Monday, 17 October 2016


What a week.  After months of planning from Canada and close to 3 weeks of detailed preparations in Molochansk, we were ready for the Ambassador, Senators, Faith and Life choir and guests for our anniversary at the Mennonite Centre.  Over 60 people came from Canada.  Our beautiful Mennonite Centre, clothed in its fall colours was ready to celebrate its 15th birthday.
The week actually had a number of events.  It started off Monday evening with a surprise “after wedding” party for Ben and Lil Stobbe.  They were married in June and this was their first trip together to Molochansk.  We really did surprise them.  The evening started off with a welcoming dance from the children of the Kindergarten next door.  They were dressed like elegant ladies and gentlemen and danced beautifully.  This was followed by a meal prepared by Ira, our cook, and finished with an informal program which included singing by the Rhapsody choir.  This is a small choir from Tokmak.  That evening there were four Rhapsody singers – one male and three female voices.  They sang some fun songs such as the song “Lollipop”, as well as a number of Ukrainian folk songs.  Their clarity, precision, and eloquent expression made each song a delight.

Ben and Lil surrounded by friends at their party

The Faith and Life choir started their tour of the Molotschna settlement on Tuesday.  They started with a brief stop at the Mennonite Centre.  Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty were touring with the choir that day.  They left the bus for a few hours so I could take them to Lindenau, one of Senator Plett’s ancestral villages. We walked through the trees behind the village looking for the cemetery.  We finally located this and after much diligent searching found some old unmarked gravestones outside the fence marking the boundary of the cemetery.  The stone markers were from Mennonite times.  We then drove to the village of Tiege to rejoin the choir who had just completed a concert in the former Mennonite school for children who were challenged with hearing related problems.
Senator Don Plett and his wife Betty at Lindenau cemetery

Wednesday, our big day of the week, started with a problem.  There was no water pressure in our apartment building and I had to go all day in my dress shirt and tie but without having a shower or shave. 
The first people to arrive were four men in a van.  They were from Ukraine’s National Security Service.  We knew that they had been alerted to the event.  We assume it was the Mayor of Molochansk who alerted them and was concerned that nothing should happen to the dignitaries in his town.  Mary saw them drinking from a small container that is usually not used to hold water.  This was quickly hidden when they realized that they had been observed.  Nevertheless, their sober work was successful as nothing untoward happened to the Ambassador or Senators.

Our invited guests started arriving at 11:00 AM.  Our staff had worked hard to get ready.  We had invited 82 people to our banquet.  The staff had wisely set places for 94.  Ninety people showed up and were seated for our noon meal.  The Mennonite Centre is located in a former Mennonite girls’ school.  No room was big enough to seat 90 people and we were actually spread over 3 rooms in the building.  Ben Pauls and Henry Engbrecht, the conductors of the Faith and Life choir, coordinated their conducting and all three rooms simultaneously blessed the meal with the vibrant harmony of the Doxology.  The meal started off with borscht, like our mothers’ used to make.  The serving staff then brought the main course of kutletten (this is a Russian word but was generally used by Mennonites to describe an oblong meatball), mashed potatoes, and coleslaw.
Ambassador Waschuk in centre with Senator Peter Harder on his left

Five local clergy had been invited to this event.  Right after the meal, these five people were seen having an intense friendly discussion outside.  There was an Orthodox priest with his long gown and tall hat, two Ukrainian Catholic priests in their long gowns, a pastor from an evangelical church in Melitopol in his suit and clerical collar, and the pastor of the local Mennonite church in casual street clothes.  The image of these five people talking together was so strong that it drew everyone out of the building to watch and even join the group.   Even the Ambassador joined in the discussions.  With everyone outside, we were able to start our meeting 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Local Clergy at the Mennonite Centre

Attendees joining the discussion with the clergy

We had always planned for the event to be held outside in front of the Mennonite Centre.  The image of having the Faith and Life choir singing in front of our building was an opportunity I did not want to miss.  The day had started out cool with some sun.  Unfortunately it got colder in the afternoon.  The meeting started with a welcome from the Ambassador, followed by the choir.  Each of the Mennonite groups was given 5-7 minutes to make their presentation.  There must be an inflationary factor to time in Ukraine as most speakers exceeded their allotted time while the attendees sat shivering in their seats.  By half time, we all went inside for coffee and “blinchkies” (Ira’s famous crepes stuffed with cottage cheese filling and topped with a special sauce). Nobody wanted to risk sitting outside again.  We finished the event inside with people listening from all three rooms as the choir sang in the entrance hallway.
Ambassador addressing the meeting with choir in background
Staff assembling the blinchkies
An elderly lady joined our program when we were outside and desperately wanted to talk to me.  She lives across the street in the former Suderman house – which at one time was the local Opel dealership.  She had something she wanted to present to the Ambassador.  It was something that she had made.  Her story was that at one time, some Mennonites had helped her with food and saved her from starvation.  She wanted the Ambassador to hear this but left before we could make the actual presentation.  Her story was so compelling that we had to go visit her after our event and get her picture.  Her name is Anastasia and she is 80 years old.  She lives by herself.  She had a request.  She feels she does not have long to live and wondered if the Mennonite Centre would assist financially in giving her a proper burial.  We assured her that we would do something to help.

