoon we hosted a girl's time at our apartment for a few friends with and without disabilities.  We introduced more new foods to our friends, including white chili and chicken salad on croissants and then we had a white elephant gift exchange (another new concept).  The girls were all so considerate of their friends that almost no stealing took place, but we had lots of laughs anyway.  To conclude our afternoon we invited a guest speaker who shared her story of life as a single woman until her late 20s and now as a wife and mother of 3.  She encouraged us to find our full satisfaction in God in all seasons of life, to serve God as single women, and to not pursue men.  She used Scripture to help us see the God-given roles of women.  The girls had several questions at the end and we are hoping to have the opportunity to have a similar gathering again in the future.
Mariika pondering her gift selection

While the events of this Christmas season have been different for me, it has been and continues to be a blessed time of celebrating the birth of our Savior and pointing others to Him!  I am so thankful for all of you who encourage and pray for me and for the work here in Ukraine!  
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!
 Stay tuned for "Christmas in Ukraine...Part 2" (after January 7th of course!).


Saturday, December 13, 2014

November News

Just like it does everywhere, time flies here in Ukraine!  Weeks go by so fast and I suddenly realize it's been a month since my last post.  So here's a little of what has been going on:

We took a trip to the village with friends to celebrate my former roommate's birthday. Lyuda, her husband, and their two children live with her mother in the house where Lyuda grew up.  She and her husband have been slowly remodeling and updating the house, including the additions of an indoor toilet and bathtub...which her 70(ish) year old mother had never had in her life.  We enjoyed the day of fellowship and food around the fireplace with friends. 

Rehab continues to welcome new patients and we are working to improve our processes and equipment to better serve our patients now and in the future.  This is Sasha:

Sasha has a traumatic brain injury as a result of a car accident a year ago.  He has been coming to rehab for about two months now.  He lives on the 5th floor of a 5-story apartment building, which means there is no elevator, so we started rehab with him at home.  Everyone knew he would get the most benefit by coming to the center, so some of his friends agreed to help him up and down the stairs in his wheelchair.  They didn't last long however, so now our driver, Dima, bumps him up and down all 5 flights twice a week!  As you can see, Sasha is no small man so it has to be a workout for Dima.  And we are seeing some progress.  Sasha was a professional volleyball player and was traveling in Europe at the time of his accident.  He is always SO happy and our center is more lively and joyful when he is with us.  He loves to use his limited English to talk with me.  And to my surprise his first response upon hearing I was from Oklahoma was "Thunder!"  It's rare for me to find someone who loves basketball in Ukraine, and Sasha loves it enough to know our Oklahoma team!  Vadim is his primary therapist and has been working hard with him.  About a month ago, Sasha's wife brought in a walker for us to try with him.  The picture below is from the first day we tried it.  Somehow 5 people became involved in helping him walk about 10 feet.  Thankfully we have all improved since that first day and Sasha can now walk 4 laps in our center with only Vadim, Sveta, and I assisting.  I wish I had a picture, but you'll just have to trust me for now.

Sasha is not the only one benefitting from his walker.  We want to find a scooter to use with our kids, but for now we've managed to use sliding boards and this walker to create a make-shift one.

We created this scooter when we met Stasik.  He's a precious 4 year old who had a brain tumor removed 2 years ago followed by several post-op complications.  While he is definitely behind on his motor skills, his greatest deficits are his inability to talk and eat and his breathing difficulties which require him to have a tracheostomy.  His family is hoping to take him to another country for further medical evaluation and treatment of his oral issues and we are trying to help as much as we can with all of his challenges.  Please pray with us that his family can get the answers and treatment he needs to maximize his progress with eating and speaking (whether that's in Ukraine or in another country) and that we have wisdom in how best to help him.

We concluded November like all of you - with a Thanksgiving celebration!  Even though it's not a Ukrainian holiday Sveta and I wanted to find a way to celebrate it with our friends.  Our apartment can't hold too many people, so Sergiy Bolchuk (the leader of our ministry) agreed to host a joint celebration with his birthday, which was the day after Thanksgiving, at his new house.  The guest list grew and grew and we ended up celebrating with over 35 people!  This was my first (and very possible my last) time to attempt cooking for that many people, made more challenging by searching for ingredients in a foreign country and cooking in a smaller-than-the-US-standard oven.  But we made ourselves responsible for the turkey and some traditional American dishes and then asked everyone to contribute a dish to complete the meal.  Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening, the food, and the fellowship with one another.  These friends are my Ukrainian family so I was thankful to get to share this holiday with them!

Dads do this everywhere!

 Kids being kids!

 Sergiy Bolchuk - the birthday boy

   The dessert table included my favorite - cherry pie!!!
Last Sunday our ministry led the church service.  Below is a video presentation of our ministry from the past year that I hope you to enjoy!



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Traveling West in Europe

Tanja and I returned a week ago from our trip.  Thank you to the many of you who prayed for us!  The road from Ukraine took us through Poland, Holland, and Germany before ultimately arriving in Switzerland and it required multiple buses, a plane, and a car...but we made it.  God was good to protect us and to provide people along the way to help us.  I wasn't sure how driving in foreign countries to unknown destinations might go, but God blessed us and our rental car came equipped with a GPS which helped immensely in navigating the many miles we covered. 

