Noel Maher, second from right, who is spending a year working in a children’s home in the Ukraine
A YOUNG Limerick man is giving up a year of his life to work in a children’s home in the Ukraine but he doesn’t see it that way.
Noel Maher, from Gurtavalla, Doon, said he is privileged to be there.
“I am indeed lucky to be here, firstly because I arrived when they needed an extra pair of hands, and secondly because I recently walked out of a pretty dramatic car crash. It taught me the value of all my plans and worries and preoccupations because for a time nothing else mattered except being.
“It was good preparation for my stay here, and that is my hope, that by simply being with these boys in their home that some great things will grow from it,” said Noel, who has a background in engineering and social science.
Before Christmas he set off from Ireland with a year’s visa and a selection of Cadbury’s chocolate for the boys. But he still has Christmas to look forward to as it is on January 7 in the Ukraine.
“We'll have a big supper together and then the boys will go around singing carols for the people who have helped us during the year,” he said. Noel is volunteering as a teacher and working on various projects in the home in Bortniky, two hours outside western Ukraine’s main city, L’viv.
A lot of the funding for the home has come from Limerick and Ireland through the fundraising efforts of a group in Doon called the Mustard Seed. Noel said the boys live in the home for many complicated and tragic reasons, that are personal to them.
“Their parents haven’t been present or able to care for them in a healthy manner. The boys’ journeys have found them here, in a new place that is home. Most of the boys would have been in State care until they were six, at which point they leave those homes and go to other homes. The boys are aged six to 18 but once the boys reach 18 they continue to come back at weekends and for the holidays, so there are probably 26 boys under 18 and then six to eight students who come back regularly,” explained Noel, who is 35.
He is glad to be in Bortniky despite the winter climate being very different to home!
“I remember listening to the radio in Ireland as a child hoping to hear that the few centimetres of snow that had fallen overnight would close the school for the day. There’s no such luck here as life seems to carry on in spite of the snow and ice. The school is on the grounds of the boys’ home and altogether is part of a territory with orchards, farmyard and sheds.”
Despite the cold, Noel’s welcome was warm
“It can only be accepted with humility. My experience of social work was a tricky balancing act between being a soft edge to the power of the State and being the exacting eyes and hands of the law. You can have all the systems imaginable in place, but if a person doesn’t belong then they risk never belonging, and any help is only a poor addition to their previous ordeal.
“It can be noisy, and a bit chaotic at times, but the sense of togetherness is always apparent. This is something I think Ruslan, the director, is rightly proud of. He has mentioned several times how much emphasis he has put on creating and keeping a sense of family. It’s reassuring to hear how important that specific goal is, because, after all, many of the boys haven’t had that chance in their families prior to coming here.
“Some older boys are attending college in the city and they return here at weekends and during the summer. It is their home, and that is perhaps the truest reflection of what this house offers, a place that is home.
“I think it’s something that the care industry risks forgetting as it doesn’t need care to be ‘personal’ if it relies on indicators and measurements to know how care is delivered.
“It’s something unscientific that is extremely simple, and yet difficult to arrive at, and is something highly personal between a caregiver and the person being cared for. This sense of family is treasured by those in charge and they are aware of how valuable it is for the thirty two boys who live here,” said Noel.
The Mustard Seed group, based in Doon, are made up of people from different parts of Ireland trying to help the children of Russia/Ukraine.
In 1992, while visiting Ukraine they witnessed the poverty. From 1994 to 2004 containers of aid were sent.
“Since 2004 they have been mainly involved with fundraising events for the children's home like coffee mornings, cake sales, carol singing,” said Noel, who is giving the greatest gift of all – his time.