Oksana, Alvin, Anastasia, and Mary
Ambassador with gift from Anastasia

Our afternoon program concluded with remarks from Senator Don Plett and Senator Peter Harder.  They both had an opportunity to connect with their own roots and expressed appreciation for the ongoing work of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  After the program, Senator Plett told me that he and Senator Harder had both agreed to make a statement on Wednesday October 19, 2016 in the Senate chambers noting the contribution of the many Mennonite organizations in Ukraine.  These statements will become part of the permanent record of the Senate.

The meeting with the Ambassador and Senators will have many positive aspects for Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine.  For example, the ambassador talked to Dr. Art Friesen at length about our initiative for tele-medicine.  He immediately put Art in contact with the Minister of Health in Kyiv and Art spent the afternoon talking to her about the issues.  The Minister of Health in Ukraine is aware of the shortcomings in the delivery of health care and was impressed that the Mennonite Centre had actually bought some equipment and tested this approach.  Everyone else in Ukraine was just talking about it.  There are still many challenges in introducing tele-medicine in Ukraine.  In the past we dealt with the Chief Doctor in Molochansk.  Now we have an opening for ongoing discussions with the minister in Kyiv.

For the evening we had invited the whole town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th Anniversary.  We were prepared for 500 people and I worried that because of the cool weather, nobody would show up.  I should not have worried as Ukrainians love a good party.  We had a great turn-out.  The event was held in the town square, in front of the former Mennonite boys’ school.  There were Ukrainian dance groups, our own Faith and Life choir, and other local performers.  The Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, addressed the town in Ukrainian.  This was followed by birthday cake and “goodie bags” for everyone.  The evening concluded with a “fire show” as fireworks are currently illegal.  The sound of explosions causes fears in a society that is living too close to the war zone.
Birthday Cake being distributed
Fire Show
On Thursday, October 13, the Faith and Life choir continued their tour of the Molotschna settlement with an important concert in the former Mennonite church in Schoensee.  This is now a Ukrainian Catholic church and they have done a beautiful job of restoring it.  Their priest, Father Peter, had requested that a Mennonite choir come and sing “Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  In English it is “Holy God We praise Thy Name”.  Ambassador Waschuk and Senators Harder and Plett all came to this important concert.  Father Peter had invited his parishioners and everyone in the village who could get off work was there.  The program started with the Faith and Life choir singing.  After a few songs, Aaron Redekop, travelling with the choir, came forward and made a special presentation to Father Peter.  Aaron’s grandfather had attended that church and this was a special occasion for him.  After the presentation, the choir started singing ‘Grosser Gott Wir Loben Dich”.  As they did, Father Peter rose and motioned to a priest beside him to also rise.  We all followed his lead and stood there with tears in our eyes as the sound of this magnificent song filled the building.  This was the first time in almost 100 years that Mennonite choral music had been performed in this place.  One of the choir members later told me that he had trouble singing because of his emotions.  The experience of standing for the song reminded me of the practise of standing for the Hallelujah Chorus.  Hearing this majestic hymn, which is such a favourite among Mennonite audiences, performed while the choir was surrounded by Ukrainian ikons and symbols was a unique experience.  Mary and I will never forget the concert in Schoensee.
Presentation by Aaron Redekop to Father Peter
Senator Don Plett handing out Canadian flags to local parishoners
Schoensee Church with Choir

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 8 October 2016


The week has gone by very quickly.  A typical day has been to arrive at the office at 9:00 AM.  We spend an hour with Oksana, our manager, planning the activities for the upcoming visit with the Ambassador on October 12.  We decide on a list of everything that needs to be accomplished that day.  Then Mary and I have to sit back and watch Oksana become the proverbial one-armed paper hangar as she works on our to-do list.  She makes and receives endless phone calls, emails, and personal visits.  We hear her speaking in Russian.  Sometimes she will end a phone call, smile and tell us in English “Okay that has been arranged”.  We have no idea what has just been arranged but are glad that progress is being made.  Part of our stress comes from the fact that we cannot get a direct sense of what is happening as all communication around us is happening in Russian.  We do know that Oksana is making progress on many fronts.  This week we got the design of a banner inviting the town of Molochansk to come celebrate our 15th anniversary.

