Ukraine is a nation of 44 million people. More than 2.5 million of them have disabilities — 200,000 of those are children. Though the government of Ukraine is required by law to provide its people with mobility aids (wheelchairs, walkers, canes, crutches), few resources are available to meet this need. The result: many citizens live cradle to grave in isolation, segregated from mainstream society and unable to participate in daily activities most of us take for granted. For Ukraine’s disabled, a wheelchair means dignity.
One organization is working to change the status quo. God’s Hidden Treasures (GHT) is a non-profit Christian ministry founded in 1997 by Nita Hanson, a former computer marketing manager from Southern California. “Our mission is to serve the needs of the poor, afflicted, and orphaned of Ukraine and to bring God’s love through personal relationships in the name of Jesus Christ,” says Hanson.
Among the group’s ongoing programs is a dedicated wheelchair ministry. It began with three wheelchairs ordered and delivered to the city of Bila Tserkva in central Ukraine. Over the past 15 years that effort has grown, and GHT has delivered more than 6,000 wheelchairs to residents in cities across the eastern European country. The real ministry happens after the wheelchairs are delivered, however. Hanson and the GHT staff stay connected with every recipient, helping them plug into their communities. Suddenly, the dream of attending university, finding employment, even participating in the Olympics has become a real possibility for many GHT beneficiaries.
“When we are called to God, when he draws us to himself, he stays involved in our lives,” says Hanson. “That’s our model too. Often people asked why we stay, why we care. I tell them that God heard their cries and asked us to come. This is what changes lives — the relationship. The wheelchairs are our gateway.”
Among the organizations partnering with GHT has been Joni and Friends, the leading global ministry that serves people impacted by disability. Through its Wheels for the World program, Joni and Friends has provided containers of refurbished wheelchairs to GHT. As program director Jason Holden notes, in countries like Ukraine, “a person with limited mobility is often relegated to a back bedroom with no access to attend school, go to work, or be part of their community. The gift of a wheelchair changes everything — a wheelchair literally lifts someone out of the dirt and into a seat of dignity and opportunity.”
The gift of a wheelchair changes everything
In Ukraine, Hanson next hopes to build and distribute wheelchairs especially adapted to the specific needs and challenges of Ukraine. Most buildings under five stories do not have elevators in Ukraine, which means caregivers must carry disabled persons up and down multiple flights of stairs. Instead of robust wheelchairs, many residents use lightweight strollers to navigate the poorly designed buildings. These devices do not provide adequate support and often aggravate disabilities.
The Rotary Club of Akron visited GHT in July 2018 to lead a community assessment as part of a Global Grant project with Rotary International. The Akron club then partnered with students from the Design Center at the University of Akron to develop a prototype for a wheelchair that will provide support and strength but also accommodate the conditions unique to Ukraine. Rotarians plan to return to Bila Tserkva this summer or fall to test-drive the new design.
Although the government of Ukraine signed on to the UN Convention on the Right of Persons with Disabilities back in 2012, the country’s disability policies are far from robust. With the election of Volodymyr Zelensky last week, some in Ukraine are hopeful that meaningful policy reform may get a boost. In particular, improved planning and construction of population centers, residential buildings, and greater access to public transportation would go a long way toward improving the lives of Ukraine’s disabled community.
For its part, God’s Hidden Treasures remains committed to mobilizing Ukraine’s disabled, one wheelchair at a time. If you would like to support their work, you can donate here.
Watch how Rotary and the University of Akron are joining God’s Hidden Treasures to bring hope to people with disabilities in Ukraine, and learn how you can add your support.