Friday, March 23, 2012

Blog #3, March 23, 2012

The care for seniors in the former Molotschna colony took a step forward in 2011 when one floor of the Molochansk hospital was designated to provide care for up to 30 seniors. One room of this floor had earlier been renovated and furnished by the Mennonite Centre to serve as a respite centre for up to four patients.

A recent tour of this ward revealed clean facilities and patients who seemed content. Fourteen staff, including patient care, kitchen, maintenance and administrative staff, are funded by the government’s social services department, separate from the health department. Funding for basic maintenance of the building, upgrading of equipment, even basic supplies and medications is seriously lacking. The new, commercial quality stove purchased by the Mennonite Centre in fall, 2011 was found inside a cardboard box, still unused, because the kitchen in which it was to be installed did not pass inspection. Consequently all the meals are still prepared in a poorly equipped kitchen in a building next door. All the food is then carried by hand across the yard, to the patients on the wards. Several hot plates are used to prepare the food; old, scarred metal tables are used for food preparation and dishes are washed by hand in large metal tubs. Large windows in patient rooms facing west overlook the Molotshna valley, but have only partial sheer coverings. This will cause problems in the summertime in an un-air-conditioned building when outdoor temperatures can reach the high 30’s. Linoleum floor-coverings are cracked and broken so that the wheels on the wheelchairs get stuck in them. The seniors are expected to pay for food and medications from their own meager pensions.

In the nearby village of Kutuzovka, the Mennonite church has expanded its facilities for senior care from six to ten women. Being a two-storey facility with no elevator service is problematic for the seniors. Long-term plans, after the church has built a new sanctuary in Molochansk, call for more extensive renovations of the existing sanctuary to further increase their capacity for seniors. Lilli, supported by a German mission agency, gives positive and energetic leadership in this facility. Together with her staff, she has managed to develop a strong community atmosphere with the residents which includes spiritual care. Here also, the residents are expected to contribute much of their pensions to provide for their basic needs. One of the residents was so pleased to be here that she described her present conditions as paradise, compared to her former living conditions. Nevertheless, despite donations from Mennonite Centre and others, funding is a continual challenge for the staff.

Having observed our parents and other relatives through the aging process and eventual death, we sometimes feel that our western society has not yet discovered ideal care and support for our seniors. However, those of us in Canada in or nearing retirement can rest assured at the huge advantage we have over the present Ukrainian system.

At the other end of the age spectrum are the children in schools also lacking sufficient funding. A recent donation by the Mennonite Centre to pay for transportation allowed the 50-voice girls’ choir from the Russian school #2 in Molochansk to participate in a music festival in Melitopol. Their strong and sensitive musicality was rewarded with a third place finish. Their enthusiastic cheers signaled their delight despite the long and tiring day they had experienced!

Thursday was clean-up day at the apartments. Shortly after lunch a dozen individuals gathered to dispose of last summer’s tall weeds on the property in front of the apartment.
Sergei Zubov, also a resident and local businessman provided a front-end loader and truck to haul away garbage and branches that could not be burned on site. While the yard may not qualify as being manicured, a marked improvement is evident. Perhaps of even greater value was the spirit of cooperation in a joint project among the participants. Discussions even arose regarding the possible further development of this property into a playground by constructing a fence along the street and adding appropriate structures. That, however, will require more than “elbow grease”.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Blog #2, March 18, 2012

“Typical” or “routine” are not the best words to describe life at the Mennonite Centre. On Monday our day began with an extended breakfast visit with Jakob & Natasha Tiessen, the German pastor couple of the Kutuzovka Mennonite Church. While our German language skills are often put to the test as we discuss various issues facing the church and life in Ukraine, we enjoy the opportunity to communicate without an interpreter. They are planning a transition back to Germany after giving leadership to the church for 9 years. This represents a major transition for the church that so far has had only non-Ukranians in leadership. The church is also in the process of building a new place of worship in Molochansk with plans to convert the former sanctuary into a personal care home. These are challenging transitions for any congregation, and they are amplified in a community with limited financial and other resources. At the same time we celebrate an increase in participation among the youth and young families in the congregation. Six individuals were baptized last summer.

Tuesday morning finds us en route to our neighboring city of Tokmak. Bobbing and weaving our way, carefully choosing which of the pot holes we can drive through and which need to be avoided to prevent damage to our Lanos, the 10 kilometer drive often takes us more than half an hour. A recent rain complicates the process because we cannot determine the depth of the pot holes. The purpose of our trip is to do some banking for the Centre. This time, the forty-five minute process is successful.