Last Sunday afternoon, Mary and I took a drive south about 30 km to a place where there are some natural springs bubbling up from the hillside.  We find this is a place we can go to relax.  We take along some chairs from our apartment and like to sit there and read and watch the locals as they come through the area.  The local people probably come to look at 2 strange foreigners, sitting on out of the place chairs, reading their books.

Soon after we arrived, a group of 30 children came through, each carrying containers for water.  They had come to fill their bottles with fresh water from the springs.  One of the adults supervising them guessed that we were from the “Mennonitesky Centrum”.  We understood from her that they had come all the way from Tokmak - a good 50 km drive.

Couples frequently come to this location to take their wedding pictures.  A wedding party arrived soon after we did.  The groom and his best man wandered off to drink a beer and have a smoke.  The bride stood in front of the main pool and spent her time talking on her cell phone while her maid of honour glared at me as I tried to sneak a picture.  Not sure why they came as no photographer ever showed up for them.

As you can see in the picture with the children filling water containers, there are a number of religious icons on the grounds.  Some people come to meditate and it is a special place for them.  We observed one young lady spending time in front of each icon.  She then came to the pool you can see in the picture with the bride.  She entered the pool in street clothes, and commenced to fully immerse herself in the water.  Each time she came to the surface she would cross herself with the Orthodox cross – that is top to bottom and right to left.  It was a special moment for her and it would have been totally inappropriate for me to intrude by taking a picture.

We operate weekly medical clinics in the Mennonite Centre.   Doctors come once a week to provide specialist services that are not readily available in our town.  People make appointments with our receptionist for these visits.  The Mennonite Centre pays the cost of this service and anybody is welcome to use them.  The other day an elderly lady came to make an appointment.  Her husband had brought her on a rather special type of vehicle.  I followed her out when she left and got permission to take a picture.  It truly was a “5 star” mode of transportation.  It was a scooter converted into a pickup truck.  I would love to borrow it next time I take Mary out for dinner.

One morning we had a school class come to the Mennonite Centre.  They have been working on a special project of mailing ‘Doves of Peace” to children around the world.  The Mennonite Centre paid for the postage and as a thank you, the whole class came to get their picture taken in front of our building.  The children are holding the doves with messages of peace as well as the addressed envelopes in which they will be mailed.

Friday we drove to Zaporozhye to pick up Ben (our FOMCU board chair) and Lil Stobbe who have come to participate in our October 12 meeting with the Ambassador.  We also heard a concert from the Men’s Faith and Life choir, on tour from Manitoba, as they performed at a music school in Zaporozhye.   There was a good size audience for the afternoon performance.  The audience really liked the songs that had a strong harmony and showed it by their loud applause.  People in the audience started to smile when the choir sang a song in Russian.  Occasionally the smiles grew a bit stronger and people would look questioningly at their neighbours.  I assume this occurred when they heard the pronunciation of a Russian word that was a bit foreign to them.  It was a great concert and the audience gave them an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Next week we have the “big” event at the Mennonite Centre with the visit from Roman Waschuk, the Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, and Senators’ Peter Harder and Don Plett.  Will keep you posted.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Thursday, 29 September 2016


Mary and I arrived in Ukraine on Thursday September 22.  It is just under one year since we left and it quickly became apparent to us, that we felt like we had never left the place. Twenty-four hours after we left Winnipeg, we were settled in our apartment in Molochansk.  After a meal of borscht, provided by Ira, our cook at the Mennonite Centre, we settled in for a night’s sleep.  Our room was warm and we opened the window so that we could drift off to sleep with the usual sounds and smells of Molochansk wafting over us.  The usual night sounds in Molochansk are dogs barking in the evening, trains passing through the town, and roosters crowing in the morning.  The usual night smells in our apartment are the faint odour from the septic tank outside our apartment building reminding us that Molochansk does not have a sewer system.

This is the fifth time that Mary and I have served as volunteer North American Directors at the Mennonite Centre.  We know that this trip will be very different from all our previous trips to Ukraine.  It will be dominated by one event.   On October 12, 2016, we will be co-hosting an event with the Ambassador of Canada to Ukraine, Roman Waschuk, at the Mennonite Centre.  All Mennonite organizations working in Ukraine have been invited to attend.  The Ambassador wishes to use this opportunity to thank all these organizations for their contribution to Ukraine.  As well as the Ambassador, we will also have two dignitaries from Ottawa in attendance.  These are Senator Peter Harder and Senator Don Plett.  We are very pleased that they have shown a personal interest in coming to the event.  To ensure that the event will have a good Mennonite flavour, the Men’s Faith and Life Choir will be coming from Manitoba to perform at our ceremonies. They will also sing at a party that evening to which the whole town of Molochansk has being invited.  This party will mark the 15th anniversary of the establishment of the Mennonite Centre.  We are very honoured to be able to participate in this event.  Planning and arranging all the details is keeping us very busy.  Mary and I can admit to feeling a bit of pressure to make sure everything goes well.

