Christmas Party - Global Action, Kerch

We had a busy week planning and preparing for yesterday's (Saturday) Global Action New Years/Christmas party (here the mention of the holidays are inverted since the they occur in the opposite order) for all the individuals in Kerch that are a part of our ministry in the area.  This involved both employees and volunteers and was a lovely affair.  I was asked to help with decorations, an area in which I am desperately under utilized.  I think my true calling is in determining what gives a room just the right ambiance....of course I'm joking - I have serious difficulties in matching my own clothes, let alone the decor of a Christmas gala...

It was good to celebrate with some of the summer volunteers that I hadn't seen since arriving.  The evening was basically a chance for the top folks with Global Action - of which I was included as the representative for Global Action, USA - had a chance to sincerely thank everyone that participated in the ministry.  There was also singing and a very official-sounding distribution of Christmas gifts.  All-in-all, a nice evening and a good way to jump into our week-long holiday.  Here's some pics...

As I mentioned, we had some Christmas songs as well as worship.

Last night was the first time I had a chance to meet Jenya the translator's (L) wife (R), whose name eludes me at the moment.  Jenya is actually much more than a translator here at the Hope Center but I refer to him as such to distinguish him from...

My other buddy, Jenya the security guard.  He also does much more than security, including AIDS awareness presentations at high schools.  I think that very nicely sums up how the staff here really works as a team.

Jenya's a big fan of Campbell and really helped us last night with child care.

The evening concluded with a small fireworks show which I am convinced was just a series of dynamite explosions. 


Christmas by Ourselves

As I know many of you have learned, Ukrainians traditionally celebrate Christmas on January 7th (a hold-over from the old Eastern Orthodox calender) so we were kind of alone in our excitement for the coming of the 25th.  The upside to this is that with a solid minority of Ukrainians moving their festivities into December and the traditional (though infrequently celebrated) Eastern Orthodox New Year on January 14th, we get a full three straight weeks of holiday cheer!  Though I worked around camp all day on the 24th and 25th, we still managed a little time Christmas morning for Campbell to open presents. 
Campbell tends to get up a bit earlier than I'd like to and Christmas morning was no exception.

Not only was he up, we was a bit energetic.

We got a little lazy with the wrapping...this is the bag his gifts came in.

And what did he get?  An $8 piece of Chinese junk police station play set to go with his cars and a Russian version of the movie Cars, or "Мачки."  Fortunately it turned out to have an English language setting - our own little Christmas miracle.

Humanitarian Trucks

We mentioned in an earlier post that we played a part in the distribution of humanitarian aid in the Kerch area.  I think it is fitting to take a step back in the process if not chronologically.  We received another truck of aid items last Thursday and on Friday morning the customs agent had arrived, allowing us to actually open the trailer.  This particular shipment came from Sweden like the rest and contained clothes, toys and more medical equipment (beds, walkers, wheelchairs, motorized scooters, etc).  Below are some pics that Sarah took as we transfered everything from the truck to the storage building (at the Hope Center) where it was then sealed until customs returns to "unseal" it for us to distribute.

The banana boxes we are unloading above contain clothes and probably numbered in the thousands.  I know it looks like I'm trying to start an imaginary lawnmower, but I really did contribute to the process.  Most of the labor for the day was provided by IVA (vocational school) students.

It's tough to see but the two guys in the truck are Igor or "Hurcules" (L) and Dima (R), two former IVA students who now work and live at the camp with us.  The third person is a current student.

This is a shot of the building in which our materials will be sealed by customs and our electrician/engineer Yuri (known as Yura to distinguish him from Yuri the guard).

Of course Campbell had to get geared up and come out to see what all the excitement was about.  This is his common outfit for leaving the house and we still get castigated for not keeping him bundled enough (those are snow pants BTW).  I think their main issue is with the lack of a scarf, of which we have exactly zero.


