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Local man helps Ukraine's sewer children (Crushing poverty, defenseless kids drive pastor to 2-year mission)

October 16, 2006, 0:00 7596 Author: Jim Haug www.news-journalonline.com

By JIM HAUG

Staff Writer

DAYTONA BEACH -- Homeless street children seek shelter in the underground sewers of Odessa, Ukraine, but the camera lens of the Rev. Bob Gamble is bringing their stories to light.

Bob Gamble

Street children are often fleeing from abusive families or became orphans as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

Gamble, the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, left after Sunday's sermon for a two-year mission there. The former communist nation has been wracked with economic instability ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Social workers estimate there are 140,000 homeless street children.

Gamble, 55, will try to provide relief through his camera's viewfinder.

He hopes portraits of street children will encourage donors to sponsor a child for $30 a month and form relationships.

For a Florida minister who is not fluent in Ukrainian, his camera is also a way to build rapport with socially alienated street kids.

"All kids love to have their picture taken," said Nancy Gard, an elder of First Presbyterian Church. "Wherever (Gamble) goes, he takes their picture. It's a good connection."

Gamble's photography has been featured in Ukrainian galleries. He has left discs of digital photos at youth shelters so kids can see their pictures. He also distributed disposable cameras so youths can take their own photos.

After 10 years as pastor of First Presbyterian, Gamble said doing something "new, risky and meaningful" is necessary for his personal sense of renewal.

His interest in child-welfare issues in developing countries was stoked when Gamble took local church youth on trips to Nicaragua for "both work and play."

They would go surfing and volunteer in an orphanage. He was so impressed with the personal care there that he wishes he could take Nicaraguan grandmothers to Ukraine to cuddle the orphaned babies.

Through Jim Leary, a New Smyrna Beach lawyer with business and philanthropic experience in Ukraine, Gamble learned about the plight of the street kids.

Ukraine is undergoing a "big transition to a market economy," Leary said.

For many Ukrainians, regular employment and social welfare programs ended with communism.

"In the scramble that followed (the end of the Soviet Union), a few individuals made high profits but most were immediately poor," Gamble wrote in his fundraising letter. "Families broke up; alcohol took over. I regularly meet professors driving taxis and nurses working cash registers in convenience stores."

There are no foster families in Ukraine "because no one can afford another child," he said.

Street children are often fleeing from abusive families or became orphans as a result of the AIDS epidemic.

They try to survive through begging, washing cars, stealing and becoming prostitutes. For escapism, "many sniff glue," Gamble said.

Gamble first went to Ukraine in 2004 with the original idea of coordinating church trips to orphanages there. The plight of street kids moved him to get involved.

He works with a charity in Odessa called the "The Way Home" that has a day-care center and dormitory for full-time residents.

Besides being a volunteer, he wants to help by writing grants in English and raising money to supplement the staff salaries.

To support his own efforts in Ukraine, Gamble has formed his nonprofit called "This Child Here."

Parishioners say they have mixed feelings about Gamble's departure.

"I don't want to him to leave," said Gard, a church elder who accompanied Gamble on a trip to Ukraine last year. "(But) I truly feel, as Bob does, that God is calling him to the streets of Odessa for the children."

She knows Gamble will stay in touch. "E-mail is a wonderful thing."

jim.haug[at]news-jrnl.com

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