We attended the Molochansk Mennonite Church last Sunday.  Sitting through a one hour sermon while still feeling the effects of jet lag, can be a bit painful.  The church offering was at the end.  As I placed my contribution in the offering plate, I noticed a number of people looking at me and smiling.  I was reminded that I have the unfortunate gift of getting into trouble with off-handed comments no matter where I am in the world.  The background to this is that during the week I was shopping and the clerk refused to let me pay with one of the bills I handed him.  It was clear from his gestures that he could not accept that bill.  Later I showed the bill to Oksana our manager when there were a few other people around.  They all recognized the bill as being too old and knew it was no longer accepted as legal tender.  Obviously someone had passed this on to me and as a foreigner I did not know that I should refuse to accept it.  It was a 50 greevna bill worth about $2.50 Canadian.  I was advised that my only option was to take it to a bank and see if they would exchange it for a newer bill.  I responded by telling them that I really had another option - I could generously place that bill in the church offering the next Sunday.  That is why they all turned to me on Sunday and smiled when the collection plate reached my place.  Fortunately they saw me make my contribution with legal tender.  I did go to the bank this week and the old rejected note was replaced.

Even the note looks rejected

Every house in Molochansk has a driveway – even if the house owner does not have a car.  Every driveway is covered with an arbour holding up well trained grape vines.  At this time of the year, the grape vines are weighted down with beautiful clusters of grapes.  The grapes come in a variety of colours – red, dark blue, and green.  Most interestingly for us, they come in a variety of flavours that we have not experienced before.  The local people have been very generous in supplying us with grapes from their garden.  We enjoy eating them even though they all have seeds and require a bit more work than the seedless varieties available to us in Canada.

The biggest change for us since a year ago is that the road to Tokmak, our nearest city, has actually been paved.  There was a stretch of about 4 or 5 kilometers that can best be described as being one long pot-hole.  I used to think of it as doing the Tokmak dance with approaching cars weaving and bouncing around one another and using the whole width of the road with no regard for actually staying on the proper side.  A half hour drive can now be done in 10 minutes.  In a discussion with the Mayor of Molochansk this week I thanked him for whatever he had done to give everyone a better road.  He acknowledged that the road to Tokmak was not really part of his jurisdiction but told us that all the trucks carrying the asphalt to pave the road were driving through Molochansk and causing road problems for him.  He worked out a deal with the contractor that every truck carrying the asphalt through Molochansk would leave 5 shovels full of asphalt to fix his own roads.  Governments in this area were once concerned with spreading the wealth. Now with very little wealth left to spread, our pragmatic mayor is more focused on spreading the asphalt.  That is progress for Ukraine.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 7 November 2015


Our time in Molochansk at the Mennonite Centre is over.  We leave on Sunday for Kyiv where we have a number of meetings.  From Kyiv, we leave on November 11 for Vilnius Lithuania to visit a friend at the Lithuanian Christian College.  Our time has gone by too quickly.  We have many memories to take home with us. 

It is always a challenge to work in a different culture and to communicate primarily through interpreters.  We have learned to cope with this over our four terms, but we keep on experiencing new situations. 

Mary has observed the many seniors arriving for our three weekly lunches that are provided at the Mennonite Centre.  Being a nurse by profession she wondered about the how clean their hands were and the danger of spreading flus and colds in the dining room.  Her simple solution was to suggest that we attach a container of hand sanitizer to the wall near the entrance to the dining room.  This led to some interesting discussions.  Our staff thought this was totally ridiculous.  Water would be splashed all over the floor and there would be a terrible line up at the dining room door.  They obviously did not understand the concept and thought we were suggesting a full hand washing station at the entrance.  Also, no one knew where to get any of this strange solution that we referred to as hand sanitizer.