Update and Merry Christmas from Captain Mark

Here's another email update from Captain Mark complete with pictures of the Holidays in Bagdad.  I know that we are all very proud of him and his efforts in Iraq but per Mark's request, for reasons of security, please do not include his last name in your comments.  Since the vast majority of the people who will read this know Marky personally, we can stick with "Captain Mark."

Merry Christmas Friends and Family -
First, thank you for your support, e-mails, letters, care packages, and, most importantly, prayers.  Spirits here are high; support from home is what makes it so. 
Folks are probably wondering what Christmas is like here.  The Embassy has done a good job of making the holidays feel festive: decorations are up, and a small ceremony was held last week with Santa Clause, a few Iraqi children, and a choir of employees from Uganda singing Christmas songs.  Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited this week; we had a reunion of folks from our shared alma mater, DU.  On Christmas Day, we'll have a Christmas meal here in the Green Zone and a few hours off to enjoy it.  The real sacrifice is made by the guys at the patrol bases out in the provinces; they don't have many of these comforts.   
Work continues to be exceedingly rewarding.  Responsibility for Iraq is divided into regions: North, Central, West, Baghdad, etc.  I'm the prosecutor for cases originating in the area just North of Baghdad extending up to Turkey, so most of my interaction is with the Army units currently controlling this area.  As you've probably read, this is an extremely busy region.  The surge pushed most insurgents out of Baghdad/Falluja/etc. and into rural areas in this part of the country.  The Army units there are doing a fantastic job of hunting down and rounding up the core individuals behind the violence.  My recent cases have run the gamut: IED makers and operators, snipers, propaganda distributors, direct attackers, etc.  The units in these areas and I work closely together to share intelligence, track down remaining suspects, gather the appropriate evidence, and make sure wrongdoers are punished.  These guys in these units are the real heroes.
Lastly, as I hear of the snow in Colorado, I miss home and wish I could be there for Christmas day with the kids.  But I am well here: I've got some good friends, all my needs are met, and I have plenty of work to keep me busy. 
May God bless you and your families this Christmas season.  I've attached a few photos. 


The Long Awaited Sequel...

As promised, here is the sequel to the apartment tour.  I noticed that my commentary was pretty bad on the last one so I decided to edit it out of this one and do a voiceover during post-production.  Please let me know what you think.

For those of you who have been considering coming to visit us at the Hope Center, please understand that during the summer, the camp is not in such disarray.  We take advantage of the fall and winter to tear into things and repair them in time for the kids' arrival in June.  The vocational school students are an integral part of this process and it gives them an opportunity to utilize the materials and tools here to take an idea from their head (or the head of their instructor) and see it to fruition.  

I suppose a programs update is also called for...

Today I attended the 2 levels of English classes to further understand the way that Jenya conducts them.  We also had an opportunity to join Anya, a local teacher and camp translator/head mistress/music leader extraordinaire, on her weekly trip to a nearby orphanage.  We played games and talked with the kids as best as we could.  This was the first time that we have both gone on a project and left Campbell with Tanya and it was a great time of ministry for the two of us.  By all accounts it went well for the boy as well.  I will leave the details for Sarah to hopefully explain in her next post.

Driving is become second nature now (almost as it is in the US), though I still have to focus on their strange right-of-way ideas.  My familiarity with Kerch and it's outlying villages is rapidly improving and I can only hope that my Russian will follow suit soon.

Please pray for us to continue learning the language and that we will keep finding many areas where we can jump in to help.  I had a great meeting with Andrey (camp director) yesterday to discuss my position and involvement here.  I feel that within the next few week I will be hitting my stride.

I just noticed that this post shows that it was written by Sarah and I don't know how to change it.  It is in fact Matty.


Sarry Speaks!

So here it is.  My first attempt at blogging.  I may not have the entertainment of all you witty and creative bloggers (Matty included), but hopefully I'll be able to capture the excitement that we experienced today.

