By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald
When Father Herb Kiff, pastor of Mater Dolorosa Parish in New Orleans, first met Galina Kuleshova-Baricev from Ukraine four years ago, he could see pain through her tears, even though he didn’t understand all the words spoken in her language.
He soon learned that she had established a charitable foundation called Gavroche (http://gavrocheusa.com) to help Ukraine orphans. “Gavroche” is the fictional character in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” a boy who lives on the streets.
Established 18 years ago, Gavroche supplies medicines, food and necessities to Ukraine orphanages. Kuleshova-Baricev estimates that Gavroche has helped approximately 20,000 children over the years.
“It broke my heart,” Father Kiff said of the orphans. “I got involved, and my parishioners have now gotten involved and have come up with beautiful ways to help the children.”
In 2017, Father Kiff invited his parish to start the nonprofit Gavroche USA to satisfy orphan needs. The first fund-raiser was a T-shirt sale – with the help of the parish’s Knights of Columbus council – for a new boiler at an orphanage.
“We helped buy a boiler so children can take a hot bath, wash clothes with a washing machine (not by hand),” Father Kiff said.
A homily about the poor conditions of windows at an orphanage that caused children to sleep in their boots garnered more support – “anonymous people donated $10,000 for the orphanage windows. Now the kids are warm.”
Kuleshova-Baricev has been overjoyed by Mater Dolorosa’s efforts.
“I have great gratitude for people like Father Herb and other private people like those in Scotland who have helped me,” she said.
Over the past year, Gavroche USA’s board members David Toso, Jennifer Casey, Ed Ready, John Mason and others have streamlined the organization and secured yearly sponsorships to fund three annual care packages from Gavroche USA to Ukrainian children. Exposing the orphans to a God who has been good to them in their lives has been part of the mission. So, with each package is a faith element such as a prayer card to establish a “covenant of prayer” between the sponsor and child.
“When we asked people to sponsor an orphan, we also asked them to pray for the orphan,” Casey said, “and the orphan would pray for them.”
To make sure what’s most needed at orphanages is sent to trusted Ukraine contacts, a group from Mater Dolorosa – Father Kiff, Toso, Kuleshova-Baricev and interpreter Olga Desselle traveled to Ukraine Oct. 29-Nov. 15.
Their first stop was the run-down House of Babies, providing a home for abandoned children up to age 3. They brought needed diapers and learned that Gavroche Ukraine has built a playground for the children, renovated doors and windows, the roof, installed a new heating system, provided toys, clothes and more.
Other stops were to the Center of Social Psychological Rehabilitation for Children that houses children (ages 4-18) taken from dysfunctional families or who have lost parents; the Children with Disabilities orphanage, where they bought a TV for the children to watch cartoons; and the Orphanage for Invalids with profound disabilities.
“I was not aware of everything that Gavroche Ukraine was doing and their impact,” Toso said. “They care for kids at every level – from feeding poor children to helping physically and mentally challenged children to helping orphan children” whose families can’t afford medical care. “I learned a lot about Ukraine history and why there is so much poverty and so many children being orphaned.”
They saw the fruits of their labor at Kodazhnek Schevcheko orphanage, where Mater Dolorosa care packages go.
“The children were excited to meet their friends from Mater Dolorosa in America,” Father Kiff said. “We had a pizza party, laughs and made the local news.”
Father Kiff said they also met an Orthodox priest – a member of Gavroche Ukraine – and “we shared the joy of Christ in his church. I was impressed with his news of Gavroche’s achievements and noticed an image in his church of Mater Dolorosa – a sign from heaven!”
They also encountered Bishop Young, whose love and humor broke their hearts.
“He said the orphans of Ukraine should be given a home and not a system of institutions,” Father Kiff said. “Due to his guidance, with a brave band of Catholics, he has established a stronghold for Christ to bring the good news for his people.”
At a dormitory for war refugees, Gavroche USA brought food and holy cards.
“When we left, some were crying,” Father Herb said.
They witnessed Knights of Columbus Council 16460 members “on the front lines bringing relief to embattled Catholics” in Ukraine and hope Gavroche USA can work with them to match orphans with Ukraine families.
Father Kiff’s friendship with Kuleshova-Baricev has schooled him on the unrest in Ukraine since its independence in 1991. Russian aggression continues against the country, causing destruction, homelessness, job loss and precarious healthcare and education, she said.
“In the former Soviet Union, people used to go to school, their parents had jobs and could put food on the table … There was an army, but there was some order” and basic supplies, Kuleshova-Baricev said.
The situation was so dire that displaced children lived on the street, something that troubled Kuleshova-Baricev, propelling her to form Gavroche to help the orphans and why she tirelessly continues.
She said a benefit of Ukraine’s independence was religious freedom. It was a stop in an evangelical church for food that opened her eyes to the love by religious missionary groups from the U.S. to help the Ukraine people.
“I believed God was with us, and he could help us and help the children,” she said.
This generosity by Americans spawned an idea – to handwrite 983 letters and distribute them at a railway station in hopes of getting international attention to the Ukraine’s plight. She also started a Gavroche Ukraine Facebook site.
“We believe because we know God is with us,” Kuleshova-Baricev said. “They (those who donate) are strong believers in God, and through them, God helps us.”
Father Kiff’s visit to Ukraine solidified Gavroche USA’s efforts by Mater Dolorosa.
“We witnessed the stark reality of poverty and plight of orphans in Ukraine. It is a poverty that is unnecessary,” Father Kiff said. Ukraine is rich with resources, and the Ukrainian people have a resilience to survive countless invasions when all they really want is to be left at peace.
“This trip proved to be more productive than we ever imagined,” Father Kiff said. “The clarifications and challenges will help us with future goals for Gavroche. With greater resolution than ever, we will continue our journey.”
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.