Our next idea was to discuss this with a doctor and get their take on the concept of providing hand sanitizer to our guests.  Mary started off the discussion by explaining that hand sanitizer is available at all entrances to hospitals in Canada and that visitors are encouraged to use it to help prevent the spread of germs.  We got no further than that when the doctor declared the suggestion totally impractical.  Their office was already full of equipment because they had to share the space with a dentist and all the related dental equipment and they had no room for any additional equipment to dispense hand sanitizer.  Our biggest disappointment was in the lack of any curiosity on the part of the doctor to understand what we were trying to say.  We have no idea where the breakdown in communications occurred.  Was it our inability to articulate the solution, were our words properly translated, or did the doctor really not comprehend.  If you take the discussion literally, the bottom line is that there will be no hand sanitizer dispensers at the Mennonite Centre because the doctor’s office, back at the hospital, is full of dental equipment.  The real bottom line is that the seniors coming for lunch might not understand the concept any better and would refuse to use the product.

Our next example of a difference in culture comes from the care of seniors in personal care homes or hospitals.  Our organization does not operate a senior’s home but we are a major contributor to the privately operated home in Kutuzovka, our neighbouring village.  They used to share a building with the local Mennonite Church but now each has their own facility.  Molochansk Mennonite Church still has a close involvement with this senior’s home and provides funds as well as negotiates on their behalf for support from organizations such as ours.  The senior’s home is blessed to have a missionary from Germany by the name of Lilli Buss as the manager.  She was born in Russia, with Mennonite ancestry on her mother’s side and moved to Germany as a youngster.  She brings “strange foreign” practices to the work.  We were talking to Lilli and she complained of the state of health of people they were receiving from hospitals.  One lady came with many bed sores.  For Mary as a nurse, no hospital should be discharging patients with bed sores.   We learned that the nursing staff in hospitals see their work as dispensing medication – not providing individual care to patients.  If patients need to be turned to avoid bed sores, this is the responsibility of the family.  If family is not available the patient has to pay someone to have this done.  If they have no money, then they have to accept the fact that life is tough.  At the senior’s home in Kutuzovka, Lilli ensures that patient care is given to avoid bed sores.  This is the responsibility of the nursing staff at the facility. This is a new concept in Ukraine.  Thank goodness for some “strange foreign” practices being introduced.  As a supporter of the Kutuzovka Senior’s Home, the Mennonite Centre would like to support the continued improvement in care being given to seniors at this facility.
Seniors Enjoying a Game at the Kutuzovka Home

At our first Sunday service at the Molochansk Mennonite Church, they held a joint conference of all Mennonite churches operating in our area.  There were attendees from Berdjansk, Balkavoya, Kherson, Zaporozhye, and Nikolaipol.  The church was packed.  The pastor of our church decided to mark this important occasion by turning his back on the congregation and taking a selfie (yes that word has been incorporated into the Russian language).  It was a unique way of documenting an important event.  I just happened to have my camera in church that day and recorded the event from my perspective.

In previous visits we always had a special outing for the staff.  We would take them out for some fine dining (their choice was McDonald's) and a classy cultural event (again their choice was bowling and roller blading).  This time we could not find a good time slot to go out so we invited all staff to our apartment for a party.  We served them a non-Ukrainian dish of chicken stir fry on rice with a more traditional cabbage salad.  We showed the staff some pictures of our families back home and tried to give them some idea of what life is like in Canada.  Oksana was very busy interpreting all evening.  There was a lot of laughter. Mary and I feel a real bond with the staff.  It really feels like one big family at the Mennonite Centre.
Mary with some Staff Members

This may be my last blog.  Depending on time constraints, I may send one more, but I in case I don’t, I would like to say that it has been a pleasure to share our time in Ukraine with you.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 31 October 2015


I completed my last blog by speculating as to what I was going to say at an upcoming conference dealing with special needs children and being attended by pediatricians, psychologists, and specialized children’s workers.  The conference had a special focus on autism.  I was not asked to be a speaker; I was “informed” that I would be speaking.

The desire to hold this conference came from the Promitei Centre, a local institution in Zaporozhye that looks after special needs children, and an NGO group “Unity” that advocates for changes in Ukraine to improve the life of its citizens.  The Mennonite Centre has worked closely with both groups.  The Mennonite Centre agreed to sponsor this conference at a cost of 20,000 greevna.  That is $1150.00 Cdn or $875.00 US at today’s exchange rate.  This money covered the cost of bringing in a speaker from Kyiv, paying the transportation costs of those attending, as well as covering the cost of the venue and the food.  As the sponsoring organization it was quite proper that a representative from the Mennonite Centre get to welcome the guests and give a context as to why this conference was being held.

The objective of the conference was to get doctors to make an earlier diagnosis of autism and then provide an environment where children with this diagnosis could learn social and life skills.  From one of the speakers at the conference I learned that there is still a tendency from Soviet times to hide children with this problem in their homes.  Society does not want to see them or acknowledge that everything is not perfect.  Consequently parents of a child with autism are given a 24/7 life sentence of looking after this person in their home for as long as they live.  Once the parents die, these special needs people are moved into a “Level  4” facility where they are fed and housed but otherwise ignored to live out the rest of their lives. 

