Hearts of Love: A Decade of Transforming Lives
By Pete Wooding, Mercy Projects UK
It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since we sent our first team from the UK to run a summer camp at the Hearts of Love Centre back in 2008.
Lena Yuschenko, the director and visionary at Hearts of Love in Konotop, and her dedicated team have impacted many young lives and their families over the past decade.
I am always amazed when families, usually hopeless and wondering if anyone understands their situation, bring their child for the first time to Lena and her team. The public school turned them away and they have no possible way to educate or provide any kind of therapy for their child. Countless special needs children have seen a remarkable turnaround at the Centre, and I recently visited to learn more about these precious young people.
Hope in the Storm
As I watch Sasha play peacefully with jigsaw puzzles while he sits with his mother in their small apartment, it’s hard to imagine how this 10-year-old autistic boy used to be completely out of control. While his mother Viktoria gently strokes his hair, she tells me how heartbroken they were when there seemed to be nowhere to find help for their son.
“We took Sasha to so many kindergartens that were unable to cope with him. It was very difficult because I saw the attitude towards him as if he was contagious and disgusting. You can’t imagine what that feels like,” she said. “At one point a kindergarten started which was for special needs children. They decided, however, they wouldn’t accept children with autism. It was such a terrible feeling being rejected in this way. This was the lowest point for us because there was nowhere else to go.” When there seemed to be no hope, they discovered the Hearts of Love Centre.
Lena Yuschenko remembers the first time Sasha’s parents brought him to the Centre. “When he first came here, he was three years old; he was like a storm. It seemed that he was everywhere at the same time, blowing through our hallway like a hurricane. It was impossible to stop him and get him to focus on anything. Now, it is very possible to work with him, to sit down, to read, to write, and do different activities. And the most amazing thing is he started talking. In his diagnosis, doctors said that he would never talk and yet he started doing it. He can say different words. He says short sentences. It is like a miracle from God.”
“I think there is a long list of the things that Sasha broke or lost,” his mother said. “He broke the doors, he broke the walls, he tried to escape. He was very challenging. But not once were we told to leave or how bad our child was. I know now that anything is possible because of God.”
A Little Sunbeam
As I walk into Vitaliy and Vita’s tiny dormitory room where they live, I am struck by how content they are despite their circumstances. They love their daughter Valeria, described by her mother Vita as “the greatest gift we could ever receive.” Vita tells me, however, that they noticed something wasn’t quite right when she was two years old.
“She had a problem with her leg muscles, so we went to see a doctor who noticed that Valeria was walking on her tiptoes most of the time,” she said. “After treatment, it became easier, but it wasn’t completely gone. She reached a breaking point when she started kindergarten. She became very fearful and anxious and refused to go to school anymore.”
Valeria’s fear of things and people continued to increase where even dogs, cats, and sound would scare her. I asked Lena about Valeria and what she was like when they first met.
“At first she was afraid of everything. She was a very anxious child, but over time she has learned that it is safe here. Everyone loves Valeria. She is like a little sunbeam among the other children. We think she has adapted so well because she experienced the love of God and she knows she is loved and accepted,” Lena said.
This school year, Valeria was accepted to go to school. Tears well up in her eyes and Vita tells me how much her dreams have come true for her daughter.
“At first, when she started at the Centre, she refused to talk. She was very shy and quiet. Now, she performs dance and plays with the other children. We see the difference in her every day.”
“Peter, we also come to the Superbook Club on Saturdays at the Centre to learn the Bible. We are grateful to the people who support the Centre. My family has never felt as much love as we do here.”
And now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love. I Cor 13:13