Sunday, May 28, 2017

Schools of Hard Knocks

Thank you statement
This is the week that most Ukrainian school children look forward to; the last week of school.  Many of our activities this past week involved visiting schools and attending Last Bell. Last Bell is a ceremony that acknowledges particularly the graduating class.

We visited the Sanitorium school which has served children with health problems for 70 years. Lydia, the director, has been there for 50 years and says that this year will be her last. She developed a close relationship with Menno Simons Christian School from Calgary, which has funded many projects ranging from supplying new toilets to ping pong tables. Menno Simons has definitely made work easier for Lydia.  Lydia says the children keep her young.  She certainly does not look her age, and she is a vibrant and highly respected director.  But the school numbers are going down because the government wants to move away from specialized health-oriented schools.

Molotchna River
On Friday the 26th, we attended 4 last bell ceremonies. Vinogradanoya school is a small kindergarten school combination in a town on the western side of the Molotchna River.
The river provides a idyllic reminder of a time when our grandparents, as boys and girls, no doubt let their imaginations soar with ideas of travelling across lakes and oceans.  The kindergarten class in the school is anticipating a new wave of youngsters this fall. So much so that they have asked us to help them with finishing an extra playroom and sleeping area. The teachers are pleased that the parents are doing their part in bringing in more children. Ironically, nearby the school is the most impressive stork's nest in the Molotchna area.

Nearby is the Preshib Orphanage. This school is also facing a declining enrollment.  The social service authorities plan to amalgamate this school with the one in Tokmak.  Regardless of the realities, the children and teachers still put on an impressive Last Bell ceremony.  To see a husky graduate place a final-year kindergarten student on his shoulder and take her around the yard, ringing the bell that one hears above the applause, is a powerful moment.

While at the Preshib event, Ben met a impressive young man who was a graduate of an orphanage in Crimea.  Zhenya is an entrepreneur who has a heart for children in orphanages.  He is a salesman for a sports shoe company and comes to this area at least once a month.  He always visits the orphanage here, and either gives them shoes or pays the costs for the children to attend sporting events.  He is a great supporter and sponsor of this orphanage.

The other two Last Bell events we attended at the Russian and Ukrainian schools in Molochansk very much reflected the "new" Ukraine. Both events were dramatically more nationalistic.  In the Russian school, the Ukrainian colors were prominently displayed.  In the Ukrainian school, they remembered an alumni who died in the war. There was a military presence at the Ukrainian school, and students in the "Quest" program displayed their marching skills.
All in step

The Ukrainian school highlighted their school sports activities including a demonstration of karate students breaking old possibly-Mennonite roofing tiles. No harm done; there are a lot more of these tiles around.

The Russian and Ukrainian schools in Molochansk have generally always had a friendly rivalry.  This year, the grads of both schools got together for a final picture. It was great to see both groups come together.

Both Lil and I fondly remember finishing school and getting into summer.  However, that was short-lived when we were called to the summer school of berry-picking, where our mothers were the teachers, and our sibling were our co-conspirators in avoidance tactics.  On Saturday, Ben went out and picked strawberries.  His mother always felt that the only thing better than picking strawberries was sitting on a swing on a warm summer evening.  So Ben found a swing, took the strawberries, and remembered his mother in her childhood country.
Yummy, even without ice cream

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre”.  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON, L0R 1B1.
If you wish to donate online, go to the website, key in “Mennonite Centre Ukraine”, and click on the Search button.  Then click on “V” for “View”, and “P” for “Profile”.  Then “Donate now”.
Please browse our new website at

We thank you,
Ben and Lil Stobbe

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Are we getting somewhere?

Ben presenting the new computer
We began this week in the villages and ended in the city of Zaporozhye.  The villages we started in were in south Molotchna down by the Juschanlee River.  We went to the Cornies Juschalee estate to give a computer to a very small girl who has a very big heart.  11-year-old Alona attends the school in Kirovo and needs a laptop computer to do her schoolwork. We have never been asked to help with anything for this school.  One of the teachers heard about our work and approached us about helping Alona.  The school principal, Natasha, was delighted that we could do this, and we think that "little Alona"  may possibly have opened a big door for the school.  Normally children with special needs do not go to school but stay at home and get a part-time tutor.  Alona wanted none of that; she wanted to go to school, and her mother takes her every day.

After leaving an ecstatic Alona, we went off to see the Reimer estate in Juschanlee.  Time is certainly taking its toll on the estate buildings.

Gatepost at the Reimer estate
The large former Reimer house is looking pretty rough, and currently serves as an ambulatory clinic.  This is not the only former Mennonite building that is showing its years. Many of the villages in Molotchna are getting smaller and older.  Schools such as the one in Udarnik (Neukirch) are closed.  The roads between the villages aren't getting any better, and many villages don't have any store at all.

In Udarnik we were fortunate to find the former school principal and the history teacher while we were in the village.  Nikolai, the former school principal, is now the maintenance man, keeping up the school yard and building.  Anatoli, the history teacher, is retired.  Here is a picture of Anatoli sitting in our
VW van, avoiding the rain and showing his
Anatoli reviewing the history of the village of  Udarnik
memoirs of the village to Ruth Derksen-Siemens and Oksana Bratchenko.  Anatoli has done a lot of work in keeping records of the Mennonite story in the Juschanlee south Molotchna villages.  His familiarity with German helps him in reviewing documents.

