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Amid the turmoil, a mission to lend aid and comfort to Ukraine

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Debbie Butler / March 27, 2014
In her many travels to the troubled nation of Ukraine, Halifax County native Debbie Butler has been struck by how the people there “are so poor — they have nothing — and yet they were so happy.

“So hospitable, and so kind to others.”

Ukraine’s welcoming ways are under intense pressure from its most imposing neighbor, Russia, which has annexed the southern Crimea region and massed troops at the country’s eastern border. Of little note to Western audiences in normal times, Ukraine is now a foreign policy flashpoint — leading many to wonder if its conflict with Russia will usher in a new Cold War.

Unlike most Americans, Butler’s views are influenced by the many friends she has in Kiev and in other parts of Ukraine. She hears from them regularly. Her take on the situation?

It’s twofold: First, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ambitions to take over the entire country — part of the old Soviet Union — and he won’t stop after sending troops to Crimea. “They don’t think Putin is done,” said Butler, relating what her Ukrainian friends have told her. “Not at all. This thing is far from over.”

Her other great fear? “They’re scared, they’re vulnerable, they can’t defend themselves” against the Russians. “They ask for prayers. Every time I ask what I can do, they ask for prayer …. They don’t know what they can do. It’s totally up in the air.”

Actually, there is something else Butler has been able to do.

The daughter of the late B.B. and Phyllis Butler and a 1981 Halifax County Senior High School graduate, Butler, who now lives in Glen Allen, serves on the board of an interdenominational foundation, Mission To Ukraine ( The Indiana-based group operates a crisis intervention center in Zhitomir, about three hours southwest of the capital of Kiev, where a staff of 38 — teachers, counselors, therapists, physicians — tends to the needs of people living in the impoverished city.

The center’s focus, according to the foundation website, is to care for “the most marginalized of Ukraine”: expectant mothers who have been shunned by their husbands and, according to custom, are expected to abort their babies; and the disabled, whose very existence, during the Communist era, was not acknowledged.

With the entire country in a state of crisis, and the Ukrainian economy suffering dearly as a result, Mission To Ukraine has been raising money for food, medicines, and other supplies to send to its clientele. Women who show up at the door are often homeless to begin with: “It’s the wife who’s gotten pregnant and the husband has kicked her out of the house because they can’t afford it.

“If you’re already working with the poorest of the poor in society and you’re seeing unrest with the government, they’re only going to [see them] become more marginalized,” said Butler.

Butler’s connection to Ukraine goes back more than 15 years, when she first met two citizens of the central European country through her Richmond church. (It’s a sister church to South Boston’s Church of Christ, located in Centerville, where the Butler family worshipped.) Soon after, the Richmond congregation established a Church of Christ in Ukraine, and Butler visited on a mission trip. “It’s kind of a crazy story,” she recalled. “I just kind of fell in love with it.”

Less than a decade removed from the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was awakening to the reality that it was incredibly poor, contrary to the image of itself as an economic powerhouse that had been cultivated during Communist times. “It was devastating to them when the Soviet Union fell and they got access to outside information in the media — they really thought they were the richest country in the world,” said Butler.

In reality, Ukraine, while highly educated and blessed with some of the most productive farmland in the world, is incredibly poor, with the exception of its corrupt oligarchy. “The Economist” magazine recently pegged Ukraine as the third worst nation on Earth in which to be born, behind only Nigeria and Kenya: “They were shocked at how low on the list they were,” Butler said of her Ukrainian friends.

Ukraine has another pressing problem common among poor communities: the departure of its youngest members for greener pastures elsewhere. In addition to her church activities in Ukraine, Butler, who earned an MBA from Virginia Commonwealth University, taught at the National Economic University at Kiev from 2001-2003. She wound up moving to the country after meeting Ukraine’s then-president during his visit to Richmond. Butler was working at the time for Suntrust; today she is a project manager for Wells Fargo Advisors. With the Kiev university program, the idea was to inculcate Western-style capitalism among the country’s young business class. Her time living abroad only cemented Butler’s devotion to Ukraine: “I’ve been back every year since then.”

Her most recent trip came in January: after protests had already begun in the Maidan, the now-famous center of unrest in the capital, but before the scene there had exploded into violence. Dissent arose in November 2013 after the country’s now-deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of a deal to align the country more closely economically with the European Union. But it wasn’t until late January when police fired live ammunition at the Maidan throng — three people died — that the country was convulsed by violence. In short order the president was deposed, his allies the Russians were angered, and Putin, seemingly awake to opportunity, moved in the troops.

Butler voiced nothing but contempt for the Russian president — “you’re dealing with a crazy person” — but concedes that it’s difficult for Westerners, to say nothing of Ukrainians, to know what to do next. “Their biggest fear is that it’s going to be another decade-long Cold War with Russian, that [the country] is going to be bit off piece by piece.” Ukrainians who battled police during the Maidan violence did so with clubs, sticks and makeshift shields; ordinary citizens do not have guns. “They’re basically at war, except it’s a one-sided fight.”

Amid the turmoil, Butler’s foundation, Mission To Ukraine, is doing what it can to fill a relief role, including providing essential supplies to the largely female population that depends on the Zhitomir crisis center. It can be difficult for the Western observer to comprehend the wretched state of womanhood in Ukraine: The country has a shockingly high abortion rate, with instances of women having dozens of abortions without the benefit of proper medical care.

The Zhitomir center offers an alternative to abortion: It’s a save haven for mothers to carry their babies to term, and a place where women can receive counseling and tangible support. The center also provides care for children with special needs and helps their families; Mission to Ukraine, Butler proudly noted, introduced augmentative communication and occupational therapy, staples of Western medical care, to the Ukrainian city.

As challenging as the foundation’s mission may be, Butler said the payoff is seeing Ukrainians strive equally hard to move themselves, and their country, forward.

“These people are indescribably poor — you wonder how in the world they survive, yet they never give up hope,” said Butler. “There was something to me that was so attractive and endearing about working with people who are so willing to help themselves.

“Their values are along that order that you help each other out, you help your fellow man. If you have nothing, you look to God for help. You look to each other for help.” Despite the abuse of women that she has encountered through the work of the foundation’s Zhitomir center, Butler admires the closeness of most Ukraine families and neighborhoods. “The motto of the country is ‘Hope dies last.’ And that pretty much describes the people.”

As she follows the news from Ukraine and keeps in touch with her friends in the country — usually through social media — Butler thinks about the citizens of the country: people who she has seen giving up their last dollar to help a neighbor in need, or take to the city square to declare their dignity and independence, and now are confronted by perhaps the greatest threat yet.

“These people inspire me,” she said. “They seem to never give up.”

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