Universe Column for March 19th 2006
by David Alton
Natalia was delighted when her baby daughter, Nastya, was born, 18 years ago. At that time she lived in Russia, where her husband had a good job. However, Nastya started to have epileptic fits when she was 5 months old.
In Russia, there were no good specialists to treat Nastya, so Natalia returned to Minsk, in her native country of Belarus (a former Soviet republic). There, specialists told her that Nastya suffered from mental retardation.
In Belarus, Natalia’s husband, Sasha, could not find employment. In 1996, unable to cope with his continuing joblessness and deeply depressed by the pressures of caring for Nastya, Sasha hung himself. Sadly, there have been similar tragedies. In 1994, two young mothers of mentally disabled children also committed suicide in Minsk.
Natalia was left alone to cope with her bereavement and raise her disabled daughter. She could not find work, and was very short of money. Natalia said, “I was also tempted to commit suicide because I could see no way out. Seeing that nobody would care for Nastya after my death, stopped me from killing myself.”
Just when everything seemed so hopeless, Natalia heard about the Isle of Hope, a day care centre in Minsk for mentally disabled children and young people. The Isle of Hope and the residential home for mentally disabled young people, Sunshine House, were both founded and directed by Lyudmila Gutko, 52, an energetic and cheerful Catholic mother of two.
Lyudmila’s own son, Kostya, 22, was born with severe learning disabilities and cannot walk, talk or feed himself. Every night, Lyudmila has to get up several times to change Kostya’s sleeping position so he can be more comfortable, as he cannot move himself. Needless-to-say, she rarely ever gets much sleep.
Remarkably- and she is a most remarkable woman – Lyudmila has never wavered in her loving care of Kostya. She even found the energy to help other parents with similar problems, by starting the Isle of Hope and Sunshine House, the only two privately run centres to assist disabled children and young people with learning difficulties in Belarus.
Lyudmila believes that God has given her the strength to cope with her own difficulties and also to reach out to others.
So, despite Natalia’s frequent seizures, when Natalia went to Lyudmila, asking if Nastya could be admitted to the Isle of Hope, she immediately
accepted Nastya at the day care centre. Seeing that Natalia was poor and unemployed, Lyudmila offered her a job and she has worked there ever since.
A few years later, Nastya’s seizures stopped, probably due to the peaceful, loving environment and the high quality assistance which she
received at the Isle of Hope. There, a range of activities are planned each day to help disabled young people with learning difficulties
realise their full potential. This includes lessons in communications, how to structure their activities, how to use the toilet, arts and
crafts, making ceramics, woodwork, physical exercises and dance. Some of the disabled youth can even repair chairs!
Lyudmila sees her work as serving God and He has helped her to do it. Many times she has been close to shutting down the Isle of Hope due to insufficient funds but each time God sent help.
Thankfully, a major donor in Britain helps the Isle of Hope and Sunshine House to continue operating. This donor is ChildAid, a superb British Christian charity which helps many poor and disabled children and young people in the former Soviet Union. This Lent, you might want to make them one of the projects you help. Cheques may be made out to ChildAid, and sent to: ChildAid, P.O Box 200, Bromley BR1 1QF, with a note stating that the donation is for Lyudmila Gutko’s work with disabled young people in Belarus.