Summer 2023 – Day Six: And A Story of Kate and Artur

Day Six finds us at the Open Hearts Special Needs care facility in Vinnytsia. During our last visit in October 2022, Open Hearts Director, Svitlana Ivashkento, explained that before the war Open Hearts provided occupational training and respite care for Special Needs families in the Vinnytsia region. When the war started they pivoted to provide housing to Special Needs IDPs fleeing the conflict zones.

Many times the housing was temporary as Open Hearts worked to find suitable care and housing in neighboring countries and then to arrange transportation.

Last fall Open Hearts was in the midst of renovating their second floor to add more capacity but had run short of funds to finish the stairwell and elevator. Our commitment to raise the needed $35,000 led to the formation of the volunteer organization Hope Across Borders. Along with the participation of the U.S. Ukraine Foundation (a U.S. Based charity) the money has been raised and the stairwell and elevator have been installed.

Please meet Kate. Kate along with her mother and father, who is bedridden, fled their home in the Donets region of Ukraine early in the war. The three of them live in one of the dorm rooms. Kate is remarkable. She knows a bit of English and a lot of Geography. She wanted to know where each of us were from and was familiar with most cities in the U.S.

Kate excels at intricate carving.

Artur amazed us during our last visit with his wheelchair acrobatics. Artur lost the use of his legs in a sporting accident when he was 18. He’s still an avid sportsman. He has competed in the Special Olympics and is quite proud of the silver metal he won at a Latin Dance competition. He participates in and coaches table tennis.

Artur is from Bakhmut. His home town has seen some of the most ferocious fighting of this ugly war. Casualties are estimated to be in the multiple tens of thousands. Artur had hope to weather the storm and stay in his home. He had metal bars installed so he could lower himself into the basement to shelter from the constant Russian shelling. Eventually it became impossible and volunteers evacuated him. All he could bring with him was a duffel bag. See Artur story here

Artur is a very positive person, always smiling, always cheerful, always hopeful. A few days before our visit Artur had seen a satellite photo of Bakhmut and could tell that his house was destroyed. He’s a coin collector. That collection and a lifetime of memories are in the basement of his destroyed house. Artur said he once saw light at the end of the tunnel but he’s not so sure anymore. The cheerful Artur returns and he says that all his family and all his friends save one made in out alive and for that he is joyful.

And he was quite proud to be the first one to demonstrate the new elevator and to give us a tour of the renovated second floor.

Open Hearts Executive Director, Svitlana Demko showed us the new state-of-the-art bathing facilities on the renovated second floor.. The soft-sided, collapsible tub (behind Svitlana) is the only one in this part of Ukraine. Immersion bathing instead of sponge baths is a real treat for non-ambulatory residents.

The new rooms are less dorm-like and more homey. The new elevator, wider doors and larger floor plans make the rooms very wheel chair friendly.

Svitlana explained that they are now helping special needs families transition back to their homes. As more of Ukraine is liberated, families want to return. Frequently Open Hearts will take care of the Special Needs family member while the others travel to their home town to see if their home is standing and if the community is ready to welcome back it’s Special Needs citizens.

Svitlana Ivashkento , Home Director, is the beating heart of Open Hearts. She is a petro pump of love and energy. People pull up, pump a few minutes of her enthusiasm into their hearts and their spirts are overflowing.

I asked both Svitlanas why they give so much to the Special Needs community. Each told a story of raising their own Special needs child.

In Soviet times, Svitlana Demko said that Special Needs children were sent to institutions and it was looked down upon to keep your child at home. She said she took her son for walks at night to avoid the neighbors’ judgement. She tried to take her son to the U.S. for treatment but because her husband was a government official it was deemed too embarrassing for the Soviet government

Svitlana Ivashkenko gave birth to a daughter with a rare genetic disorder. The medical community gave her infant a few months to live. Svitlana with sheer determination and boundless love has kept her daughter alive into adulthood.

Both Svitlana’s have an enormous gift that they are determined to share. Some years ago they visited a Special Needs facility in the U.S. state of Mississippi. That visit inspired them to found Open Hearts.

And, they never stop dreaming of more and better ways to serve those who are Special Needs and differently-abeled. An inconceivable number of people are losing limbs in this war. Svitlana Ivashkenko points out that they may have lost a limb but we won’t let them loose hope.

More housing, more workshops, more physical therapy, a wheelchair accessible vehicle – the dreams are big and the list is long. Join the effort at Hope Across Borders.