I was asked to be very brief in my comments but also very clear in stating the objectives of the conference.  I wanted the attendees to know what the Mennonite Centre was and what our motivation was in sponsoring this event.  I started by commenting that I must have descended from people with restless genes as my ancestors had moved from the Netherlands to Prussia about 400 years ago.  After 200 years in Prussia/ Germany, they moved into this region of Ukraine where they lived for 100 years before moving again to Canada.  I told the audience that there were many people in Canada and the United States who had grown up hearing their parents talk about life in Ukraine and that these people felt a personal desire to help improve the life of the current inhabitants of the area.  That is why they donated to money to the Mennonite Centre to allow our organization to sponsor this conference.  I also told them that we wanted to see people with autism be given a chance to live as full a life as possible.  I did all of this in 2 minutes with Oksana, my interpreter also taking that much time.  At the end of my speech, Oksana and I had agreed to reverse roles and I finished my speech in Russian by saying “spasiba”, which Oksana translated as “thank you”.  I saw it as a test to see if the audience had been paying attention and hoped that I might get a smile or two.  The audience actually laughed.
Oksana and Alvin at the Podium

The choice of main speaker was brilliant.  He is an American pediatrician by the name of Dr. James Peipon and has lived in Ukraine for 14 years. He serves with an organization called Ukraine Medical Outreach.  Their slogan is “Treating the Whole Person, Body and Soul”.  He was an engaging speaker who made a number of important points.  First, we all have a bit of autism in us which manifests itself in certain repetitive behaviour.  We usually learn to control it and can lead a normal life.  His second point was that when parents suspect their child may be autistic, statistics show that the parents are almost always correct.    This was a note of caution to the pediatricians in the audience to listen to the parents.  The tendency in Ukraine is for doctors to see a child with autistic symptoms and to say, “Let’s wait a bit and see if this behaviour will go away”.  Dr. Peipon urged them to refer these children right away to a psychiatrist or other specialist and not wait.  The sooner that these children are placed in a proper environment, the sooner they will have a chance of learning social interaction and have a better chance of coping in society. His third point was to tell people that after a diagnosis, they have to do something.  Sitting back and expecting someone else to initiate the solution was not acceptable.
An Animated Dr Peipon with Olga Rubel Translating

The capacity audience was engaged and there were many questions.  There was a request for a more such conferences.
Part of the Audience in Attendance

An interesting “medical text” was handed out for doctors to take with them.  It would help them as well as parents recognize the symptoms of autism.  The book was totally in Russian and did not mean anything to me, but Mary pointed out one page at the bottom where it had a picture of a child lining up his toys.  Mary knew from a friend of hers with an autistic child that this was a symptom of autism.  I then studied the page and started recognizing what the pictures were telling me.  The book was a popular item for attendees to take home.  You can click on the picture to enlarge it.
Page from the Medical Text

The news media was present and the whole conference was recorded by a local television station.  I even got interviewed.  I was hoping that they would ask me something about Mennonites but instead the interviewer wanted to know how such children were treated in Canada.  I told her that we try to give them as normal life as possible by having such children attend the usual classrooms with the special needs child receiving care from a dedicated teaching assistant.  I should have mentioned that the cost of the teaching assistant is covered by the government.  In Ukraine, they can have special assistants in a classroom but the costs have to be covered by the parents.  Almost no one can afford this expense.

As a former government employee, I have attended many conferences over the years.  The best that can be said for most of them is that they were of some interest.  Not only was this conference of some interest to the attendees but from the level of interaction, I would expect some of them to actually apply what they learned.  The conference was that good.
Dr Peipon with View of Head Table

The Mennonite Centre received a lot of mention in the conference.  It was an excellent investment for our organization.  Thank you to all donors who have given generously to allow the Mennonite Centre to have sponsored this event.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 24 October 2015


It is Saturday morning and I am working on my blog.  I started off by reading my diary for the last week and it noted that last Sunday morning the first thing I did was check my emails to see if my previous blog had “blown up” on me in any way.  All was quiet on the western front and I could go enjoy my breakfast.  Not too sure about the eastern front.  There are a surprising number of readers of the blog from Ukraine and Russia. 

