Helping the Children of Eastern Europe
words by: Elaine Tomski
Tiny sparrows huddle in the nest until father and mother return. Helpless, they must wait for seeds to fill their hungry stomachs. If their parents do not return, the chicks’ peeps of desperation fall silent, and the little ones remain hopeless. Many children in this world are like these sparrows—lost. Unseen, lacking a voice, and missing the gentle touch of a parent, millions of precious children hope for the love of a family. According to the Lost Sparrows website, there are an estimated 7.3 million orphans in Eastern Europe alone. We wonder how such a massive problem can find a solution.
Darren and Stacey Gagnon spend their days seeking solutions. They believe children belong in families. After years of looking for answers, the Gagnons understand their obedience to God brings desired results. He alone is big enough to see the whole picture, and Darren and Stacey know they are small enough to need His guidance. “If God asks us to do it, we need to do it,” says Darren. “God takes care of the details.”
Plain Values first introduced you to the Gagnon family and their non-profit organization, Lost Sparrows, in our April 2020 issue. Darren and Stacey are the parents of seven children: two biological children and five special needs children chosen through adoption. Their two youngest children, Israel and Zorey, were rescued from an orphanage in Bulgaria.
In Eastern Europe, it is common, even expected, that children born with physical impairments and special needs are placed in government-funded orphanages. Israel was born with spina-bifida, and he laid tied to a crib in such an orphanage at the age of four. Alone, Israel laid in silence, along with many other neglected children, on a liquid diet and never feeling sunshine on his face. That is, until the blessed day Darren and Stacey took him home. In 2016, the Gagnons returned for two-year-old Zorey, born with only one complete limb, her right hand and arm. Because Zorey has congenital limb differences, medical researchers so devalued her life that they performed experiments on her precious little body. Darren and Stacey were able and willing to quickly rescue Zorey and adopt her before further research took place, completing the Gagnon family.
Since Darren and Stacey cannot adopt all children needing homes, they do their best to make a difference every day. They also invite others who believe children belong in families into the journey. Lost Sparrows’ mission statement reads, “Because no child should be forgotten, Lost Sparrows advocates for the safe closure of orphanages, equips parents and caregivers with trauma-informed education, and provides resources to partners around the globe.”
Let’s look at some of the ways God uses his people to expand the reach of Lost Sparrows.
Nik’s Heart of Hope
Eric and Blythe Royaards already had three children when they felt God was leading them to adopt. Some friends introduced them to an orphanage in Bulgaria where the Boyaards met their blessing named Nikolas. He was born with cerebral palsy, yet God’s image shines brightly through him. Nik’s dad says, “Since Nik has become part of our family, he brings a joy and just a whole new sense of what it means to give, and what it means to be selfless.” With all of the effort he can muster, Nik says, “Love is strong, and God wants us to love people.” Eleven-year-old Nik’s heart is so full it overflows into a contagious smile. He has come a long way from living in an orphanage as a cold, shamed, and forgotten child.
Stacey Gagnon first met Nik when his adoptive parents picked him up at the orphanage in Bulgaria, where the Gagnon’s found Israel and Zorey. She says, “Nik was just a tiny scrap of a kid. He remembers a lot because he was a little over six years old when he was adopted. Because Nik had cerebral palsy, he was treated very poorly, but cognitively he understood everything going on around him.” The Royaards and Gagnons became fast friends, supporting each other in special-needs adoption. They have also served together in Lost Sparrows from the start.
Nik’s memories of his life at the orphanage helped Lost Sparrows choose projects to improve the lives of orphans left behind. Stacey says, “Nik would say things like, ‘I remember being cold,’ and he cried for all the kids, so we took blankets to several of the orphanages.” In another project, Lost Sparrows raised funds for the installation of an elevator at the orphanage because Nik said, “I remember I would get in trouble because I couldn’t walk the stairs quickly.”
Nik wants to help kids like himself. He knows he’s a child of God and believes the Holy Spirit whispers to him—When you get older, you can do crazy things and help other people. And crazy things, in the eyes of man, Nik does. Now an older kid of eleven, he operates his own business called Nik’s Heart of Hope (NHOH). According to his mom, Nik delivers a large bucket to the homes of willing neighbors, asking them to save their aluminum cans for him. Then on Saturdays, Nik collects the cans, spends six or more hours crushing them one-by-one, organizes them into bags, and then exchanges them for money at the recycling center. His mom says, “That’s how he raised nearly five thousand dollars.” In addition to recycling cans, Nik sponsors other fundraisers and recently spoke about his cause at church. Lost Sparrows comes alongside Nik to magnify his voice, and Nik helps Lost Sparrows meet the needs of orphans. The little boy, who once had no voice and struggles to speak well because of his cerebral palsy, now speaks volumes for the voiceless.
