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Ukranian orphan Luda hugs Stephanie Koop as eight girls from the Ukraine spend their last night at the BridgeStone Prayer and Retreat Center near Billingsley on Monday. / Mickey Welsh/Advertiser
BILLINGSLEY — An old rusted van parked outside of the BridgeStone Prayer and Retreat Center is surrounded by volunteers rushing in and out of a dining hall, making sure the needs of eight Ukrainian orphans are met.
The van is symbolic, almost, of the needs at the camp, where for about 18 months, orphans from the Ukraine have been housed in hopes of being adopted. At a cost of about $65,000 per group, the center has hosted six groups of children from the Ukraine. While funds are never guaranteed, faith — and a lot of prayer — holds this operation together.
The retreat center is a ministry of the Millbrook-based Bridges of Faith International, and it took three years for the first group of orphans to be flown to the U.S. in December 2010. The organization has done mission work in the Ukraine since 1995.
All the money that has funded the trips for the Ukrainian orphans has been through donations. And hundreds of volunteers. And families selling their homes to live at the center full-time. And teachers taking a year off from their job because of their belief in what is taking place here.
Overseeing it all is Tom Benz of Bridges of Faith, whose first goal is to save lives; and second, to complete families.
Benz said operations are “totally hand to mouth.”
“Food is donated, and so are clothes, furniture, cars, washers and dryers,” he said. “What we’re able to do on so little money is possible because of volunteers.”
Centerpoint Church in Prattville funded the 12-bedroom conference center that the orphans sleep in during each 30-day stay. Civic organizations, churches, families and businesses throughout the area bring in dinner every night the orphans are present.
“Part of the reason is to introduce them to the children,” Benz said. “With each group, the (volunteer) circle gets wider. House parents from this round came from Dallas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. We have more than 3,000 on our email list. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reaches out.”
And it helps with the $500,000 annual operating budget, an amount that includes $65,000 for the orphans visits. The money also covers the cost of maintaining 148 acres of land, 34 buildings and livestock, including a horse, donkey and chickens.
The program is funded through donations, and costs $65,000 each time a group arrives in the U.S. Part of the breakdown includes:
• $16,000 — Airfare for 10 children and three adults
• $15,200 — Room and board for 20 nights for 10 orphans and four adults
• $5,000 — Visa/document fees
• $3,000 — Transportation within the U.S.
• $2,400 — Travel and health insurance
Tom Kotouc of the law firm Kotouc & Vogel P.C., contributes financially to the ministry because, he said, he wants to help prevent the approximate 60 percent of girls who age out of Ukrainian orphanages into a life of prostitution, and help them know Christ through the families who adopt them.
“The big difference this program makes is that they get adopted into families that can provide hope for another life apart from crime and drugs,” he said, adding he has known Benz for 15 years, and traveled with him 10 years ago to the Ukraine to work with summer programs for children in orphanages.
“I saw enough in the results in older citizens there,” Kotouc said. “There is rampant alcoholism. That was obvious. And that’s what a lot of these kids get involved in and destroyed by.”
Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, is another financial backer.
“There are a lot of families in the U.S. who have the means and desire to adopt these kids,” he said. “What Tom Benz is doing is more of a rescue than an adoption and it’s a privilege to be a part of it. The fact that he’s been able to get the Ukrainian government authorities (to cooperate) is a miracle in and of itself.
“I think what Tom has proven is that when presented with the actual flesh and blood child … there are more people who will say yes.”
Benz said of the 56 children who have been a part of the Bridges of Faith ministry, about 80 percent have been adopted or are in the process of being adopted.
This week, the center said goodbye to the sixth group — eight girls from the same orphanage in the Simseropol, Ukraine. The next groups are expected in August, December, February and May.
First-grade school teacher Jennifer Melton, who has taught for 11 years in Coosa County, was granted a year’s leave from her job to work at the center; her job is to write grant applications for funding that will help meet the ministry’s needs. Leasing her house and relying on financial support from churches, she moved on to the camp grounds just recently.
Melton and other staff members began brainstorming ideas for what is needed at the camp: a new lake area, additional bathrooms in the dining area, a storm shelter and a wading pool.
“I came out here and fell in love with it,” Melton said. “And I was invited to the Ukraine … and that sealed the deal for me.”
Brian Jones is the former youth director at New Life Community Church in Clanton. He and his family — wife Raquel and their four children, ages 9, 8, 5 and 2 — began their ministry at BridgeStone Prayer and Retreat Center this month.
Jones, whose volunteer work at the center is organizing camps for churches year-round, said a wish list at the camp includes a basketball court and a multipurpose facility.
“Last spring, we were looking for a summer camp for our youth and we learned about the Ukrainian ministry,” he said. “And fell in love. The next season of our life will be here.”
Benz said there will always be skeptics who say the money will run out, and the people who will want to adopt will lessen and the volunteers will become fewer.
Asked about that number, he answered: “The number of volunteers? I don’t even know how to count that.”