The Hope Center recently received a shipment of various wheelchairs and walkers from the Salvation Army that we had the privilege of handing out this morning to two neighboring villages of Kerch.  We went house to house knocking on doors handing out the medical equipment directly to those in need.  I felt like I was on the crew of Publisher's Clearing House... especially when the family members would burst out into tears once they saw what we were bringing.  We must have had 6 or so people in our group (some of us taking photos and video) in these peoples' 2-3 room houses and yet they were so humbled and gracious to have us there that some asked if they could serve tea and visit.  Many of the ones in need were confined to their homes and/or beds, and you could just see the possibility of being able to go somewhere else sparkle in their eyes. (I wish I could have posted some of those pictures, but that was on someone else's camera.)  It had to be one of the most fulfilling experiences I've had.  I had mentioned before in one of my emails how the general population (certainly not the staff) appear cold and abrasive.  I would imagine that living in such harsh conditions for years (especially with physical disabilities) how that would certainly make one bitter.  And maybe these particular individuals were not necessarily bitter but joy and zeal for life were apparently lacking.  It was amazing to see how showing Jesus to someone by meeting a physical need brought light to someone's eyes.  I was feeling sad about missing Christmas this year, but knowing how easily I can get swept up into the commercialism of the holiday I'm sort of glad to be outside of my culture.  The whole "reason for the season" becomes a little clearer.  Thanks for all of your prayers and support.  We are only the hands and feet of God and those who have sent us.  Take a look at what you are a part of!


Fact of the Day: H is for Hryvnia

Today's fact is conveniently the official currency of Ukraine.  Though spelled hryvnia when transliterated to Latin letters from Ukrainian Cyrillic, in common Russian (the predominate language here) usage it sounds more like grivna.  According to the frequently semi-accurate Wikipedia, the hryvnia has only been in circulation since 1996 when it was exchanged at a rate of 1 to 100,000 for the nearly worthless former currency, the karbovanet.
The original use of hryvnia dates to 11th century Kievan Rus' (an empire centered on Kiev which consisted of much of present-date Ukraine, Belarus and western Russian) where it was also the official currency.  The entomology of the word is thought to have come from the early Slavic word griva, meaning mane, which was thought to be a reference to valuable metals worn as necklaces.  It later evolved into a designation of a standard weight of gold or silver ingot.
The exchange rate is a hair over 5 hryvnia to the dollar which is much more favorable than most European currencies.

Tour of the Apartment and Program Updates

I have been meaning to locate the necessary cable to connect our video camera to our computer and since WalMart and Radio Shack were thoroughly useless in this regard, I had to resort to checking the "big bag of cables" in a random closet in the Hope Center office.  Sure enough, I found not one, but two of the correct connectors!  This means that you all get to see what we see...and without further ado, I present my first directorial attempt in a little film I like to call "A Tour of our Apartment" (or Le Tour du Apartment in France where it will debut at the Cannes Film Festival).

Oh, and that's not all!  We also have updates on our participation in the programs at the Hope Center:

  • Saturday I introduced myself to 2 classes of students as a "special guest speaker" for the English lessons that are held weekly at the HC.  The first class was more advanced than I thought and was surprised when a teenage girl responded to my question in unaccented English - she could have been from any High School in the US.  I later learned that she did an exchange program somewhere in the States for a year.
  • This morning (Monday) I joined Tanya, Lena and Jenya at a school for a presentation on AIDS awareness and prevention.  The accompanying video contained interviews from a hospice center in Ukraine and was disturbing and heartbreaking - even in Russian.
  • Today was the first introductory meeting with the IVA (International Vocational Academy) students who come from the Kerch area.  They were introduced to the staff, given an overview of the program, a general schedule and the rules which they are expected to follow.  It was mostly male students and I don't mind telling you that they were a rough looking bunch.  I am excited to see what God does in them over the next 5 months.
  • Tomorrow we will be taking a few wheelchairs and walkers out into the villages for people who desperately need them.  Sarah is excited to get a look at some of the functional medical ministry that is offered by GA Ukraine.
  • Sarah has also been given her first assignment at the Hope Center - English discussion groups with the staff.  These will vary depending on the "student's" proficiency with the language (Hey Coach!  Any pointers?).  I'll let her explain further when she decides to embark on her first post.

