Stoneworks board member Larry Heller and I recently completed a visit to Belarus, Russia and Estonia. Here is Larry’s report on our travels —

Monday, December 16th — I arrived at the Minsk airport and, after buying some Belorussian insurance and clearing passport control and customs, was greeted by Mike who had driven down the day before from his home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

DSCN2941We drove to the home of Olga and Yasha Goncharenko to drop off my things, then went to the first of two girls’ family homes to visit and to fulfill the girls’ requests to practice conversational English.

In the photo at left, I think you can see in our smiles that God brought us close in friendship in just the brief time we had together.

This is the apartment of the graduates who, after finishing their time as residents of Olga’s first girls’ home, decided to continue living together.

DSCN2953After our time with these girls, we walked to the other girls’ home and they served us dinner! The food was great and one of the girls, Alyona (at right), made an amazing cake for us!

We asked if they would share their stories (how they had come to live in a children’s home) and several did and included many personal details. We thanked them for their trust and for letting us get to know them in such a personal way. Even Olga was a little surprised at their openness and was hearing some of these details for the first time.

DSCN2978Later, we got silly and played a “Whoever smiles first, loses” game and of course there were many smiles and lots of laughter.

Tuesday, December 17th — The next day, we went to the orphanage where Olga’s church put on a Christmas play and delivered the gift boxes which the congregation had prepared for the kids. This was an amazing outpouring of love by this church. They had put together a high-quality show telling about the birth of the Savior in an entertaining and engaging way with costumes, songs, and scenery . . . the works!

After the play, each child received an age & gender appropriate gift box just crammed full of little gifts, making each recipient feel loved and special. The church members had clearly spent a lot of time and care preparing and praying over those gift boxes. The impact was apparent. What a great body of believers!

DSCN3094Here you can see some of the gift boxes. Mike is helping little Dima open his gifts Dima had been removed from his home and brought here just hours earlier.

Later that afternoon, the scene was repeated at another children’s home located about an hour away by car – this time for older children. The church drama troupe was impressively energetic and dedicated. They really blessed all the kids. Olga Goncharenko was at the heart of this program. After each performance and before the gifts were distributed, Olga addressed the groups and put a personal (Holy Spirit) touch on everything.

DSCN3135Later that evening, Mike went back to Olga’s house to spend some time with her and I met Vita Korostelyova to sit in on her “V.I.P.” English class. Her students are adults, accomplished in their fields of endeavor and either wanting or needing to improve their English.

Vita is a gifted teacher – commanding the respect of her students and knowing when to correct them and when to let something go. She was also great at prompting her students to provide more clarity to what they were trying to communicate. It was a real treat for me (someone who’s known Vita for more than a decade) to watch her practice her skills.

These students are financial analysts, business owners and computer program developers. They look to Vita to help them learn English.

DSCN3171Wednesday, December 18th — The next morning, Mike and I picked Vita up and drove out to see where she teaches children in the village of Papernya (at right), and to the nearby village of Semkovo (below, left) where her future home is being built.

DSCN3151This apartment, which Vita will own, is made possible through a low-interest-rate incentive program of the Belorussian government (to get teachers out to the villages where the pay is meager) and a coalition of Americans who love Vita and support her in her selfless service to at-risk families in the villages.

That evening, the Timothy House boys and dad (Sasha, Lyosha and Dima) came over to Olga’s house for a visit. The mom, Marina, thought it best to stay home with her daughters, one of which had been sick, so we didn’t have an opportunity to spend time with her or see the home. Unfortunately, I was experiencing full-on jet lag during their visit and was both dull as dishwater and inattentive. Mike took the lead (as he had done for several of our meetings) and kept things interesting by telling “teen-age boy stories” (that is, stories with gross and/or disgusting elements). Still, it was a good meeting. Dima is a positive, energetic and engaging man and has a great rapport with the boys.

DSCN3180Thursday, December 19th — Mike and I hit the road at 5am for our 10-hour drive to St. Petersburg where we would spend a few precious hours with nine special girls from Children’s Home #11 and then stay the night with Mike, Olga and their adorable daughter Valerie. Mike and I had good conversation nearly the entire drive on a wide range of topics. It was good:)

At Right: two of DD #11 counselor Tatiana’s girls (Kristina and Nastya) are on my left and right respectively, with Valerie Cantrell in my lap.

Friday, December 20th –We drove from St. Petersburg to Jõhvi, Estonia to see Sunbeam and meet its people. Sunbeam board members Pastor Artur Põld, architect Andres Toome and director Ursula Randlaine greeted us with coffee, tea, cookies & cakes. We sat together in a meeting room just off the entrance, warmly lit by candles.

DSCN3237Ursula recounted details of the recent special Christmas event they’d had and described the joy of the children as they were loved on, and the parents as they watched their children being treated with such love. Artur wiped away tears as Ursula spoke. What a tender heart he has. What good people they are. Regrettably, I didn’t get a picture of us together.

We had two more meetings that afternoon/evening in Tallinn – one with John Russell and the other with Heikki Hakala. They are not Stoneworks related so I won’t elaborate here.

Summary: Olga’s church really impressed me as a body of active, joyful believers. I would be very interested to experience worship with them and to see what goes on!

Olga’s girls and boys’ home ministries seem really solid. There is a spirit of joy, purpose, cooperation and love that permeates. Alla is obviously an effective counselor/teacher/example in the girls’ home and all the girls have been/are being discipled in the ways of the Lord.

As we know, Olga needs money for the ministry. These are tight times for the ministry.

Olga is an absolute locomotive! She multitasks at 100 miles-per-hour and Mike and I were along for the ride for only a few days and I was exhausted!

It was a very worthwhile trip for me – seeing the ministries in action first hand and meeting such dear people. I also believe that our visit was deeply appreciated by Olga and others.