July 2nd, 2023

map of Ukraine

Hello all,

Thursday we headed south again with Little Tania to the city of Kherson. As usual at “the MIG” outside of town, we “kitted up” with our helmet and body armor before we entered the city. Each city or village in Ukraine has a prominently displayed MIG fighter jet, tank or other military equipment in the center of town or at the entrance. Kherson’s is on the main highway into town, and you are likely to find volunteers from around the world making final preparations before entering the city.

We immediately drove to an industrial area littered with bomb craters and empty warehouses. One of these warehouses has been converted into a woodworking shop run by a man named Sergey from Tania’s church. He showed us the furniture and storage he was building for the “tiny house” schools, which we are helping to fund. After a discussion of the process, the unusual working conditions, and his hopes for the future, we said goodbye for now. До побачення. But the thing that will stick with me is that Sergey thanked us for giving him a job. Before the tiny house project he had no income and no sense of purpose. I will never forget the feeling that we have done more than just funded a construction project.

From Kherson, Tania took us out to the coast road between Kherson and Mikolaiev. This is the road where we were previously turned away at the last checkpoint partially because Rob was a journalist. This time, the first checkpoint wasn’t going to let us through because Tania had her camera. After several minutes, in which Tania argued with the soldier, they finally came to a compromise, and she left her camera in the guardhouse. And we proceeded on with our cell phones. This is a classic example of blindly following rules that make no sense. Tania impressed me with her persistence and attitude. She is young and has grown up here, and wasn’t going to take no for an answer..

We drove fast down the pockmarked road to be a less appealing target for the Russians just across the river, and we made our way to the town of Shuroka Balka and another church in Tania’s network. We met Olga, a woman in her 50s who had lived there 30 years. She is the unofficial caretaker of the children of the village and she knows everything about the families in this town of 2500. She recounted the brutality and random violence and destruction of the Russian occupation and showed us the remains of the school they used as a barracks. After they were driven back in October, one of their last acts was to destroy the school, which is one reason for Tania’s project.

After we dropped off supplies, we met one of the families in the village. There were five children living with an alcoholic mother. We gave an iPhone to the oldest boy, Danylo. I was again impressed with the maturity and especially the impeccable manners displayed by the children and teens in Ukraine. Danylo, 13, shook my hand with a man’s grip and looked me in the eye as he introduced himself. His three siblings did the same. Their house had been destroyed and they were all living across the dirt road at their grandmother’s small home. Shirtless dad tended the garden and the kids rode up and down the road on well used bikes.

After dropping our supplies at the church, Olga took us to her seaside home, which was mostly spared from the flood because the river widens at this point near the Black Sea. She is obviously on the higher end of the economic scale here which gives her resources and time to supervise the rebuilding of the church and tend to the village children. This town is a trip back in time. Even without shuttered and destroyed buildings and businesses, the pace of life is slow, family oriented and full of the sounds of the sea, and children playing. We passed a group of teens playing in a burned out building, two pitched rocks at a small target, a girl was laughing with another, music played while the artillery thundered in the distance.

We headed back to Kherson and passed through the first checkpoint staffed by the Ukrainian Border Guard. The solider laughed as we pulled up, he looked at Tania and said, “ahh Tania Synia you are back.” She warned them they would be seeing a lot of her. I gave the soldier a US Border Patrol hat I brought with me. He thanked me and sent us on our way. I have been able to trade quite a few patches and hats in my trips here and the soliders and cops love the small gestures. I have also been passing out velcro US flag patches which are a huge hit. Unlike the US military, Ukrainians have much looser restrictions on what they can display on their uniforms.

From Kherson we headed to Odesa again. About a three hour drive. There we purchased another 9 IDP starter kitchen kits and dropped them with Oksana at the Way Home Shelter we had previously visited. We also went to the womans shelter and dropped off toys for an autistic child there. They looked surprised to see us. We had told them we would be back with more things for the kids, but I don’t think they really believed it. There were more tears and hugs of appreciation.

Then began the six hour drive back to Kyiv. During the drive, I learned that Sasha, the soldier I met earlier this month at the front has been killed in combat near Donetsk. When we met I gave him one of the red dot scopes, a new top rail for his rifle and a single point sling. We also outfitted other members of his team with similar gear. Although we only spent a couple hours together we established a bond common among soldiers. I will not be able to attend his funeral but I am inquiring about ways to help his family.

More to follow.