I'm sure there will be more to come as the week progresses, but in the meantime, please pray for us and our continued acclimation to our new situation.  We are both struggling to feel useful as we pick up Russian and discover our niche.  Thank you.


Our Trip to the Beach

It's not really accurate to call it a "trip to the beach" as this implies some sort of effort being necessary.  The walk took all of 5 minutes and that was with Cam walking a portion of it.  Having been here a few days, it was high time to see the sea and Sunday is a day for walks.
We were surprised to see that there was no evidence of the oil damage that was so highly publicized in the international press.  I must assume that some areas were more heavily affectd than others so we may have dodged a bullet.  Tanya told us that right after the spill the entire staff here did quite a bit of clean-up work so that probably contributed to the cleanliness of our particular section of beach.  Here are some photos.
Russia is just visible in the distance.  This is looking almost directly north up the coast.

Beauty and the beast...the broken down decrepitness of the former Soviet greatness.  The vast port in the background was silent today and maybe every day.

It may be the beach but it's COLD!

Don't you feel sorry for us suffering for the Lord?  The dark spots on the beach are actually piles of perfectly clean seaweed, not oil.  As far as we could tell, the clean-up has been very successful.

...and the requisite family portrait during the only 5 minutes of sunshine since we've been here.  Aren't we cute?

Drove my Chevy to the Levee

Yesterday I drove the camp car - a very nice 2006 Chevrolet Lacetti - to the grocery store, marking my first experience with Ukrainian traffic.  It was a slow time of day so it wasn't too busy, but a bit stressful nonetheless.  I am still getting used to their affinity for having large, "stoplightless" intersections.  I was following Tanya S. and since she shot through the first one without break lights or signaling (despite a large truck bearing down on us from the right), I did the same.  In my driving lessons prior to the trip, Tanya gave me these gems of advise:
  • My drivers license lasts all the way until the 31st of December...2007.  That's right, a 2 week license!
  • In the city, you cannot drive faster than 60 kph, but we do anyway.
  • When the traffic signal is red AND green you can go straight but must wait for people to turn first.
  • To get to one of the schools for the feeding program, you just "go straight, straight, straight"...despite no less than a dozen turns and crossing the same, straight train tracks 6 times.
  • If I get pulled over, give the officer my (2-week) drivers license but not the insurance unless they ask for it, though I have no idea how I will know if they ask me.  Tanya's suggestion:  just shrug and act like a foreigner.
I suspect that Sarah might be taking over full-time posting duty as I may be in a Ukrainian jail very soon.


Technical question

I apologize for the random question but I can't figure another way to check this out...when you view my blog, does the crest that used to be behind "The Gaws" in the title area above show up to the far left of the box, cut off top and bottom?  On mine it shows up jumbled and I'm trying to decide whether to scrap it and have a new title image.  PLEASE HELP!  Give me a comment or 2 so I know what you are seeing on your screens.


First Day in Kerch

Today was our first full day in Kerch and also our first chance to see what our Ukrainian counterparts do in the city.  All three of us went with Tanya S. (we have a lot of Tanyas here) to a school to help with our bi-weekly school feeding program.  We brought soup, rice, chicken and drinks to a school outside of Kerch for their students who are known to be from poorer families.  Here are some shots of the food and me serving it.

You may not be able to tell from this picture but the white coat I'm wearing is roughly 4 sizes too small.  I literally needed help to get it on, but the school officials demand this for serving food.
Here's Sweet Sarry reading the boy a bedtime story in our office/living room/nursery.  If you look closely you can see the pictures from the feeding program in the computer screen!
Our bedroom, complete with king-sized bed (actually 2 twin beds side-by-side).
Our kitchen/dining room.

Sarah asked me to put a disclaimer on the shots of the apartment.  We are nowhere near being unpacked so the mess is not indicative of our normal cleanliness standards.


We Made It! We are officially Ukrainians.

