A 40-year-old U.S. charity connects donors to Ukrainians abroad with camps and letters

Charity connects donors with Ukrainians abroad through camps and letters

Mercy Projects focuses on helping Ukrainian families despite fundraising struggles
Published: April 23, 2019
The Oliynk family lives in a small apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine. They have been receiving sponsorships from Mercy Projects for two years.

KYIV, Ukraine – Nadia Oliynyk and her family of six live in a tiny 190-square-feet apartment complex in Kyiv, Ukraine. Every night right before bedtime, her husband Sergiy unlocks four self-built cabinet beds folded up from the room wall. It’s the only way to fit two adults and four kids into the space and sleep comfortably.

“My youngest son loves it,” Nadia said. “I guess all kids love bunk beds of some kind.”

For Sergiy, the children are his biggest rewards and the family’s driving force. After being laid off twice, he now works two part-time jobs as a construction worker and plumber. Being deaf, it’s hard for him to find a job in Ukraine. He said he does his best to pay the bills, and he hopes to afford a fireplace one day.

“We still have dreams and we still try,” Nadia said. “We don’t stop, and now things are going good.”

The Oliynyk household is among 300 families sponsored by Mercy Projects, a California-based charity helping single parents, at-risk children and vulnerable families in Ukraine.

Founders Jeff and Paula Thompson were missionaries in the 1980s. They smuggled 300 Bibles under the rear seat of their car and placed their 2-year-old son on top of them as camouflage, hoping Soviet soldiers wouldn’t suspect contraband hidden under a child.

They taught at 100 youth prisons. They were even blacklisted and threatened with eight years in prison during Soviet times.

The Thompsons faced a predicament when they moved back to California. They had two young children, who were 2 and 4 years old at the time. They knew taking a stable job was the smarter move but they felt responsible for the kids they met during their travels.

“We knew we were choosing a life that wouldn’t be lucrative financially,” Paula said. “We were okay with that. We made that choice. Even after the hard times we’ve been through, we still wouldn’t trade in any of it.”

The extra bedroom at the Thompsons’ California home was its first office. Now, they own a $664,500, 1,379-square-feet headquarters in southwestern Riverside County, according to property records.

What followed is a lesson in how difficult running a nonprofit can be, especially one that raises money thousands of miles from where it is spent. It is also a cautionary tale in growing too fast.

“It’s really hard,” Paula said. “Sometimes, my husband and I wonder if we should be doing something different. But when we see that our work changes lives – it inspires us to continue.”

About 85 percent of the money raised goes toward camp programs, monthly cash donations to orphans, medical check-ups, foster family assistance, rehabilitation centers for handicapped children and school scholarships, according to Mercy Projects’ tax records.

The charity often pays overhead costs and they are struggling to fundraise.

The Thompsons’ life-threatening, risky adventures and many experiences abroad didn’t prepare them for the financial hardships of running a nonprofit.

Money is tight

Thompson said he has more disappointing stories to tell than successful ones. He vividly remembers a failed fundraising banquet he organized at a Holiday Inn in southern Alabama. He reserved more 50 chicken dinners and had a PowerPoint presentation ready for all his potential donors. Only five people showed up.

Thompson was discouraged. He went outside to the streets and gave away the 50 chicken dinners that were already paid for.

“I felt like all these people were counting on me, but I was just letting them down,” he said.

In 2009, one year after the Thompsons’ purchased the headquarter office, the couple filed their first mortgage claim with PNC Bank. They owed $122,800 for their home property in Sun City, California, according to property records in 2013.

That same year, Deed of Trust records state they refinanced and signed a new contract with Amerisave Mortgage Corporation, owing $120,000 plus interest. Over the span of seven years, the Thompsons kept refinancing and switching mortgage companies.

The charity pays Jeff Thompson about $85,000 a year. Apart from leading the U.S. office, he updates weekly newsletters, attends fundraising conferences and travels to Ukraine to oversee Mercy Projects’ programs. He devotes all his time to fundraising. He said he doesn’t enjoy doing it. He wants the focus to be about sharing stories. And fundraising is simply hard. In fact, he’s quit twice.

Tax forms show that the charity overspent $17,035 in 2016. Mercy Projects also repeatedly shouldered overhead costs, spending $126,000 more than its revenue in 2008.

The bulk of the charity’s operating budget depends on donations from regular church-goers. Trip coordinator Zach Bell said there are several locals who contribute and have donated for years. Yet, staff members struggle to attract new donors outside of their social circle.

“With our size, we’re wearing multiple hats,” Bell said. “Fundraising is the nature of what we do, but it can wear you out. We just want to get kids off the street. They’re sniffing glue and doing drugs. They fall between the cracks.”

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 left people no choice but to leave their homes and belongings overnight. Kindergartens, hospitals and many other buildings remain a ghost town filled with high-level radiation.

Faded funding for Chernobyl

The first 50 children Mercy Projects admitted into its sponsorship program were all affected by the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, Ukraine, that left over 300,000 people displaced and thousands of birth defects each year, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In 1994, eight years after the nuclear accident, the Thompsons retired from missionary work and set up their first charity fund.

“The economy was falling apart, parents were splitting up and a lot of families that survived were sick,” Jeff said. “I just wanted to intervene and create something that’s more preventive. Starting in Chernobyl was our first thrust, our first approach.”

Mercy Projects partnered with Ivankiv Learning Center, a facility located 20 miles from the nuclear exclusion zone that provides education for nearly 40 kids from ages nine to 15. The children are diagnosed with cerebral palsy, heart problems and disabilities. Director Svitlana Kushnir said all of the children at the center also have genetic bone and teeth disorders due to radiation exposure.

