Wednesday, 01 October 2014 16:11

Bridges of Faith: Giving Ukrainian Orphans the Experience of Alabama Life, Faith and Culture

Written by  Rachel Fisher
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In 1996, Tom Benz was working as a Regional Director with IBS, the International Bible Society, developing partnerships to underwrite new translations of Scripture and see those new translations published and distributed. His work took him across the world, and in the spring of 1996 he took a trip that changed his life. The Bible Society invited Tom to observe a Bible camp in the southernmost part of Ukraine, in Yevpatoria, a coastal community on the Black Sea. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, IBS launched a program aimed to place age appropriate Scripture in the hands of every one of the million plus orphans in the former Soviet empire. Though Tom was initially apprehensive (he grew up in the midst of the Cuban Missil Crisis – these were the bad guys!) this trip would allow Tom to have firsthand understanding of the initiative and ignite a passion in his heart that would go beyond anything he could have imagined.

 

 

“Within 24 hours of setting foot on the orphanage campus, the children crawled inside our hearts and changed our lives. I have never been the same,” said Tom.

 

“I saw children who, though in a group, lived in a vacuum.  The space around the child that a mom, a dad, a family should have filled stood empty.  The emptiness of that void pushed on a very tender part of my heart.” Tom remembers the children were not sad children. “They played hard.  Every time they gave us a craft they made they would say, ‘for memory!’  and their laughter pealed like church bells.”  But the woundedness of a child alone in the world silently contradicted so much of what Tom saw.

 

These kids, by and large, were not orphans because a tragic event had taken the lives of their parents.  These were, overwhelmingly, social orphans.  They were abandoned, perhaps at birth, or as babies, or as toddlers.  Some were abandoned as school age children.  Others were passively abandoned, often choosing to live on the street because that environment, with all its challenges was more pleasant than home. 

 

“Our hearts melted together in those two weeks in ways I could not imagine,” recalls Tom.  “When I try to explain those first two weeks I spent in Ukraine, I still grope for words.  Sights and sounds etched themselves in my heart.  This land and this people, whom I had feared as a child, became a place and a people my heart wept for. The orphans, these small packages of love, had captured my heart forever.”

 

 

Bridges of Faith

More than 100,000 children live in orphanages in Ukraine. At age 18, when they age out of the system, these children face a grim statistical future. Within five years, 10 percent of these children will commit suicide. More than 10 percent end up in prison and only 10 percent make a reasonable life for themselves. The rest find themselves enmeshed in life-controlling issues. Sixty percent of the girls are trafficked. This is a harrowing road. It’s these numbers and the passion ignited in Tom’s heart that began Bridges of Faith – a ministry that is fixated on sharing the love of God in word and deed with people around the world, especially those orphaned and in desperate need. BOF is led by Tom and his wife Larissa, who was born in Ukraine and was an atheist until she was dramatically apprehended by the Lord in 1993.

 

Since 1996, Bridges of Faith has led the accomplishment of these objectives:

 

Eighteen years of summer Bible camps for kids and VBS programs in remote villages.  These short-term mission groups have ministered to over 35,000 children, seeing more than 10,000 come to faith and life in Jesus.

 

Tons and tons of humanitarian aid.  This includes needed clothing, coats, shoes, heaters, blankets, medication, toys, and food.

 

Medical assistance.  From inhalers for asthmatic children, to prescription eye-glasses, to surgery, Bridges of Faith works to improve the health of children.

 

Renovation and repair of existing facilities.  Tom has led the repair of orphanages in Kerch, Evpatoria, Simferopol, Bakchaserai, and Sevastopol.  He has helped to establish an interdenominational Christian outreaches for children in Vnookava and Kerch in Crimea.

 

Training for national Christian children and youth workers.  From community and regional seminars to ‘on the job’ training for Bible school students, Bridges of Faith has helped national Christians with a vision for children’s ministry, along with the principles and tools to make it a reality.

 

Pastors’ retreats.  A part of the work is to build relationships with pastors and to help them build relationships with others.  We help to strengthen the ministry in Ukraine through training, encouragement and vision-casting among pastors.

 

Planted, in cooperation with area churches, church bodies in seven villages which had no church of any kind.

 

Over 50,000 pieces of Scripture.  Through strategic partnerships, Tom has led the placement of age-appropriate Scriptures right in the hands of the children.

 

Christmas gifts.  Rev. Benz, in partnership with Samaritan’s Purse and a Ukrainian foundation, has helped to give over 12,000 Christmas gifts to orphans and needy children in Crimea.  Each gift was given with a clear presentation of the Gospel.

 

Established, in partnership with Operation Lazarus, a transitional home for orphans in Crimea.

 

Purchasing, renovation and launching BridgeStone, a beautiful 140 acre retreat center in Central Alabama.  With 34 buildings, including 22 cabins, a junior Olympic pool, 2 acre lake, and a gorgeous chapel, BridgeStone serves regional children, youth and adults, along with Ukrainian orphans.