We got to Kerch at about 3pm local time (6am MST) after almost 48 hours of travel.  Most of you know about the route we took so I will try to make my trip summary short.
The first surprise occured in Denver when we walked passed a large group of kids speaking Russian.  We later learned that they were Ukrainian orphans from the Kherson Region of southern Ukraine who had been given a gift of mini-tour of the US for Christmas and would join us for the flights to Munich and then to Kiev.  A few were captivated with Campbell and were constantly plying him with chocolate and gifts.  We definitely enjoyed their company and their talent in distracting Cam during those long times sitting on planes and in airports.
Munch was as German as expected - organized and expensive.  I exchanged $40 for Euros and had just enough for 2 ham and cheese sandwiches and a pair of Fantas, which though tasty, did not constitute a $40 meal.
In Kiev we were saved by a very kind security officer who TWICE let us jump to the front of the immigration line (I didn't have the form completed correctly the first time).  We were picked up right on time by Maxim, the same person that worked with us when I was there in June.  He speaks English better than most Americans and is a heck of driver to boot.  He got us and our luggage to the grocery store and the train station perfectly while giving a pretty good tour of Kiev on the way.  We boarded our train at about 7:30pm local time and were passed out by 9.  I love those train compartments after all the flying.  With only 1 break to watch a movie in the middle of the night, we slept until 10:30 the next morning when the attendant let us know Simferopol was the next stop.
The train had barely stopped when we say Andrey Shpygunov waving at us from the platform.  After a slight detour to pick up Sergey the lifeguard (he has many other more important tasks, but this was his original job at the Hope Center and the moniker stuck), we were on our way to Kerch.
I know all of you are wondering what it's like in the "Great White North" in December.  Well, it isn't Siberia (we're not that far north) and Ukraine actually has a Mediterranean climate for the most of the year.  That said, it's pretty chilly.  Strangely, since Crimea was in the midst of a 5 months without rain last time I was here, it's actually GREENER now than it was in June.  We'll try to get some pictures of the camp up tomorrow, but until then, here are a few shots of the trip.
As a kid who likes machines more than people, Campbell was in heaven traveling by planes, trains and automobiles.
This is us in Munch posing next to the chair that hit my funny bone so hard that I couldn't feel my right hand for half an hour.
I love the feeling of disappointment these 2 shots convey..."Yeah, we're going to Ukraine!", followed by......
"No one told me they didn't have the sun here!"
How Soviet does this look?


Colorado Shootings

I just wanted to make a mention of the tandem shootings in Colorado today.  We've been keeping a close eye on this as New Life Church is a staple of the North Colorado Springs community.  My brother-in-law and his family attend this church and we've already spoken with him to ensure that they are safe.  As you can imagine with a church that size (apparently 10,000 members) we have quite a few friends and neighbors that may or may not have been in attendance.  There have also been reports of shots being fired 3/4 mile north of New Life which is roughly the location of the church where The Coach is an assistant pastor.  I've also spoken to him but he had left church early and is fine.  He is probably trying to determine the safety of the rest of his congregation as we speak.   

Please be praying for those who are still in lock-down at their churches.


Blog Video Test (Dad's Birthday Slideshow)

This is my first attempt at uploading my own video content to my blog.  It is a slideshow that I made for my Dad's birthday (which is actually tomorrow).  For those of you who are a little slow, the baby/kid in the older pictures is me.  I tried to get some of the lyrics to match up to the pictures so watch it and let me know what you think.
I hope to continue this as I learn how to create and edit home movies and slideshows.  Please stay tuned for some video tours of our house and the Hope Center in Ukraine


Family Time in Texas

Here's some shots of the family reunion of sorts that we've just had in Longview, TX. The water pics are from Lake Cherokee.
Three generations of trouble return to the original scene of the crime (aka my dad's hometown).
We are one hot family! By way of disclaimer, Tammi has NOT endorsed this photo...and neither has Chuck Norris.
In conjunction with the reunion (but of much greater importance) was my Aunt Sylvia's wedding. This is a great moment of my boy slobbering all over his great-aunt. I can't believe she's a great-aunt now!!