Zaporozhye gives an entirely different feel than the villages in Molochansk.  The city is bustling with restaurants, shops, and crowded streets.  One of our big projects in Zaporozhye is helping integrate children with special needs into the regular school system.  Just as Alona from Kirova wants to go to school, so do the autistic children in the Prometei program.  We are working with education and government officials to increase state funding for special needs children in schools.  After a letter and some phone calls, we were granted a meeting with the Governor of the Zaporozhye Oblast (state) to promote a conference we are having with state psychiatrists.  The Governor gave us 45 minutes of his very busy schedule and said that they would be sending senior officials to the conference.  We were delighted. This is not the first time Mennonite groups have worked with the state in this area to improve education opportunities for special needs children.  The Maria school for the Deaf and Mute in Tiege was built in 1890 and was a model school for deaf and mute children throughout the Russian empire. The work at Prometei continues that noble tradition.  On the way to Tiege in the Orlovo area, we passed the memorial monument to the 131 deaf and mute children who were killed by the Nazis in WWII.  It is a tribute to Ukrainians in this area in that they
In memory of the 131 children
wanted a monument to remember the children.  At the top of this monument is a bell that rings in the wind.  Etched around and near top of the monument are children's faces.   The chiming bell reminds us of the children.

Ben joining the children at Prometei
During this week we visited many schools and continued to focus on English classes.  All schools are required to teach English in grade 1.  By the fifth grade, the children can opt to learn German or French.  We have noticed that English is understood more frequently in stores and restaurants.  The challenges for teachers seems to be to move from learning the rules of English to becoming comfortable in speaking English.

We believe you as donors are making a significant impact in this area of Ukraine.  Young people are excited about their future.  The economy is starting to grow.  We want to continue to intervene in critical areas where we can really make a difference in the lives of people and in their country.  

Thanks for your support,
Ben and Lil

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre”.  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON, L0R 1B1.
If  you wish to donate online, go to the website, key in “Mennonite Centre Ukraine”, and click on the Search button.  Then click on “V” for “View”, and “P” for “Profile”.  Then “Donate now”.
Please browse our new website at
We thank you,

Ben and Lil Stobbe

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A long awaited spring in Ukraine

Dear friends,

Our return trip to Ukraine was more adventurous than we anticipated when we found out that Austrian Airlines for some unknown reason, delayed our departure and arrival time by 12 hours.
We expected to arrive at the Dnepro airport at 1:40 pm.  This has been our landing time for many years.  This is a change in schedule, not a one-time change.  Fortunately, we were able to arrange for a taxi pickup and we took the 2-hour trip to the InTourist Hotel in Zaporozhye.  We got to bed at 4:00 a.m. Zaporozhye time.  Our brains and jet-bagged eyes didn't know whether we'd been enrolled in a sleep deprivation program or we were going for a Guinness record of no sleep.

On the next day's trip to Molochansk we stopped in at Vasilevka, the small town which hosts the impressive Popov estate with a museum of pre-Soviet artifacts.  Popov was a wealthy nobleman who built all his buildings in the form of castles.
Ben presenting a 1902 children's book

The museum gives a good image of how people lived in the 19th century in rural Russia. Ben presented an old Mennonite children's book.  The director of the museum, pictured here, was overjoyed to receive it.  We regularly keep in contact with this museum.

On our first full day in Molochansk we went to visit the medical clinic in Valadovka (Waldheim).  The former hospital administrator Dr. Troyan is a larger than life presence with a booming voice accompanied by strong opinions.  He is a wonderful person, but intimidating to some.  We had supplied medical equipment and building improvements to this facility when it was a hospital.  It is now an ambulatory clinic where the doctors and staff are expected to tend to the beautiful vegetable and flower gardens.  Dr. Troyan also goes to the front line to give medical supplies for the care of wounded soldiers.  In return, the soldiers have presented him with a Ukrainian flag with their thanks.
The Valadovka clinic has really been downsized because of the increased use of regional hospitals. This clinic has become specialized as an ambulance centre and also serves the local community needs by providing IV treatment and lab tests.  In the past year they have also used their extra space for internally displaced people (IDPs) who come from the war zones.  The clinic, like other institutions, has many mementos reminding people of the war.

Ruth with Tatiana
One of our major activities this week was to connect with English-speaking people who are interested in improving their conversational English.  In the past few years the schools have placed a great deal of emphasis on learning English or German as a second language.  We were privileged to have Ruth Derksen-Siemens and her husband Vic join us for 2 weeks here in Ukraine.  Ruth is a retired English professor from UBC and a current board member of the the Friends of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine (FOMCU).  We visited English classes in schools and also met with Tatiana, the Dean of the Humanities at the Melitopol Technical Institute.  We found tremendous enthusiasm and support for having a camp or another type of specialized program to assist people in improving their spoken English.

Oksana and Lil with Svitlana
We also visited with Svitlana, who teaches music education at Melitopol Pedigogical University.  Svitlana is very interested in doing research on the history of Mennonite music in the 19th century.  We gave her some resource connections and also presented a music book from that period. She immediately started thumbing through the book and to her delight found a children's song in Russian which is still sung today.  The university in Melitopol has always been interested in our history.  There is clearly a new generation of musicians and historians who have a keen interest in our story.

Our week ended with an impressive band concert from the Molochansk music school.  They put on an outdoor concert for the seniors who come to the Mennonite Centre for lunch.  Most of the band instruments have been provided by you, our donors, and they are very well used and appreciated. Many of the band members played solo parts and were enthusiastically received by a clapping and toe-tapping group of smiling seniors.

It is good to be back!

Ben and Lil Stobbe

To contribute to the work of the Mennonite Centre in Ukraine, you can make your donation to “Friends of the Mennonite Centre”.  All cheques should be mailed to George Dyck, Treasurer, 3675 North Service Road, Beamsville, ON, L0R 1B1.

If you wish to donate online, go to the website, key in “Mennonite Centre Ukraine”, and click on the Search button.  Then click on “V” for “View”, and “P” for “Profile”.  Then “Donate now”.

Please browse our new website at

We thank you,

Ben and Lil Stobbe