COLORADO, USA — Berthoud, Colorado is a long way away from Ukraine.
Kris Stoesz is feeling especially frustrated by the distance this week, as she watches the Russian invasion of Ukraine from her home in Colorado.
“It's been very frustrating for me and for my husband. We feel helpless that we're not doing more,” she said. “We’re doing what we can.”
Ukraine is a special place for the Stoesz family. It all started about two decades ago.
“Back in 2001, we knew we wanted to adopt. We had no idea where,” Kris said.
They found Ukraine, and the adoption process led them to Natalie.
“I was adopted when I was 3 by my wonderful parents,” said Natalie Stoesz, who is now 22 years old.
She was born in Eastern Ukraine and raised by Kris and her husband in Colorado. The couple would eventually adopt three more Ukrainian children and make many return trips over the years.
“With our four kids, we have all their biological families we stay connected with,” Kris said. “You feel love for them as well.”
The Stoeszes fell in love with Ukraine and started a nonprofit, Ukraine Orphan Outreach, to support other Ukrainian orphans and the people and organizations who help them.
Kris said that work includes helping older children, who are about to age out of the orphanage system in Ukraine, by creating a transitional housing and skill-building program so those teenagers are prepared to live in the community as young adults. They’ve hosted camps – both in Colorado and Ukraine – to give kids a chance for some fun and exposure outside of the orphanage.
Kris said they work with young, single mothers to prevent their children from becoming another generation of orphans. They work with widows, too.
“We have a passion and we leave a piece of our heart there every time we're in the country," she said.
The Stoeszes remind people the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is not new, and they’ve watched the impact over several years. The realize now, with the Russian invasion into Ukraine, a lot more people are suddenly paying attention. They hope to share their experience and knowledge so Coloradans can better understand what’s happening.
And, they worry about the safety of their children’s biological families, their friends, and their ministry partners and the orphans they serve.
“We’ve heard from 95% of them. Haven’t heard from ones in far east part,” Kris said. “I pray that Russia doesn’t take over because that will probably stop us from being able to do our work there, which breaks my heart. Then I don’t know what I’ll do.”
“I woke up this morning and was watching videos [of the invasion]. I’m heartbroken. I want to help,” Natalie said. “I just want to go over and support friends and family, make sure they’re OK.”
Flipping through pictures of past trips to Ukraine, Kris Stoesz points out a few familiar faces.
“This boy, Andre, he’s actually fighting in the military now,” she said. “He’s on our hearts.”
She also points out a husband and wife – one of the couples who serve as “house parents” for the teenage boys transitioning out of the orphanage and into the “real world.”
“We’ve worked with them for 10 years,” Kris said. “They are packed up and ready to go. They’re in city that was bombed last night.”
She remains hopeful for her Ukrainian friends and family. Her organization is now raising money to help the victims of war with things like housing, transportation, and food – as well as assistance for any refugees from the war. Stoesz said anyone who is interested in donating can go through a Facebook fundraiser she created, or the non-profit's website.
“It’s being there for them. And praying for them,” she said. “There [has to] be a higher power. God has to step in and protect the people.”
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