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A Presbyterian from California helps Ukrainians living with disabilities in wartime and beyond

Reporter Gregg Brekke shares his encounter with Nita Hansen, who started the nonprofit God’s Hidden Treasures over 28 years ago.

Nita Hansen and Tetiana Fursenko, manager of wheelchair outreach, look through a coloring book that is sent as part of a care package for Ukrainian families experiencing needs due to the war. Nita founded the God’s Hidden Treasures organization in Ukraine to help orphaned children and people living with physical and mental challenges. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

This article is the fifth in a series of dispatches from Ukraine. Follow Presbyterian Outlook or sign up for email updates so you don’t miss a story.

Our last full day in Kyiv begins with a startle — shortly after breakfast the air raid sirens sound, interrupting a sunny and cold morning. It’s been a few weeks since the warnings have been activated in Ukraine’s capital, signaling the possibility of incoming rockets. The hotel staff is calm and the city’s traffic outside my window flows normally.

One indication of the alert’s seriousness is seeing a few hundred reservists – Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Force – muster on the lawn of a building next to the hotel.

Gregg Brekke with Nita Hansen in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

In any case, it doesn’t slow our plans to travel to Bila Tserkva today (February 10) and visit the ministry started by Nita Hansen, a retired Presbyterian from California who came to Ukraine on a short-term mission in 1995 and was moved to start God’s Hidden Treasures to help Ukrainians living with physical disabilities or developmental delays. I wrote about her shortly after the war started for the Presbyterian Foundation, which has provided a U.S.-based fundraising portal for the ministry.

We’ve been in contact over the last 10 months, and it was a pleasure to meet the energetic and creative 81-year-old in the place she considers her second home. With nearly two dozen employees, God’s Hidden Treasures has continued its ministry to vulnerable people, orphans and those with physical disabilities.

Three young men she first encountered in orphanages – considered at the time “imbeciles” without hope of contributing to society – are now her wheelchair and adaptive device technicians. These talented men have helped approximately 8,000 Ukrainians achieve mobility and a sense of normalcy. Treasures indeed.

Zhannia, Yura and Ruslan are the heart of God’s Hidden Treasures wheelchair outreach. They assemble, repair and adjust adaptive and mobility devices for the organization’s recipients. Nita Hansen, founder of the Ukrainian organization, first met these men as children in an orphanage for those deemed ‘imbeciles.’ They all now lead productive lives and two of the three are married with families. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Several staff of God’s Hidden Treasures fled the fighting in their region early last year. All but a few have returned. They continue in their main mission and have expanded their scope to provide food, warm clothing and basic supplies for those affected by the fighting. A few brave staff and partner chaplains transport goods to soldiers and people living near the front lines at their great peril. One of the chaplains showed a video of a rocket attack they endured while making one such delivery, along with the aftermath of bullet holes and a fist-sized shrapnel tear in their van.

After a staff lunch – a daily tradition complete with songs and prayer – Nita accompanies her staff members to make two wheelchair deliveries. Each of the men receiving wheelchairs is measured before one of the technicians makes initial adjustments. Once the men are in their chairs, final tunings provide a custom fit for each man. The group’s social worker then ensures they have contact information and resources for follow-up, including family member participation and any other needs the family may have. Nita explains the wheelchair fitting is just the beginning of the relationship.

Nita Hansen prays for Volodia Kalytenko who has just been fitted for a wheelchair. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The delivery team then gathers with the family around the recipient and asks what they can pray for. With prayers and hugs and photos to share, team members move quickly to the next destination.

We depart following the last delivery and I’m struck by Nita’s faithfulness to this mission and work over the last 28 years, undeterred by war. I was also personally tickled to meet Nita in person. As a journalist, I make hundreds of contacts and conduct dozens of interviews with people I never get to meet, let alone meet in a country at war. I’m hoping to have Nita’s level of drive and energy when I’m 81 …

As we return to Kyiv, the air raid sirens are on again. That means services are severely curtailed. The hotel restaurant is closed, and businesses are not allowed to operate while the warning is active. While there is tension around the sirens, most people are not worried. To date, very few rockets have made it through the Western-provided missile defense shield. It may be a false sense of security, but it is indicative of the Ukrainian ethos to carry on and resist.

By 8:00 p.m. the all-clear is signaled and we wander out close to the hotel to debrief our time in the Kyiv area over a meal of amazing Georgian food.

Chaplains Slava Esmontov (left) and Andrew Volkov drive supplies to citizens who remain, and also soldiers fighting, on the front lines of the war with Russia. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Our overnight train to Warsaw is scheduled to depart from Kyiv at 10:30 p.m. As we exit the cab at the train station, the air raid sirens are blasting again. We approach the security screening for the train station and are told it is closed due to the warning. With all lights but the emergency lights extinguished in the station, we are instructed to go directly to our train platform through an unsecured tunnel. Not sure I expected no security considering the air raid warning, but we board our train without issue and depart on time.

Our two-bunk cabin is near the porters’ cabin at one end of the train. My traveling partner Chris and I are asleep shortly but at around 1:00 a.m. the train comes to a stop, and I stir briefly before hearing a young woman outside our cabin sobbing and speaking frantically to the female porter. The older woman replies “vse dobre, vse dobre” (it’s OK, it’s OK) over and over, speaking calmly until the younger woman stops sobbing.

Tank barriers in front of the Catholic Cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine, are a reminder of the military readiness of and recent threats to the city. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

There is trauma in war and my thoughts turn to this young woman — was she worried the train was under attack, that we were being turned back to Kyiv, that Russian troops were going to board? The urgency, even terror, in her voice would have been unwarranted by a train delay in any other situation. But this isn’t any other situation.

After passing through Ukrainian and Polish customs – where young Ukrainian men receive extra scrutiny – we arrive in Warsaw for two days of compiling, collating, captioning and a little rest before departing for the U.S.

It’s been an amazing two weeks of encountering incredible people living out their callings in the middle of a war. I’ve learned to not set my expectations and to see how the story unfolds, even if I come into a situation with some assumptions. I was continually impressed by the solidarity people felt for one another regardless of religious affiliation, income level or social status. It doesn’t seem this war will end any time soon, and the courageous and faithful work of those we met and so many others.

Responsive prayer

Almighty God, we pray for protection and courage for all those who live in places where air raids sound and the potential of violence rears its ugly head.

We pray that those who live in war zones — may they know peace and joy. We pray for the end of this war, knowing that you hear us.

Help us to be active in our hope. Show us the ways that we can love others and bring about peace in this world.

We give thanks for the examples of people who have listened to your calling, who make the world a better place, who speak a word of comfort on a train. Thank you for the ministry of Nita Hansen and all the good work this community of people has done in Ukraine. We ask for your blessing on their lives and work — may they act with confidence and kindness, may their needs be met.

Lastly, God, help the stories we’ve read in this reporting series to take on a life of their own — the nuns and chaplains transporting humanitarian aid to the front lines, the religious houses sheltering refugees, the bunker bar. We pray that they don’t remain as words on the page but inspire us in our own lives towards action, courage, kindness, and hope.

In and through your grace we pray. Amen.

Prayer by Outlook Digital Content Editor Rose Schrott Taylor