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Ukranian native and Huntsville resident Vasyl Vatsyk translates for a group of Ukrainian orphans as they view a moon rock during a tour of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center's Davidson Center. The orphans will be here for a couple weeks visiting and hoping to find a permanent adoptive family. (The Huntsville Times/ Michael Mercier)
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- A typical teenager, Victoria loves hamburgers and pizza.
But the 14-year-old never had burgers or pizza in her native Ukraine, where she lives in an orphanage.
She and nine other Ukrainian orphans are visiting Alabama for two weeks through efforts of the Bridges of Faith ministry near Montgomery, founded by Tom and Larissa Benz, a Ukraine native.
Some of the children are already being adopted by American families, while the remainder, including Victoria, still cling to the hope that someone will soon provide them a permanent home.
"I want to stay here forever," said Victoria through interpreter Larissa Benz. "I love everything here."
When asked if she liked to shop, no translation was necessary based on Victoria's wide smile and sparkling blue eyes. But shopping trips such as the ones Sunday to Kohl's and Target are rare.
The children and three chaperones, including orphanage director Victoria Kordun, arrived in Montgomery a week ago from Ukraine, where snow was still on the ground. The children had no summer clothes, so several churches and individuals helped purchase some items for the children, who will leave for home April 9.
The children are staying at the ministry's BridgeStone camp in Chilton County. They are being treated to a variety of activities, including a trip to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Monday.
But unless they are adopted, most of the children will likely never have a "successful life," said Tom Benz. "About 60 percent of the girls end up in human trafficking against their will. At least 10 percent of the children will commit suicide and another 10 percent will end up in prison. Only about 10 percent will actually have what we consider a successful life."
That is what drives the Benzes, who have devoted their lives since 1995 to working with orphans in Ukraine, where they met while he was working with the International Bible Society and she was serving as an interpreter.
"Most of the children have had a negative family experience and by going to a different culture, they can start a new life," said Tom Benz. "Most are social orphans who have been abandoned at birth or as toddlers and some were abused so bad the government had to step in."
The Benzes are not an adoption agency, but are trying to bring prospective American families together with orphans. The adoption process is done through local governmental agencies in Ukraine, said Larissa Benz. The adoption cost is about $20,000, which includes travel, and the process takes between seven and nine months.
"It's so much better if they can interact with each other in person to see if they connect rather than trying to adopt from a picture," said Tom Benz.
The cost for bringing a group here is about $65,000, raised through donations. He hopes to bring seven more groups over the next two years.
When she first learned the Benzes wanted to bring orphans to the U.S., Kordun said she was "a little concerned" because of negative publicity surrounding the child sent back to Russia alone by his adoptive family in Tennessee. But she said she discovered the Benzes truly have a heart for the children.
About 10 children have been adopted by American families and 15 more are being adopted after meetings were initiated by the ministry, said Tom Benz.
The orphans and their chaperones and sponsors were led on a tour of the Space Center by guide Noel Godwin. Echoing Godwin's every word was translator Vasyl Vatsyk, a native of Ukraine, who now lives in Huntsville with his wife, Olga, from Azerbijan, and son, Timothy, also a Ukraine native.
They attend the Slavic Full Gospel Church, which co-sponsored the group's visit. Other sponsoring congregations were Wall Highway Baptist and the Kingdom Life Christian Fellowship.
The Vatsyks, who were instrumental in founding an orphanage in Kiev several years ago, acted as translators for the children on a shopping trip and to Chuck-E-Cheese on Sunday, and on a visit to Timothy's school, Hampton Cove Middle, Monday morning, plus the Space Center.
"These children never have opportunities like this," said Olga Vatsyk. "They just sit in their rooms and they don't even have dreams. They don't know that people love them and that's what we hope to teach them, that someone does love them."
Friday night, Bridges of Faith will host an adoption information meeting in our BridgeStone Chapel at 7 p.m. Valery Dashevsky, an accomplished Ukrainian adoption and immigration attorney, will share information on adopting a Ukrainian orphan.
It is open to anyone, or private appointments can be made if interested families can't attend the meeting which will be at 302 County Road 383, Billingsley, AL 36006
For more information on the Bridges of Faith ministry, visit www.bridgesoffaith.com or call 334-221-0385.