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Keeping Elli-Rose’s dream alive

June 20, 2006, 0:00 8015 Author: Amanda Follett www.canmoreleader.com Bartel family creates Ukrainian orphanage in daughter’s memory

The above orphanage, which is currently under construction in Ukraine, has been named Elli-Rose’s Place in honour of a local girl who desperately wanted to help Ukrainian children before her death last fall. When complete, Elli-Rose’s Place will house 150 abandoned children.

Canmore Leader — It was her first day in Ukraine and as Elli-Rose Bartel stood on a hotel balcony she recalled a recent dream that would lead to bigger dreams about her future.

The 15-year-old Canmore resident ran excitedly into the hotel room to share her revelation with her parents and two older sisters who were in Eastern Europe, as with so many of the family’s travels, to offer humanitarian aid.

“She said, ‘Mom, I had a dream about this,’ ” Tammy Bartel remembers almost a year later, recounting the vision her daughter had about being pregnant and standing on the very same Ukrainian balcony.

“She says, ‘Mom, I’m going to marry a Ukrainian guy and I’m going to live here.’” The sparkling blond woman, an older version of her daughters, laughs as she remembers the conversation. “I said, ‘No you’re not. It’s too far way from your mother.’”

But Elli-Rose’s determination that she had found her life’s calling in helping Ukrainian children remains the biggest mystery about her untimely death.

Visitors to the Bartel family’s Canmore home are met first by Elli-Rose’s sparkling, metallic smile in a recent portrait that hangs in the front hallway. Moments later, the image is matched -- in person -- by the equally brilliant smiles of her two older sisters, Jessalayne, 17, and Somerlea, 20.

The Bartel family moved to Canmore in 1993, but after taking a mission training course in Hawaii six years ago, has spent most of its time doing outreach in places like Central America and Africa. Apart from strong Christian values, Tammy and her husband J.D. instilled in their children the gift of giving back.

“Wherever we went, we always went as a family. These girls wouldn’t have let us go alone, so they would fundraise. It was a family thing to do,” Tammy says.

Giving, it would seem, is hereditary. Tammy’s mother, Sylvia Rempel, is the founder of Sun Ice Ltd., a successful ski wear company. After selling the company, Rempel started teaching sewing skills to war widows in Sierra Leone, Africa.

Last year, she was invited by Calgary-based Humanitarian Aid Response Teams’ executive director Lloyd Cenaiko to share her skills with women in Ukraine. After an exploration trip to the area, the Calgary resident came back with a passion for the people of Eastern Europe.

Her grandmother’s stories caught Elli-Rose’s imagination and, at only 15, she immediately began planning a vacation Bible school in Ukraine.

“She said, ‘Mom, can we go?’” remembers Tammy. “And I said, ‘Do we usually not go?’ ”

When her sisters returned from their summers abroad, Elli-Rose already had the trip planned. For two weeks last August, the family travelled to Ukraine with their “mirror family” -- which includes Tammy’s sister, who is married to J.D.’s brother, and their three daughters.

The six cousins each led a group at the vacation Bible school, which had been planned for 30 children. As word about the program spread throughout the Lviv area, the number grew to 60 children, most of them orphans and street kids, many suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Then we went to the orphanage out there. Most are state run, with the kids separated into age groups,” Tammy says, trying to convey the feeling of a facility that serves its purpose, but does little to provide children with a family atmosphere.

“It’s very institutionalized,” Jessalayne offers and Tammy adds that seven out of 10 boys that leave the government-run facilities end up in jail.

“Sometimes these institutions -- they don’t work,” she says.

It was the abandoned children that struck at Elli-Rose’s heartstrings, in particular a little boy the girls dubbed Baby Alex.

“She would pick up these kids and she just fell in love with them. She wanted to stay there,” Tammy says. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m going back next summer and I’m going to hold babies all summer.’ ”

Perhaps to set herself apart from her fair-haired siblings, Elli-Rose coloured her hair dark brown before last summer’s trip. By the time she returned to Caronport High School, a boarding school she attended with Jessalayne in Saskatchewan, in the fall, she seemed to have found her own way in life.

During that first week back to school, people noted that the 15-year-old had come into herself over the course of the summer. It was “the perfect week,” describes her mother, as Elli-Rose e-mailed a friend about her trip to the Ukraine and her future plans.

“I just loved it there and I know that God really wants me to go back there and live there for a little while and work at the orphanages,” she wrote.

“My dream would be to start up an orphanage in the Ukraine and all day I would just cuddle and love the kids to death. Oh, it makes me so happy thinking about it.”

Just two days later, on Sept. 9, Elli-Rose was travelling in a car with Jessalayne when their vehicle flipped. By some miracle, Jessalayne sustained a fractured neck but survived the crash. Elli-Rose was killed instantly.

In the grief that followed, the family remembered Elli-Rose’s dream and her passion for helping the Ukrainian children. They vowed to -- one day -- open an orphanage there in her memory.

Then the pieces started falling into place and that day came much sooner than anyone expected.

Lloyd Cenaiko at HART had met a pastor who was working in Novovolinsk, a small coal mining community an hour and a half outside Lviv. While an existing orphanage in the rural town was filled to capacity with 27 children, the church had been granted land from the government to build a second orphanage.

All it needed was a partner.

The family knew they had found a match and threw themselves into creating Elli-Rose’s Place, an orphanage that, once completed, will house up to 150 abandoned children.

When the family members returned in April, where they painted colourful murals in the building’s hallways, they were introduced to the locals as “Elli-Rose’s mother” or “Elli-Rose’s sister,” as if the community already knew the young girl who desperately wanted to help its children.

“It’s all about relationships and that’s what’s so neat,” says J.D., marvelling at how the pieces have fallen into place.

In July, the family plans to return to help finish the orphanage’s first phase, which will soon be home to 50 children, and see the second phase begin. In total, almost 40 volunteers will travel with them, including family members and students from Caronport High School.

The family will likely create a fundraiser for Elli-Rose’s Place here in Canmore this fall, but anyone interested in donating clothing, small stuffed toys and school supplies for the upcoming trip can drop them at the UPS Store in Canmore.

For the family, throwing their energy into creating Elli-Rose’s Place is not only “a reason to get up in the morning,” but will also help to keep the young girl’s memory alive.

On the most recent trip, the family got to see Baby Alex, now two and a half. When the young orphan saw Somerlea and Jessalayne, he threw his arms around them in a bear hug that seemed to go on forever.

“These girls were saying, ‘It’s just like a hug from Elli-Rose,’ because he would just not let go,” Tammy says.

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