September, 2010. We are awakened to the sound of a neighboring rooster accompanied by a chorus of stray dogs announcing the morning. A blanket of fog covers the soccer field behind our apartment after an overnight shower but daytime temperatures climb to the mid-twenties again. The soccer field, overgrown with weeds after a hot summer, becomes grazing area for a few goats, a cow and a flock of geese. The grapes on the driveway arbors along our street hang full and ripe. The samples given to us by the staff at the Centre are sweet and juicy as are the plums. Earlier fruits such as apricots and pears have been abundant. Watermelons available at highway kiosks and local markets are available for two hrievna (twenty-five cents). A carpet of yellow leaves begins to cover the lawn in front of the Centre. These will soon find their way to the new compost bin constructed by Uri, the Centre’s caretaker. Except for a few sunflower fields the harvesting is complete and the farmers wait for fall rains to ensure germination of the winter wheat.
A large group of seniors, probably around 60-70 in two shifts, have just enjoyed a lunch of potato, beet and onion salad with a version of “pigs-in-blankets”, tea and chocolates. This is the last seniors’ tea of the month, accounting for the departure from the usual open-faced sandwiches and tea. The visiting around the tables is enthusiastic and friendly, though, regrettably, we cannot converse with them in their native Russian language. Many of the seniors are living in poor conditions with meager pensions remembering conditions, even during the communist era, when state-sponsored care was more secure for the elderly. There are no government-funded seniors’ homes in this area. The small apartment at the back of the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church, intended for three women, now is occupied by five and struggling to make ends meet with the occupants’ pension contributions and donations from missions, including the Mennonite Centre. A local doctor makes regular visits to the home, but when medications are required, funds run out quickly and the Mennonite Centre is asked for help.
Schools are in session for another year. We review 4 new scholarship applications to determine if they can be added to the list of 26 scholarship applications that have already been approved for post-secondary studies. A total of 110,000 hrievna has been designated for scholarships this year. The brightest students receive government scholarships, some covering full tuition and living expenses. Many, however, are limited to their own resources to fund their way through studies that will hopefully land them a job in a country with high unemployment rates. The criteria we use in assessing the applications includes the students’ marks, family income and the students’ own contributions to their environment through volunteer work, effort applied to their previous studies and attitude. In addition to offering assistance for them, we also want them to begin thinking about how they can contribute to improving their communities.
We are thankful for a staff at the Centre that welcomes us back and carries on the vision and purpose of the Mennonite Centre. We have fun trying to learn each others language through an ongoing game of charades and hand gestures while being frustrated with the difficulty of the Russian language. And we are thankful for a large community in Canada that financially supports the work of the Mennonite Centre and remembers us with emails and prayers.