 

 

The Orphan Project

The most visible program BOF does is the Orphan Project. Three to four times each year since 2010, BOF brings groups of Ukrainian orphans to BridgeStone, their 140 acre retreat center. They share Alabama life, faith and culture. Sadly, one of the deepest problems kids have is that they have never seen a healthy relationship between a man and a woman.  They have seen exploitation and abuse.  Tom says, “How can they hope to hit a target in life that they have never seen?  We put them in front of married couples and families so that they can see a different paradigm for life.”

 

He explains further, “In one of the first orphan groups who came to the US, Larissa and I sat down with the kids as a group to talk.  We quickly ran out of chairs and Larissa sat on my lap.  One of the little girls ran from the other side of the room and exclaimed, ‘Mr. Tom, do you love Larissa?’ Her words exposed her sheer wonder.  It was an amazing teachable moment; I shared with her that I certainly did love and respect Larissa.  I told her that I was praying that God would bring a man into her life who would also love and respect her!”

 

An 11-year-old Ukrainian orphan girl, while visiting BridgeStone, was asked what is different about being in Alabama.  She looked up, with wide and clear blue eyes, and simply said, “Here, no one yells at me.  They just hug me.”

 

The Orphan Program is legally NOT about adoption. They run a cultural exchange program and give the children exactly what we contractually promise the Ukrainian government.  They taste Alabama life and culture.  They visit NASA in Huntsville, the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery and the McWane Science Center in Birmingham.  They love exploring BridgeStone, with its 140 wooded acres, small lake, animals and Junior Olympic Swimming Pool.  They love the bikes and they love the food.  Most have never had their own room; at BridgeStone, they have exactly that with a double bed, comforter, dresser, nightstand, etc.

 

“One of my underlying premises to bring kids is that, if we put these children in front of the Body of Christ, the Body of Christ will respond.  There is absolutely no discussion about adoption with children. But relationships develop and, after the kids go home, we find that many adoptions have been incubated.  Often the rate of adoption is 80%.” Of course, this is critically important.  If the kids stay in the system until they graduate their chances at living or making a life are not good at all. Adoption snatches children from that statistical pool.  “We consider that an adopted child is a rescued child,” says Tom.

 

BOF does work in other parts of the world as well.  They have worked in Appalachian Kentucky with humanitarian aid and various evangelistic outreaches, support an orphanage in Kenya (they just put in a water well for the orphanage and help monthly with food), and are bringing a group of orphans from Colombia in December.  BOF is also exploring Poland as another country to introduce to the Orphan Program.

 

Tom has worked in the garbage dumps of Mexico City where an estimated million souls lived in virtual slavery, never in their short lives leaving the mountains of rotting food and trash. He’s worked in the Philippines and Guatemalan jungles.  “I’ve smelled death and utter despair after the devastating Haitian earthquake. I sat with an orphan dying of leukemia in Ukraine and shared Jesus with prisoners in Kentucky,” says Tom. “But I have never been part of something more profound or noble as bringing incredible Ukrainian orphans to BridgeStone, Alabama, to share faith and life, and to help them find adoptive homes. They need so much, but give even more.  We need so little, but learn how much we need. None of us will ever be the same.  Truly we see the face of God.”

 

 

Where Bridges of Faith is Now

Over the last four years, BOF has brought 116 Ukrainian orphans to BridgeStone. Fifty of these 116 have been adopted into their forever families and many others are in the process. Most of these adoptions are to parents whose life plan never included adoption! All of the children have been powerfully confronted with the Good News of Jesus. All profess faith in Him and see life in brand new ways. Those who have not found families have found a vision for life. Their experience in Alabama becomes a turning point in their journey. As James 1:27 people, BOF plans to bring more children in the months and years to come. The amazing facility, army of volunteers and relationships in Ukraine make this happen. There are many ways you can help BOF. Here are a few of the most valuable ways:

 

Pray: BOF has no greater need than people praying for their ministry. Pray especially for Ukraine as they battle unrest in their government and nation.

 

Enlist: BOF is completely driven by volunteers. They need all the help they can get to love children, provide meals, do laundry, take care of the grounds and perform every task that is needed to operate the 140 acre retreat center.

 

Give: BOF is supported entirely by donations. Contact Tom Benz to find out the ways you can support the groups they bring and the ministry at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

Positions Available: BridgeStone needs a full-time maintenance missionary to live on campus and care for the daily needs of the facility. They also need an office professional with experience in graphics and development.

 

Equipment: BridgeStone needs a pickup truck, a 40+ HP tractor and a Bobcat. Contact Tony Dyer at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

 

Rachel Fisher loves learning about what God is doing in the world and writing about it. She and her husband Chase live in Montgomery.

 

 

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 07 October 2014 16:13
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