An Ohio-based Christian charity has helped evacuate and shelter nearly 1,200 orphans from the war-torn regions of Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, transporting them to safe havens throughout the country as the conflict continues.
New Horizons for Children, a charity led by a clinical psychologist who has worked for years with traumatized youth, has partnered with orphanages in Ukraine since 2009 to help provide basic childcare needs and assist teenagers aging out of the system.
Now the organization is working with the Lviv military and other groups to transport orphaned children to safety.
New Horizons has been evacuating children from various regions, including Kyiv, Mykolaiv, and Kharkiv, the organization's executive director and CEO Sherri McClurg told The Christian Post. The psychologist specializing in trauma care could not provide the specific names of the cities children are fleeing due to security reasons.
"If you think of Ukraine, on that far eastern side and you make kind of a backward letter C from the top where Kyiv is … if you circle all the way around to the bottom where Mariupol is, that whole kind of range, we've been just continually evacuating more and more kids,” McClurg said.
Some of the children were evacuated from air-raid shelters in the middle of the night, still wearing their pajamas. Some had not even had the chance to eat or change clothes beforehand.
"We had to clothe them. We had to feed them," McClurg said. "We had to tuck them into bed and just help to calm their worlds down."
While regions closer to central Ukraine pose less risk, the eastern regions are impacted by heavy shelling, rendering them more dangerous to transport children. One of the organization’s partners, disaster response group Aerial Recovery, handles these more intense rescues.
“There's a lot of security risk, but they watch it very, very carefully, and they wait for a window so they might take supplies in and get it to the kids,” McClurg said. “But they're not going to move the kids for a few days until they've identified what's going to be that safest window to get them out now.”
The method for transporting children depends on the safety and security of the region where the evacuation is taking place. Some areas are close enough to a station and more accessible to place kids on a train or bus to a safe haven. In other areas, Russian forces have placed minefields on the road, preventing travel by bus, but not by small motor cars.
“So some regions, we will move kids by cars to get them to a place where we can then get them on trains or on buses or on ... sprinter buses, which are smaller that only take about 20 versus the big buses which take 50,” she said. “Whatever works for that region.”
According to UNHCR data, over 5 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began on February 24. It's also been estimated that another 6.5 million peopled have been displaced from their homes.
New Horizon focuses on children in institutional care, such as orphanages and boarding schools. McClurg said there aren't many orphanages in Ukraine, as most orphaned children live at boarding schools.
The group also helps rescue children with single fathers who may have gone off to war.
Some of the children have opened up about what the war has done to them mentally, McClurg said. To help the kids discuss what they are going through, the organization provides caregivers who speak their language and give them prompts.
“They're going to be in a shell-shocked place,” McClurg said. “We're not looking to fix the trauma yet. We're just looking to help them feel safe, and that takes a little bit of time to get that in place for them.”
The number of buildings serving as safe havens changes as they rescue more kids, but McClurg said her group is looking at renovating 20 more spaces.
With authorities in the western city of Lviv helping identify locations, the group has been renovating boarding schools, resorts and universities into safe havens. Most of the locations are close to the border in case an emergency requires the immediate evacuation of the children.
“We’re creating the safe havens for those who are wanting to stay in the country,” the director said.
“This could be a long time. We're trying to protect their heritage, their culture, their friendship groups there,” she continued. “So we're keeping kids when they come from a boarding school; we're keeping all those kids together in whichever safe haven we put them in.”
McClurg said New Horizons frequently receives support from small non-government organizations, although she was unsure of the exact number.
“Any NGO that's willing to work with us, that's willing to help support and understand and doesn't risk any kind of safety or jeopardize the children in any way, we welcome that,” she said. “So we have NGOs that are donating all the bedding. We have NGOs that are donating generators so that if for some reason power goes out, everybody has a backup plan.”
“We have NGOs that are helping with food and making sure that we have meals three times a day and all of these are different,” the charity head continued.
McClurg was unsure of the specific dollar amount New Horizons had spent on buying clothes and supplies for the children, but she noted that so many people in the region are willing to work with them.
“The local pharmacy knows us very, very well, and they're giving us wholesale prices so that everything's discounted. ... Every time they get new stock in children's medications, we're going in and buying,” she said.
Another store offered wholesale prices on shoes for hundreds of children that McClurg's team rescued, half of which did not even have proper shoes, only flip-flops.
McClurg estimates that families and a few churches within the region have also raised in the ballpark of $500,000 to help New Horizon’s efforts. Still, McClurg said more support is necessary because many kids will not have a home or school to return to when the war ends.
“So we're just starting to reach out to more churches, anyone who is willing to help,” she said. “All the money's going towards these projects in Ukraine and making it sustainable for these children long-term. We're really just getting started.”
As a Christian nonprofit, McClurg said there is no doubt in her mind that God called New Horizons "to this moment."
"That's given me 100% confidence to know we are supposed to be here,” she said. “And we need to do the best that we know how to do and know that God is going to fill in all the rest with others.”