Our week was spent in Zaporozhe with our representative Olga Rubel looking at current and future projects.  We were going to spend the week staying at the Intourist Hotel but Olga persuaded us to do the Mennonite thing and stay at her place.  She even turned on the heat for our benefit.  Last time we were in Zaporozhye, the big issue every day was whether I should drive or she would be the driver.  Her husband, who has never driven, always made the decision.  I ended up driving a lot.  This time, her husband was never consulted on the issue and Olga drove every day.  I can confirm that she is a good driver but she still can’t park.  There is never any danger of her rubbing the tires on the curb as we never got closer than 3 feet.  After parking, the question was, could cars going down the road still get passed us?  If yes, then we left the car and went about our business.  In Olga’s defense I can say that she got her driver’s license about the same time as she started collecting her pension.  Many of us would lack the confidence for such a challenge at that age.

Our first visit was with Dr. Uri Reshetilov.  He is an enthusiastic supporter of our move into tele-medicine and wanted to celebrate our visit with a beautiful spread of food.  I sat there eating caviar on bread with cream cheese, wondering how I was going to explain the challenges of our work to the people back home.  I felt better when I noted that he only gave us red caviar and none of the expensive black variety.
Spread of Fruit and Caviar
Dr. Reshetilov Presenting Us With Original Painting of Dam in Zaporozhye

The Mennonite Centre has been a strong promoter of tele-medicine as a way of improving health care in the former Mennonite villages.  Most villages have what we would call a nurse-practitioner (called feldshers in Ukraine).  This is the front line of medical care.  They have limited abilities to diagnose illness and could often benefit from consulting with a doctor.  This would involve lengthy and costly travel for the patients.  With tele-medicine, the feldsher could consult with a doctor in Molochansk while the patient is still in the office.  We actually sat through such a consultation in Zaporozhye with Dr.  Reshetilov.  He was examining a patient who was at that moment in a doctor’s office in Molochansk.   We followed up with a conference call to a number of doctors and feldshers.  You can see all the individuals in the following picture.  We are in the lower right of the screen.  My face is black as I am holding up my camera and taking a shot of the live screen.
Live Picture of Tele-Medicine in Action

There are a number of Mennonite organizations operating in Ukraine and especially in the Zaporozhe area.  One of these is the Mennonite Family Centre.  It operates a personal care home for seniors.  Their manager is a local person by the name of Borys Letkeman.  He is a descendant of Mennonites who were exiled to the east during Soviet times.  He has returned to live in the area where his Mennonite ancestors once lived. 
Borys Letkeman with Seniors

When we arrived in his office, he told us of a phone call he had received that morning.  It was from a Mennonite church pastor in the village Balkavoya (called Fuerstenwerder in Mennonite times).  The pastor had a young mother in his office and she was destitute.  Her husband had recently abandoned her with 3 young children and they had nothing.  Borys referred to her as being “free of all encumbrances”.  This is not an area where Borys has any direct responsibility, but from the tears in his eyes, I could tell that he had done something to provide assistance.  It is beautiful to see the cooperation that exists between the various Mennonite agencies.

The Mennonite Centre has been active with an organization called Promitei.  It deals with handicapped or disadvantaged children.  In particular, it has worked very closely with children suffering from autism.  This disorder is not well understood in Ukraine, even by pediatricians.  Consequently children are often misdiagnosed.  Promitei would like to get children diagnosed very early and work with them to ensure that they are properly “socialized” - to directly quote the interpreter.  This is not some old political indoctrination from communist times but rather it expresses a desire to ensure the children properly develop their social skills.
Children Interacting With Staff

Promitei has recently moved from small downtown apartments to a large house further out in the suburbs.  The space is given to them rent free by a sympathetic orthodox priest.  Both our organization and the Mennonite Family Centre provide crucial financial support to operate the place.
New Building for Promitei Centre

When we first arrived at Promitei, their director Anjelica, was not present.  She arrived soon after and offered profuse apologies.  Her mother, who until now had been the prime care giver for their ailing father, had herself suffered a stroke.  Anjelica was now desperately trying to organize some home care.  Olga suggested that we contact Borys Letkeman as his organization had a program to provide home care.  Our Mennonite Centre cannot do everything and it is good to call on other agencies for important help.
Promitei class with Angelica on the Right

Next week Thursday, the Promitei centre is holding a major conference on autism.  Many pediatricians have been invited and they are also bringing in some experts from Kyiv.  The Mennonite Centre is sponsoring this conference in the hope of improving the ability of doctors to properly diagnose this disorder.  As we are the sponsoring organization, I was informed that I am listed as one of the speakers.  Wonder what I will say to the pediatricians.

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at:

Saturday, 17 October 2015


Yes it has been the Canadian Thanksgiving week and not a turkey in site on any tables in Ukraine.  We did celebrate a national holiday on Wednesday of this week but have no idea what we were celebrating.  We are used to not understanding everything that happens around us.  It is all part of working in a foreign environment.

