Recently I was reminded that there is a vast difference between reading about something and experiencing it first-hand. After reviewing the project documents for ADRA’s work in Ukraine in preparation for my trip there, I thought I had a firm handle on what to expect.

ADRA has been working in Ukraine ever since the conflict began in 2014. Our current project is assisting people in the east, near the front line, with unconditional cash grants. This money enables them to meet their most pressing needs, whether it is home repairs from shelling, rent, medicine, or items for winter, such as clothing and coal. Most of the people with which we work are pensioners, widows and widowers, and those who are unable to leave.

I went to Ukraine to report on our work and its impact. But nothing in black and white could prepare me for the people I would encounter—and their stories.

While in Schastiya, a small town not far from the front line, I had the honour of visiting Maria Voronkina. At roughly five feet tall, with wispy white hair and a face lined by life and laughter, she reminded me so much of my own Baba, my grandmother. Maria is 83 years old. She’s a widow, living alone in a small apartment on the ground floor of her building. Her two daughters live far away, one in Russia, the other across the front line. Maria doesn’t hear much from the latter.

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

The day the shelling of Schastiya began, Maria was in the town centre. The shells fell without any warning save the surreal whoosh before impact. Maria was struck by flying shrapnel, which severely wounded her leg. Somehow, she can hardly recall how, Maria hauled herself home, where she promptly passed out on the floor.

Her neighbours acted fast, performing first aid and getting Maria to the hospital. She spent a month in the hospital, all the while praying that the shelling wouldn’t start a war. She had vivid, aching memories of World War II. When she spoke to me of this, she covered her head and rocked back and forth, tamping down the worst of the memories. “I know what war is,” she said, her eyes looking out the window, seeing something I couldn’t see. “It’s extreme stress, and even worse, it’s fear.”

After a month recovering at the hospital, it was time for Maria to go home. She could hardly wait to return to her haven. But upon returning, she discovered gaping holes where her windows had once been. The same day she had been wounded, a shell had exploded outside her building, blasting through the windows and spewing shrapnel across her walls and ceiling. Her neighbours had come and cleared away the debris, but Maria couldn’t keep herself from crying. What was she to do? She was a pensioner, barely scraping by. She had no savings to draw from for repairs. She had nowhere else to go.

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

Maria lived for a year and a half with just scrap board slapped across the holes. In Ukraine, with its long and harsh winters, living like this would be a hard task for anyone, let alone a widow of 83 living by herself.

“I barely managed,” she said, shaking her head. “The room seemed to be very small and moist. It was always dark. I was very cold.” From the way she told her story, I got the impression that the dark coldness had entered more than her apartment. I could sense that Maria had been in a struggle against depression and despair.

When she was told that she would receive help in the form of an unconditional cash grant from ADRA, she couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe that anyone would help. The first rays of hope glimmered in her heart, but they were not yet strong enough to put her faith in them.  “Only the day I got the money on the card did I believe it,” she confessed sheepishly.

The moment she had the money in hand, she purchased new windows and hired the labour to install them. When I visited her, she had been enjoying her new windows for almost a week. “Only ADRA has helped me. I am beyond happy!” she beamed, crying at the same time. “I pray for ADRA every night,” she said, crossing herself. “I pray that God will bless your project and your workers!”

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

And Then There was Light, ADRA Canada

My favourite moment with Maria was when she walked over to her brand new, sun-soaked windowsill, looked up at the sky with tears of happiness and exclaimed, “Rada! Rada! Rada!” This word, my translator told me, meant “joyful.”

I didn’t need project documents to tell me the impact of this project (though those are very important and crucial to our work). I could see the difference with my own eyes in the joy and gratitude emanating from Maria, bright and warm as the light from her window.  I was humbled to know that our church, through the agency of ADRA, was touching her life and changing her dark coldness to warm light.

I believe in the work of ADRA, though most of the time I see it only through the lens of black ink on white paper. Because of God’s grace and blessing, I know we have an impact. My time in Ukraine showed me some of these impacts first hand.  I am so grateful to God that we are meeting the immediate, physical needs of those in distress. I am even more grateful that we are also bringing life-changing hope, healing, and light to hearts that have been darkened by immense loss and grief.

It is because of your prayers and support that this kind of work happens. Every heartfelt dyakuyu and spasiba (thank you, in Ukrainian and Russian) that was uttered to me I pass on to you. May God bless you abundantly for you have been an abundant blessing. Thank you.