The primary objective of our trip was to attend a working conference related to the integration of people with spinal cord injuries across Europe.  The conference took place in the beautiful little town of Nottwil.  Most of the attendees of the conference, including the 4 other participants in my group, were people with spinal cord injuries.  My group is focused on the topic of mobility, which suits me perfectly as a physical therapist.  I had the opportunity to describe the situation in Ukraine related to tops such as poor access to mobility devices (wheelchairs and walkers) and lack of accessibility to buildings and transportation for wheelchair users.  Our working groups continue for the next 2 years and I am hopeful that we will have some solutions to offer in these areas when we complete our work.  I am also praying that some of the contacts we made with people from other countries that have more resources than Ukraine will be beneficial in some way for the work we are doing in Lutsk.

The view from the conference center in Nottwil
Before the conference, we were blessed to spend almost 3 days sightseeing in Switzerland with a friend of mine, Amanda Volkman.  The pictures should speak pretty well for themselves on the beauty of this country:
Good morning Switzerland!!!
Looking over Lake Neuchatel
Grindelwald and Interlacken:


The Reformation Wall

Flower Clock


Lake Geneva - see the Alps?


Swiss countryside - vineyards everywhere!

Good night Switzerland!

Heidelberg, Germany (on our way back to the airport after the conference):


On the last night we were staying in Aachen, Germany and while searching for a dinner spot we happened on to this little bakery.  Like the name?  So do I!  Their pastries are pretty delicious too!

Hope you enjoyed the pictures!  I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to witness the majesty of God's creation in other countries and to get a small taste of other cultures.  We serve a big and mighty God! 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Changing of Seasons and the Changing of Lives

We had a beautiful fall here in Lutsk!! God blessed us with many warm days for which I was very thankful! Now winter seems to be upon us...the bold colors of fall have faded to brown and the trees are almost all bare. The days are much shorter and the nights are no longer just "chilly." 

But, we did our best to enjoy the fall days.  We spent one day at a campground just outside Lutsk with many of our friends with disabilities, enjoying fellowship and shish kabobs. 

And Sveta and I went to a nearby park on a Saturday afternoon to walk and read. 

Sunday after church
I have always loved nature and while watching the changing of the seasons this year I have been reminded again that our God is the Creator and Controller of all.  Not only of nature but of lives and hearts.  Meet Volodimir (and his sweet little wife in the background!)...
 and their son Artem...

In mid-September, Artem came from another city to spend a month receiving rehabilitation for his progressive muscular disease.  He had met Alla, one of our therapists, at a Christian conference earlier in the summer and wanted to come and receive rehab.  Not long before he left home his dad, Volodimir, had a stroke. After Artem had been with us a few days, he mentioned his dad and asked if he could come sometime for rehab.  We told him the time is now and his parents made arrangements and came.  Volodimir has received rehab 5 days a week since his arrival 3 weeks ago and his progress has been tremendous.  He has gone from not being able to stand to walking with help from one person and climbing stairs.  And he is slowly improving his voluntary control of his arm.  He, his wife, and their son are pleased with his progress, as are we!  While other patients with stroke have come to our center for rehab, none have come this soon after their stroke.  Typically when they are discharged from the hospital they just go home.  We are only contacted months to years after their stroke and our progress is usually very limited.  Working with Volodimir has been a good learning opportunity for our therapists, particularly for Alla who has been his primary therapist.   

Top of the stairs with his therapist, Alla
And while we are excited for the physical changes in Volodimir, we are absolutely thrilled to witness God's work in him spiritually.  Artem and his mother, who are believers, have been praying for Volodimir for a long time, but he wanted nothing to do with God or church.  However, since they live in the spare room at our rehab center which is on the church grounds, he has spent much time around the people of God and has attended church services and small groups.  And at the close of last Sunday's service he repented!!  What a blessing from a gracious God to change this man's life! And what an encouragement to our team...we reminded ourselves that it is why we do what we do.  Please pray for Volodimir's spiritual growth and for continued physical progress during the remainder of his rehabilitation. 
Our rehab team: me, Katya, Sveta, Alla, Ira, and Vadim
To give an update on the prayer requests from the last post: we are still seeking a wheelchair for Mark, Katya now attends church almost every Sunday at Fimiam, and Igor received a wheelchair from social services before he went home. Thank you for praying!
Please also be in prayer for a trip that I will be taking this week with my friend Tanja, who is a quadriplegic. We are traveling by way of buses, planes, and cars through Poland, Germany, and ultimately to Switzerland for a working conference this weekend.  The work groups are composed of people throughout Europe and we will be working on different topics related to the successful integration of people with spinal cord injuries.  My group is discussing mobility aids and assistive devices.  Since locating the needed equipment for our patients is one of our biggest barriers to increasing their independence, I am excited to meet people from other European countries and possibly have some contacts for our future needs.  And I am praying that as I share about the work here, God would open people's hearts to the gospel.  Please pray for both of us, for our travels, and for our contribution and witness at the conference. 
What a privilege we all have to serve a great God who changes the seasons and changes lives!