WILLIAMSBURG — Orphans from around the globe who are nurtured by the local non-profit organization Heart for Orphans have all begun life’s journey differently than most children.
Whether they are from Kenya, Belarus, or what is now war torn Ukraine, they all know a life without those who brought them into the world. It’s a circumstance that they’ve had no control over, and it’s a challenge that they must learn to cope with.
These children were left alone during the early years of their lives, but, because of Heart for Orphans, a faith-based organization in Williamsburg, they didn’t have to be alone for the rest of them.
A Couple Sets Up Transition Homes for Orphaned Teens
The co-founders of Heart for Orphans, Nancy and Steve Hathaway, began their work in Ukraine in the early 2,000s.
While adopting their three daughters in the late 1990s, the couple realized the massive predicament that other children face.
Many of the children that live within the Ukrainian orphanage system go unadopted, and, in their teens, are considered to have “aged out” of that system. At that point, they would be forced to survive on their own out of necessity.
Children age out of the Ukrainian orphanage system typically due to a lack of funding for the country’s orphanages; establishing a dark future for the orphaned children.
The majority of Ukrainian orphans are what are known as “social orphans.” This means that, although the child has one or more parents that are still alive, there’s no desire from the parent(s) to look after that child any longer. This could be because of addiction problems, abuse, or financial challenges. The phenomenon is unfortunately very prominent in Ukraine.
Often when a Ukrainian orphaned teen is forced to find a home after aging out of the system, they are drawn to negative influences such as drug use and other acts of crime.
The Heart for Orphans website states, “Within two years of leaving the orphanage in Ukraine, it is estimated that: 27 [percent] will find work, 30 [percent] will become addicted to drugs, 60 [percent] of the girls will turn to prostitution, 70 [percent] of the boys will turn to crime, 15 [percent] will commit suicide.”
“They saw how sad things were for those kids, and their hearts broke for the ones left behind,” said Heart for Orphans’ Director of Donor Relations Amber Linnekin in an interview with WYDaily. “So they knew that they had to do something. That’s basically how Heart for Orphans started. We started in 2003 just out of what they saw and their hearts being drawn to the need.”
The grand idea was to set up transition homes for teens ages 16-22 in areas where the organization operates. This specific age range was selected because that is usually when teenagers age out of the system.
“It started with one home and it’s really grown by relationships and finding the right people rather than us just saying, ‘Alright we want a house in Kenya, let’s do that,'” said Linnekinn. “You have to find the people first because they have to have the heart for it and really want to do it. It’s hard work.”
The staff and volunteers of the organization help to provide opportunities for these young people by providing them with housing, food, clothing, and educational support. Some of the volunteers have watched these kids grow and have seen many of them attend schools, get married, and find jobs in the fields in which the children were interested in pursuing.
The staff and volunteers that are involved with Heart for Orphans care for these kids as if they were their own children. The organization can be described as one big international family.
A War Breaks Out
Heart for Orphans started receiving messages from its house family in Kyiv, Ukraine at around 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2022.
The Ukrainian house family’s messages said that they were hearing explosions. The organization knew that the international speculations had come true: Russia was invading Ukraine.
“We had contingency plans in place but we did not think it would happen as fast as it did,” said Linnekin. “Within 8 to 10 hours we were getting those messages from each of our homes. We have them all over the country. Troops were just coming in from all sides, and it all happened very quickly.”
The organization’s five house families packed their belongings, and when the opportunity arrived, they headed to the borders to evacuate.
“So they were hiding in bomb shelters, and in cellars, and as soon as they could they got in their vans and gathered up the kids and tried to make their way,” said Linnekin. “They couldn’t travel at night. There was a curfew for one thing because it was dangerous. Once it was dark it just wasn’t good for them to be out. So some of them actually traveled for days with all of these kids. A couple of them had cars full of adults with three kids on their laps for five or 600 miles. “
The families successfully evacuated to Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. However, one family remains at the border, where they are trying to get the necessary paperwork and other formalities in order to cross to the adjacent countries.
The Heart for Orphans
Nancy Hathaway recently arrived back in the United States from a trip to visit the organization’s house families in these other countries.
While it is unclear what will happen next for the house families that were able to escape, the passion and drive behind Heart for Orphans’ staff members is apparent in the care that they offer to these children. That is something that is never going to change for the Heart for Orphans organization.
“This is not something that they had any control over. They can’t control where they’re born or what their situation is as a child,” said Linnekin. “So it’s just heartbreaking, but when you visit one of the homes in our family, what was amazing to me every time was that you could walk into the house and tell within five minutes the kids that had recently come and the ones who had been there for a couple of months or even years.”
“The ones who had just gotten there you could see in their faces, they wouldn’t make direct eye contact, still very sad, still had that helpless look,” Linnekin continued. “The ones that had been there for a couple of weeks, or more, just had this light. They were kids again with hope for a future, and it’s just amazing.”
The Heart for Orphans staff keeps in close contact with all of their house families through Zoom video conference calls. They get to talk with everyone in the organization and have the opportunity to share what’s going on in their lives. Afterwards, they typically share prayer requests with each other.
“We focus on helping the kids where they’re at, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. I don’t know how long one of our homes is going to be in Romania or Slovakia but when Nancy was just there a few days ago, they were looking at housing,” said Linnekin. “We don’t know for how long, we don’t know for what period, but we’re going to make sure that they’re taken care of and that the kids are safe. So we’ll continue to support them and do all that we have to do.”
The organization is currently raising money in a fundraiser right now until March 31. There is a match of up to $5,000.
To donate to the fundraiser people can head over to the Heart for Orphans donate page. In the memo write, “match” or “Ukraine Emergency Funds.”