Recently, funds from NHOH provided resources for boys moving into the Wide Awake International (WAI) duplex in Ukraine. Perhaps you remember Jed and Kim Johnson’s story from our February 2021 issue of Plain Values? The Johnsons said yes to moving from the USA to Ukraine, where they rescue older, special-needs boys from the orphanage and give them the family, life, and love they desperately need. Nik went through a list of items needed to outfit the newly completed second side of the Wide Awake International duplex. Nik chose things he thought the boys would like, including rocking chairs for the outside deck. He says, “That was really cool!” Once sitting, forgotten, inside the orphanage, boys now sit outside swaying peacefully in awe of God’s creation. Nik remembers. He doesn’t want to leave them behind. So, Nik is doing every crazy thing God gives him to do to love them. Nik’s Heart of Hope also helps fund the Foster Closet, yet another outreach of Lost Sparrows in Bulgaria.
A Foster Closet on the Move
Foster Closets located throughout the United States exist to provide much-needed support for foster families. Generous donors supply Foster Closets with necessary items to help families offset the costs of the foster children in their care. Darren and Stacey Gagnon received Foster Closet support while caring for foster children in their homes, so they understand the immense benefit it provides. Creating a Foster Closet in Bulgaria may seem like a good idea, but it’s so much more in reality. It’s a God idea.
We know God can take a bad situation and redeem it for good. According to Stacey, COVID-19 facilitated the shutdown of disability orphanages in Bulgaria. Thankfully, many special needs children were instead placed into foster families for the first time. Unfortunately, that means generous foster families face challenges like never before. Ann Todorov and her team work diligently to help meet those challenges with the help of generous donors and a Foster Closet established in the church pastored by her husband.
Let me introduce you to Ann. She and her husband live in Varna, Bulgaria, where she is a trained physical therapist. Originally from England and the child of a missionary, Ann met her husband while smuggling Bibles into his father’s church. You can already see her daring heart, can’t you? Darren and Stacey met Ann while picking up their son Israel at the orphanage. “She went into the orphanage with me,” says Stacey. “She has gone several times to orphanages to work with kids and work with staff to better position and support kids.” Ann has also traveled throughout the country with Stacey to assist families who choose to keep their special needs children at home. Ann helps them set up their homes differently, supplies braces, and provides tips on feeding and positioning the children. “Every single day,” says Stacey, “Ann is out in the community or orphanages working with kids.”
Now, thanks to COVID-19, Ann has the opportunity to support foster families caring for children with special needs, too. Funded by Lost Sparrows, Ann and the Foster Closet are on the move. Ann shares a story about what she and her assistants heard and experienced while visiting foster families in the villages.
“It is a cold Bulgarian fall day, and we eventually find the first home off the beaten track, away from what could be called civilization. The smiles, the warm handshakes, the log fires, the cozy living space, beds in the living room, a cooking pot outside. Simple but friendly. A huge thank you from the foster carer as we give them a packet of diapers.
“‘Why was this baby not given to us earlier?’ asks the foster carer. ‘We adore him!’ I smile and recall how time and time again we hear the same thing. Contrary to popular belief, these children are wanted and make a wonderful addition to the foster carer’s families.
“The foster carer remarks that it looks like [the child] has only had milk from a bottle until now as he doesn’t eat or doesn’t know how to. He chokes on puree and refuses to take a spoon but is happy with a bottle. How wrong it is to see a toddler who only drinks milk. If only he had become a part of this family soon after birth, he would be eating well by now.
“The passivity of lying in a cot all of his life in an orphanage has taken a toll. But since we started this project in the fall, I’ve seen time and time again that love conquers all, albeit not as fast as I would hope. The advice and practical expertise we are able to share while on home visits help the foster carers to carry on with therapy when we are absent. The patience of these foster carers is astounding. It’s the small improvements that bring joy in these homes.”
Ann’s team also visits another village where they deliver food supplies before a heavy winter storm hits. A new foster child in the area is fragile. The foster carers are weary and tired, explaining they need to wake every few hours through the night to stoke the fire. They fear the underweight child will become sick with a cold if the fire goes out. In addition, the foster child has an esophagus problem the national health system will not address. The foster family can no longer cope. Ann gives a phone call to Darren and Stacey, who quickly raise the funds required for the child’s surgical procedure. A mere two hundred dollars is all that’s needed. The child recovers with much post-operative care from Ann’s team. Each team member sacrifices their family time, money, and food until the child returns to his foster family. The child is now eating normally, starting to feed himself, putting on weight, and taking a few steps! Ann says, “We still give a lot of input in terms of visits, diapers, food, and therapy. But, thank God the child is loved in this home.”