The center is open five days a week and receives some government funding, but mostly depends on private donations and Mercy Projects’ sponsors. The charity helps the center afford school supplies, computers and printers for the kids.

Bohdan Yarema, a UNICEF Ukraine education officer, said that people with disabilities were a part of an invisible population back in the Soviet days. The change in attitudes and stigma against people with disabilities happened after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union, but the process is slow.

“When you’re a disabled child in Ukraine, you’re automatically separated from your peers,” Yarema said. “You feel something is up with you. The environment supports and feeds into this misconception, and that’s one of many internal challenges.”

Ivankiv Learning Center and Mercy Projects’ goal is to help disabled children develop skills to better transition into society.

Marina Grushko is a social worker at Ivankiv Learning Center. Twelve years ago, Grushko was among the children receiving care at the center. Her mother got sick and died from radiation exposure, and Grushko also developed a bone disorder.

She and her younger brother were admitted into the program when she was sick. Grushko is now 30 years old with two children.

“Ivankiv nursed me back into good health,” she said. “I just want to give back and help the children who are just sick like I was.”

When the Chernobyl nuclear accident was still fresh in the news, the center received enormous support. Database manager Larysa Romanovskaya said fundraising was easier when Ukraine was all over the media. Now, she said only two percent or less of the charity’s proceeds go towards the program. Romanovskaya feels Americans have forgotten about what happened in Chernobyl.

Irina Skrypnik, Mercy Projects’ Ukrainian director, finds it hard to communicate the charity recipients’ needs and keep donors interested.

“Problems haven’t gone away,” she said. “We need to come up with a new appeal to keep the money coming. We need to be able to deliver the need.”

Mercy Project focuses their work on children. Foster mother Liliana Viktorivna and her 10 children are sponsored by the charity. Viktorivna devotes her entire career to caring for street kids and orphans.

International charities are hard to run

Unlike larger charities, Mercy Projects’ programs are catered to each sponsored family’s specific needs. Jeff believes families are multi-faceted. He tries to develop individual plans that support families in areas they need the most.

Jeff and Skrypnik, the Ukrainian director, work with social workers, pastors and community groups to identify the need. However, the two often disagree on many things.

“America and Ukraine – we got an Atlantic Ocean between us,”Jeff said. “They have a different language over there. A different history, a different culture and a different way of looking at things. I don’t live in Ukraine. I don’t understand the challenges they have there. Just because I raise the money doesn’t mean I know what to do with it.”

Before setting up their first charity fund, Jeff and Skrypnik taught at youth prisons together. The two are long-time partners who share the same vision.

While Jeff relocated to the charity’s nearly $670,000 headquarters office in California, Skrypnik and her team stayed in the same small apartment complex she started in Kyiv. Skrypnik explained that the Ukrainian staff members deal with a different set of challenges than their U.S. partners. Her job is less about finding the money and more about distributing it to families.

“Jeff and I – we fight all the time,” she said. “That’s the thing about working for a charity that’s based in two different countries. The U.S. and Ukraine – we are at different starting points.”

Maria Kamilky and her daughter are sponsored by Mercy Projects. While Kamilky sews every night, her daughter likes to work on her art crafts.

A relationship formed

Mercy Projects spent nearly $120,000 on its camp programs in 2016, according to the charity’s tax records. Each year, 20 percent of its proceeds fund summer and winter camp programs. American volunteers travel to Ukraine and are greeted by 60 to 70 children who look forward to a week filled with sport and art activities.

Christine Logenecker regularly volunteers at camps, and she said camp counselors raise money for the trip.

“In order to really see what’s happening with these kids, you have to set foot on the soil,” she said. “You have to see the humanity in these kids. It’s so important. Because you don’t believe it until you see it.”

Yulia Khoroshilova is a camp coordinator at Mercy Projects. This is her fourteenth year working for the charity, and camp season is still her favorite part of the job.

“Camp time is a good time to see how God can change lives,” she said. “Camp gives the children a time to truly be children.”

Mercy Projects’ 40-year presence in Riverside County exposes locals to Ukrainian culture. The charity not only recruits young volunteers to camps, but it also serves as a platform for American donors and Ukrainian families abroad to exchange handwritten letters. The letters are translated by the charity’s staff members. Over time, donors and sponsored families grow close.

“Let’s say that you’re a 13-year-old Ukrainian kid in the outskirts and you have these cool American friends that you’d never met,” Jeff said. “They’d send you a picture and you’d write them back. This experience, the connection that our donors share with the kids, it’s really important. We want sponsors to know that the picture they get – it’s real people.”

Maria Kamilky and her 7-year-old daughter fled from the Donetsk Oblast war zone several years ago and moved to Kyiv. Kamilky’s husband died in the war, and she is among the 300 families sponsored by Mercy Projects.

For four years, Kamilky has been exchanging letters and photos with her donor family in the U.S. She’s kept all the letters. One day, she plans to travel to the U.S. and visit her sponsors with her daughter.

“I’ve never met these people, but they truly care about me and my daughter,” she said. “It warms my heart and inspires me to keep going.”

Mercy Projects is a charity, but the people working for it see themselves as a bridge for that cultural connection. The relationship built from years of communication is the driving force of the charity.

“What we’re doing is a good step but it’s not an end-all,” Bell, trip coordinator, said. “More needs to be done, and we’re not going to stop.”