The dirt road has welcomed people for years. The kind of road where tire marks tell the stories of hundreds.
Stories of lives changed, transformed. Where challenges have been met, and outreach provided. Where food is fed to the hungry, where children are clothed in material items and more importantly, in love.
It is a road that stretches back to buildings filled with laughter, open arms, and a community that had love for these children long before they arrived – these children, who traveled halfway around the world to find a family. To find hope, security, a sense of belonging.
Bridges of Faith…
nestled off County Road 383 in Billingsley, Alabama, provides this. It offers an educational cultural exchange program for Ukranian orphans while at the same time networking with local families and homes.
Since 2010, more than 150 children have been adopted through this ministry. The first group arrived in December of that first year. The most recent group of children from the Kiev region landed the end of July, and will remain through August.
“Most of these kids were removed from their home for serious abuse – passive or active,” said Bridges of Faith founder Tom Benz. “To assume they’re going to emerge from an orphanage and create a healthy, reasonable life… it’s unreasonable to think that.
“They first and foremost will understand they have a Heavenly Father who will never leave them or forsake them. And that they can understand a better way to live out their lives based on that understanding. The wonderful answer for many kids is that when they come here, they find a forever family.”
While Covid halted children from traveling to BridgeStone’s 140-acre prayer and retreat center for the past 18 months, it has been the norm that children visit the center three times each year.
And for the Bridges of Faith ministry to visit them in return.
The BoF community surrounds the children in love. Many of the orphans have never seen a healthy family or good relationship, and without intervention, Benz said, when the orphans finish high school and are released into the world, about 10% of them commit suicide within a year.
More than 10% go to prison, and only 10% create a reasonable life. Six of ten girls are trafficked, Benz said.
Bridges of Faith International has been involved in mission work in Ukraine since 1995 and sponsors children to come to Alabama. While on the retreat grounds, they stay in the Centerpoint Lodge, which was built by Centerpoint Fellowship Church in Prattville, and includes 12 bedrooms.
Twelve bedrooms. Each child receives their own room.
“We were of course really sad that Covid shut us down from bringing kids here for a year and a half,” Benz said. “We were able to continue helping kids in Ukraine through programs for kids at their own orphanages, including Christmas gifts sent to orphanages with a presentation of the Gospel. Also, we were able to provide Ukrainian orphanages with food and medicine when they had a shortage. We were really, really grateful for that.”
A group of 11 children who recently arrived will spend several days at BridgeStone before living with families in the area. They will remain in the region before returning for school in Ukraine by September 1.
While here, the community can help financially. They can also visit the orphans and learn about the program at a banquet near the end of August at Christchurch. It would be an opportunity, Benz said, to become a host family at Christmastime.
“What we like to do is ‘friendraising’ to see if people would like to get acquainted with the children and program, and see if there’s a way people can volunteer or become a host at Christmas,” Benz said. “That would be amazing. If this piques someone’s interest, we would love to pursue those people.”
Host families, said director of ministry Nancy Elizabeth Benz, don’t have to have adoption in mind when housing the children.
“We have men and women at 70-something years old hosting,” she said.
And even without host families the past year and a half, the Benz couple said there are five children in the process of being adopted, a situation Tom Benz said is amazing.
“We’ve had one family from Maryland who adopted two kids in the midst of Covid,” he said. “They are in Ukraine right now adopting two more kids.”
Benz traveled to Ukraine in 1997 for the first time as a regional director with the International Bible Society and spent some time in a Ukrainian orphanage on the Black Sea.
When he first stepped foot in the orphanage, and by the time the sun rose on the first day, it gripped him. And by the time he returned home, he knew his life would never be the same.
“I didn’t know how, but I just knew it wouldn’t be the same,” he said. “I didn’t lie awake at night as a teenager dreaming about orphan ministry. Right now, if I think about not doing this, I guess I think, ‘Why wouldn’t I do it?’
“Every spring, I get a bouquet of invitations: high school graduations, college graduations, birth announcements, wedding announcements of these kids who have come here, been – to my mind – rescued from the statistical fate that awaited them, and I see that they’ve come and left their home, their language, their friends, their culture.”
They left all that behind, not as babies, but as school-aged children, somewhere between age 7 and 15 or 16. And then they’ve assimilated, they’ve learned a new language, a new culture, they’re becoming just wonderful people. And a blessing to their families,” Benz said.
“I can’t imagine leaving kids that we could have brought. And I know that … there are so many, and we brought so few. And that’s true. But some people will say, ‘Well, you didn’t change the world, but you changed the world for that one person.’
“But as we see these kids growing up, we see these kids coming back to volunteer, to help other orphans who have come. To interpret for them, to encourage them.”
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