We maximize the benefit of the trip to Tokmak by including other errands: picking up glasses for some senior’s as prescribed by the optometrist that has regular eye-examinations at the Centre (we can provide prescription glasses for 25 to 40 grievna, or about 3 to 5 U.S. dollars), and doing some grocery shopping. Fresh fruits and vegetables we pick up at the open-air market while other goods are available in a small, crowded supermarket. Deciphering the Russian labels on the various products is always an interesting process, occasionally resulting in surprises after we open them at home.

Wednesday we enjoy a visit from one of our co-workers from Zaporizhia. She speaks English fluently and has become a trusted friend, so the conversation flows easily and comfortably. However, in the afternoon a phone call to the Centre announcing yet another building inspection causes more frustration. Allegedly for the purpose of ensuring a safe workplace for us, the technical documentation required by these inspections tends to be onerous.

Thursday morning we are greeted by the director of a local school requesting some financial assistance in repairing some of their sewer pipes and several toilets. The need for such repairs is seldom in question, and since this is a school with whom we have worked previously we expect the project to be approved by our board. We write up the proposal and email it to Canada.

After her regular day at the clinic or hospital, a local doctor sees patients at the Centre after 4:00 p.m. Prescriptions are ordered by the Centre at reduced cost for the patients.

Friday is the day some 50-60 seniors come to the Centre for tea and a sandwich. But before they are done, we receive unexpected guests from Germany. Their Mennonite background tweaks their curiosity about the purpose of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine and we enjoy a pleasant lunch together, once again exercising our German by describing to them the various projects of the Mennonite Centre.

Saturday, between laundry and other household chores, we attend a recital at the local music school. The musicality and skills of these young musicians are impressive. They have a capable instructor who seems to take a personal interest in each one of his students. To hear this recital is encouraging for us, because there are many less-positive alternatives for them to occupy their time; these are choosing a better way than many.

Sunday morning sees us at the 2-hour Russian worship service. We are welcomed warmly, but communication with many of these friends remains a challenge.

Thus, we look forward to another week, with the full awareness that next week will likely not be at all like the week just described.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Hoping to leave winter behind us as we traveled snow-covered roads to the Winnipeg airport, we did indeed find more spring-like conditions upon our arrival in Molochansk. However, this was to be short-lived as snow flurries and below-freezing temperatures keep us indoors more than outside. International Women’s Day, celebrated as a national holiday on March 8, with its many cards, pictures and gifts of flowers, is a welcome reminder that the Ukrainian fields and gardens will soon bloom again. We are invited to a celebration of this event in the Russian School Number 2 in Molochansk where the boys have prepared an hour-long presentation of songs, skits, poetry and tributes for the women staff of the school. The celebration ends with each of the performers inviting a female staff member to dance with them.

We have learned by now that it is women who are giving leadership to many of the community institutions, and so the day is a fitting tribute to the women who work hard at improving life in often difficult circumstances. Among them is Marina, long-time friend of the Mennonite Centre, former director of the Dolina School and current director of the larger of the two schools (grades 2-11) in Molochansk.—about 340 students. Among her recent accomplishments is her success in convincing local governments to install a natural gas heating system in the school. Only in her second year in this capacity, she is already dreaming of establishing a small museum room in the school to commemorate the history of the town, formerly Halbstadt.

On Friday, the usual day for some 50 seniors to enjoy tea and a sandwich at the Centre, the staff present each of the “babushkas” with a hand-crafted card (quilling?) and a small gift. Marina and Dema team up for entertaining duets. We can only imagine the stories these women could tell of their seventy or eighty years in Ukraine! We have heard a few of them from people like Olga who has served the Mennonite Centre as receptionist for many years but is now retired.

On Sunday a group of five university students from Zaporizhia visited the Centre. Their assignment was to learn about German influence in Ukraine, specifically in the area of architecture. They were fascinated with the story of the Mennonites in Ukraine over the years. Rudy Friesen’s book on Mennonite architecture will be an invaluable resource for them as they prepare their presentation. We donated two books for them to take along to their faculty library and instructor, and in addition four of them purchased their own copies as well. Since they are part of the German department at the University, their presentation will be in German as well. They promised to invite us.