The week started off on a strange note.  We came back from a meeting just as people were starting to assemble for the senior’s lunch at the Mennonite Centre. We provide 3 such lunches per week, on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.  One couple immediately approached me and started talking in Russian.  When I indicated that I could not understand, they obliged me by speaking more slowly and loudly.  It still did not help.  I went inside to get Oksana, our manager, to be my interpreter.  They were not pleased to see her join the conversation.  It turned out they were trying to complain to me about one of her decisions.  They were requesting financial assistance in getting a second cataract surgery for the husband.  Our policy is to provide funding for only one surgery.  While we might make exceptions, it was felt with their 2 pensions that they could afford to pay for the operation themselves.  What intrigued me was their attitude - if you do not satisfy their request they will make a formal complaint to some official.  It turns out that I was the official.  This attitude is a carryover from Soviet times when complaints were constantly being made to local officials.   It was a way of life I would not like to encourage.  After making their formal protest to me and having their request denied, the couple went inside for a free lunch.  No complaints there - and also no thanks for any assistance received so far.

Later that day we drove to the former Mennonite village of Juschanlee.  It was the site of the estate owned by Johann Cornies – unofficially referred to as the Mennonite Czar.  He was a man of tremendous influence in the 19th century and was responsible for the orderliness in establishing Mennonite villages as well as for many of the progressive agricultural practices on Mennonite farms. We were not on a historical tour but rather were going to visit Oksana Donets.  We met her in April 2014 after her mother came to the Mennonite Centre with a request for financial assistance.  It was a touching story.  Oksana had her hip injured as a young teenager while participating in some martial arts.  The injury was initially misdiagnosed, resulting in long term problems.  The original injury was aggravated 10 years ago when she was in a car accident while pregnant.  The hip had continued to deteriorate and doctors finally were recommending that she get a replacement.  By the time we saw her, she could no longer walk and was lying trapped in her mother’s second floor walk-up apartment.  The artificial hip would come from Germany and it cost $8,000 plus the cost of the surgery.  The family had applied everywhere for assistance and had always been turned down.  We were their last hope.
Oksana Donets and Her Daughter in Better Times

Oksana 18 Months Ago

The amount requested was well above the usual the usual amount that we provide for individual surgeries but the board agreed to post an appeal on Facebook.  This brought in over $5000 and the board approved the request for us to purchase the artificial hip with the family paying the cost of the surgery.  Mary and I were the lucky people to go back to Juschanlee and tell her the good news.  Mother and daughter both started crying at the news.  The mother hung onto Mary so hard when we left that I was not sure if Mary would be allowed to leave.  My final words to Oksana were that next time I see you I want to see you walking.

On our return to Ukraine this October we were curious as to what had happened.  We had heard some hints of complications but wanted to get a complete understanding of the situation for ourselves.  We returned to Juschanlee this week and were warmly received by the mother at the door.  When I went into their living room, Oksana was standing and started walking toward me.  She was smiling – something that we did not see last time.  Their story was difficult to hear.  After the purchase of the hip, Oksana was admitted to a hospital in Zaporozhye to prepare her for the operation.  The doctors were puzzled by her total inability to walk and performed an MRI.  They found a large tumour on her spine.  This tumour turned out to be benign, but it was the reason she could not walk.  This tumour was removed and she has been recuperating ever since.  She actually had to learn to walk again with the help of physical rehabilitation.  She still needs the hip replaced and is almost at the stage where this could happen.
Oksana Happy to be Standing and Walking

Oksana has had 12 surgeries in her lifetime and expressed some reluctance at enduring yet one more.  The family also had to borrow $2500 for the surgery to remove the tumour and receive the rehabilitation.  They do not know how they will finance the cost of the surgery for the hip replacement.  It will be difficult for them to move forward.  I encouraged them to stay in touch with Oksana Bratchenko, our manager as they plan their next move.

Despite the difficult situation they are in, Oksana Donets and her mother are extremely thankful to the Mennonite Centre for the assistance we provided.  Without the purchase of the hip, they would not have started the procedure that discovered the tumour.  After a short discussion, they had a party for us with food and refreshments.  They decorated the food with napkins printed like American $100 bills.  They asked us about Canada and our family at home.  When Oksana Donets heard that we had a couple of unmarried sons, she smiled quite broadly and expressed an interest in getting to know our family much better.  Her mother gave us many jars of canned produce as well as a large frozen chicken.  They were trying to find ways of saying thank you.  We know that they are thankful.
Food for the Party

Oksana Donets and Oksana Bratchenko (our manager)

If you wish to know more about the work of the Mennonite Centre, you can check out our web site at: or follow our daily activities on Facebook at: