Ukrainian orphans make stop in Andalusia

Published 1:13 am Friday, June 30, 2017

More than 100 Ukrainian orphans have been adopted by loving American families because of an Alabama-based group called Bridges of Faith, and that group has spent the last several days with Andalusians.

Tom Benz is the founder of Bridges of Faith, which brings orphans from Ukraine three times a year to his camp in Billingsley. From there those children get the opportunity to have new experiences, like visiting Huntsville’s Space and Rocket Center, the McWane Science Center in Montgomery, the Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and the beach.

The entire experience is part of a cultural exchange program between Bridges of Faith and Ukrainian orphanages, which they hope will not only result in a unique cultural experience for these children, but also lead to their adoptions.

Benz has been working with Ukrainian orphans for more than 20 years.

“I was a regional director at the International Bible Society helping put age appropriate scripture in the hands of every orphan of the former Soviet Union,” Benz said of his first trips to Ukraine. “I based myself in a Ukrainian orphanage for two weeks and during that time they crawled inside my heart and they have not let go to this day.”

Bridges of Faith began bringing Ukrainian orphans to Alabama in the Christmas of 2010, and since that time 110 of those children have ultimately been adopted by American families.

“We have had 110 complete adoptions,” Benz said. “We are not an adoption agency but we put kids in front of lots and lots of people and many of them fall in love with these kids and want to adopt them.”

Benz said that more than half of the kids who come over in this exchange program end up being adopted by American families, which is a huge thing for many of them.

“If these kids stay in the orphanage until they graduate that means once they graduate from high school, they also graduate from the orphanage and are on the street at 18 years old,” Benz said. “Ten percent of those kids will commit suicide in the first year and almost 20 percent will go to prison at some point.

“Only 1-in-10 kids will make what any of us consider to be a reasonable life, and 60 percent of the girls are trafficked. The traffickers shop the orphanages. So, if we are able to see these kids find forever homes, then it is a complete game changer for them.”

Many of the children who were adopted have come back to help Bridges of Faith as volunteers. One of those former orphans joined the group on their current trip.

Julia Perry suffered from epilepsy as a child. Despite this, she was adopted by a family and received a life-changing surgery.

“The family knew (that she had epilepsy) and spent a year and a half driving back and forth to Birmingham to the Children’s Hospital,” Benz said. “She got this really high tech brain surgery that she certainly wouldn’t have received in Ukraine and they not only saved her life but they saved her from a lot of other things.”

Perry said that it makes her happy to help children who are in a place she once was.

“I love working with these kids and I feel when I work with them I know them, I know what they are feeling,” Perry said. “I’m really happy to be helping.”

Bridges of Faith is a non-profit organization that operates with the support of volunteers and donations. One of those volunteers are Andalusia Middle School teacher Candy Parker and with her family.

Parker works with the groups of orphans every time Bridges of Faith brings them to Alabama, and her family also hosts a number of them when they come to Andalusia.

“Once I met the first group of kids and they were no longer just somebody somewhere else in the world – they were kids just like my kids and the kids I teach – it just became important to me because it was real,” Parker said. “Ultimately, the goal here is to show these kids what families look like.”

Benz echoed those sentiments.

“We are a Christian organization so we want them to come to know the lord Jesus Christ, but we also want these kids to see things they have not ever seen,” Benz said. “Most of these kids have never seen a healthy relationship between a man and a woman or parents and children. At least from a family perspective, they’re programed for failure and from an economic perspective they’ve never seen mom or dad get up and go to work every morning. They have no motivation to learn a skill because they have no one to motivate them. So, they’re programed for economic failure, too.”

Bridges of Faith also looks to make sure the children have fun while in Alabama and as a result, Thursday they all took a trip to Fort Walton Beach.

“None of them had ever seen the beach, even the interpreters had never seen it,” Parker said.

At the beach, Fudpucker’s Bar and Grill in Fort Walton Beach donated lunch to the children and gave them a chance to see an alligator for the first time.

“They were terrified at first,” Parker said of the gator encounter. “That was something completely new for them, but it was so much fun, too.”

Benz said that when he is asked how many children he has, he always says that he has 114: 110 are the children that his group has seen adopted and four of his own.

“On my 60th birthday a number of post orphans came to help celebrate that birthday,” Benz said. “After the celebration this little 9-year old girl, her name is Alla, ran past me and I grabbed her and tickled her while she shouted ‘Save me papa, save me papa.’

“ It was only when I was going home that I realized that just 45 days earlier she didn’t have a papa to save her and now she does. Every little girl needs a papa. Every little boy needs a mama.”

Vira Hoha is one of the children who visited the beach for the first time on Thursday.

“It was beautiful, but I’m not swimming in it,” Hoha said of the beach.

When asked to describe what her experience has been on this trip to Alabama, she had just one word to describe it: happiness.