The child protection agency has noticed how Ann and her crew are finding solutions and helping foster families care for the children with special needs. Stacey says, “The government officials have applauded what Ann is doing. They love it!” Ann sees the needs and desires to expand the reach. She loves supporting these generous foster families with the resources, the therapy, and the prayers they need. She does not want the orphanages to reopen and fill up because Ann sees first-hand the benefits of keeping these precious children in families. However, the challenges are significant.
Currently, Ann and two other women juggle requests to visit more homes than they can manage. “Can I just stress that we are absolutely stretched to the limits with these children?” says Ann. “We desperately need more funding. We need to involve more people and spread the load. I am leading this project, and the only way I have been able to do this, this year, is by taking a leave of absence from my employment. The other members of our team are doing the same, and they visit on weekends and evenings when they should be spending time with their own families. We all feel so strongly about these disadvantaged children that we do this from our hearts. We also communicate directly with the authorities, and they respect our efforts with these families, seeing that it is done through the love of God. We often run out of funding for food for the foster families or the means to travel to visit.”
The team is also praying about starting a weekly children’s club at the church where the Foster Closet is. The club will provide playtime, appropriate level activity, and time to socialize for the children. Their vision is to have a center for the children with special needs where families can also come for spiritual and practical support from other foster care families and specialists on the team. However, one team member shares, “Our stumbling blocks are our ability to consistently provide transport for the foster families who live in villages outside of our city, most of whom do not have their own transport. In addition, although we have specialists on our team in occupational therapy, physiotherapy, and special needs education, each individual is working on the foster care project in addition to their day jobs and fitting visits around their work commitments.” Let us pray with them for solutions to provide transportation and salaries for these specialists to work full-time with the club and home visitations. Doing so will offer foster families of special needs children the assistance they need to keep them in homes and out of reopening orphanages.
Stacey says, “To me, it’s more than just providing for physical needs. It’s coming alongside these men and women and saying, we see what you’re doing, and we know this is hard. We see your children are worthy.”
Increase for Lost Sparrows
“We really have grown a ton in our ability to reach and support families raising kids from hard places,” says Stacey. Lost Sparrows continues to work diligently to stop the flood of babies into orphanages in Eastern Europe. They also embrace more ways to equip families who rescue children traumatized in those orphanages. Again, because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, Darren and Stacey have been using computer technology to reach Eastern Europe. Stacey says, “We have trained thousands over the past year using Zoom.” This technology allows people from across the globe to see and hear each other on a computer screen for real-time chats, meetings, and conferences. Because of Zoom, Stacey also recently spoke to five thousand Russians about understanding children, their lack of resiliency, and the trauma orphanages do long-term to children. Stacey adds, “Darren and I have put together several training videos, which will go into twenty-six countries, on how to support kids who have lived in institutions and orphanages.”
When you are the parents of seven children, several of whom come from hard places, those children require much attention, so technology helps keep the Gagnons home more. “We’ve had one of the hardest years with our kids,” says Stacey. She and Darren must practice daily, hourly, and moment-by-moment everything they teach. Children are not resilient like a piece of elastic. Stacey says, “They can’t go through horrible abuse and come out unscathed.” Although the Gagnons are typically the ones to step up and help, they now understand how important it is to be willing to receive help and support from others, as well. Parents in the adoption and fostering world sometimes feel alone, like no one understands. Darren and Stacey have learned they must intentionally reach out to people they trust, telling them exactly what they need. “God has been so incredibly faithful in putting people around us to help us,” says Stacey. “And even with Lost Sparrows, sometimes we’re just tired. But God has been faithful to put others around us when things are really hard. Our eyes are open to a whole new world through our own struggles. God has given us a heart and understanding for others struggling, as well.”
God has not forgotten Darren, Stacey, or their children. Stacey says, “God has grown us so much in recognizing [that] when you’re at the end of you, He gets to step in and do His work. When we have struggled and feel like we have nothing left to give, we’ve seen Lost Sparrows grow exponentially.” Lost Sparrows is not just some non-profit organization. Darren and Stacey live it out every day. “This is our life,” says Stacey. “It’s what God calls us to do, and we couldn’t do it without your readership. The Amish community has been one of the greatest supports for us. The orphan crisis is overwhelming. But I truly believe, every day we make a difference to at least one.”
Orphans with disabilities in Eastern Europe are not forgotten. Not by the good servants highlighted in this article, not by we who steward our resources to support their work, and not by our Good Father. He stands ready and willing to love unconditionally all who come to him through his Son, Jesus Christ. Our Good Father offers the solution to a problem faced by people worldwide. The manger is like a nest large enough to include all who choose to find hope and wholeness there. The Christ Child was born once so that you and I might be born again. Never orphaned. Not forgotten.
Elaine Tomski is the author of Pregnant and Praying, a gift book for expectant mothers. She and her husband call Ohio’s Amish country home.