One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. (John 9:25)
She was addicted to drugs for 20 years. She was in prison and her family broke apart. Her child was in an orphanage and her husband died. Because of her substance abuse, she eventually lost her one arm below her elbow. She saw no way out. She had hit the very bottom.
When she came to know God, Natalia says everything changed. She found she had a deep desire to help people like herself and she discovered that her life experiences helped her understand others.
“I remember what God did in my life and I have hope that God can touch other peoples’ lives and give them new life, too,” Natalia tells me. In Nikopol, Ukraine, she and Olga and Valodya, both of whom have similar stories to tell of their own, began New Life Charitable Fund a half dozen years ago to help people in prison, or who have drug or alcohol addictions, are HIV positive, homeless or for some other reason need a helping hand.
Ukraine has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. Substance abuse is of epidemic proportions. The number of people in prison are three times the proportion in Western European countries and a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
“When people come to us, we help them find housing, get the documents they need to access social services and hospital treatment and find jobs,” says Natalia. She also believes people need spiritual rehabilitation and New Life helps people get reacquainted with God.
New Life helps about 1,500 people each year. With the conflict in the eastern part of the country, New Life, an MCC partner organization, also provided the same kind of services to about 400 displaced families last year. They work alongside a variety of churches including Orthodox, Catholic and Baptist. These days, government social services comes to New Life for assistance with people in need. That’s something Natalia says she couldn’t have imagined happening when she was on drugs herself.
New Life has repurposed an old building as a dormitory to house nine displaced families. “They welcomed us,” several women tell me about Natalia and New Life. Several women tell similar stories of fleeing the bombing in Donestsk after their houses were destroyed, traveling the 200 kilometers to Zaporizhzhia, reporting to city administration there and Natalia coming to pick them up. “This is our home now,” the women tell us.
We visit a house for women who are former drug addicts, ex-prisoners or who otherwise are in desperate need of help. One woman at the “mercy house” tells us her parents drank, she was left to grow up in an orphanage and then she followed her parents’ example. After two of her three children ended up in social care, she knew if she didn’t change her life she would lose her third child as well. New Life has provided a place for her to stay and she thanks God that her life is being restored.
We visit another family in an apartment rented for them by Natalia and New Life. Both spouses have had a difficult time and they were fearful their child was going to be taken away from them. The father tells us he had difficulty with his sight and couldn’t even physically see his young daughter for two years. Then New Life paid for surgery and he can see again.
“One thing I know, I can see again,” he says. He wipes the tear from his eyes as he describes what it was like to be able to see his daughter for the first time after two years.
The husband tells us he has talked to his former employer and he hopes to start work again in a couple of weeks. He wants to be able to earn money again so that he can pay back New Life for all they have done for him.
Natalia tells me that when she works with people who are homeless, have HIV/AIDS, are in prison or have lost their homes in the war, her heart is changed as well.
Ron Byler is executive director for MCC U.S.