For nearly 20 years, Zhanna has poured her life into serving kids with disabilities in Almaty, Kazakhstan. While her ministry and organization have gone through various phases and names (A Friend at All Times, The Mercy Ministry, Young Life Central Asia Capernaum), the focus has always been the same: to authentically love kids and adults with special needs as Christ does and mobilize others to do likewise. This ministry involves home visits, weekly and monthly events, Young Life club meetings, training for volunteers, and Bible studies for moms. The logistics involved have always been overwhelming. For example, a summer camp for those with special needs requires one volunteer per participant plus all the typical program and support staff. Dietary restrictions and accessibility are very important to each individual participant, but the Soviet culture did not promote such concerns. Zhanna and her leaders pioneer new paths to serve these families, helping to educate both volunteers and society about the unique challenges the special needs community faces.
Behind each young person with a disability is almost always a devoted, overworked, and underappreciated mom. Since Soviet society has historically denied the existence of those with special needs, moms are often abandoned by their husbands and criticized by society, as though they were somehow the cause of their child’s condition. Most every summer, a team of women from Second goes to support Zhanna’s ministry. While Zhanna’s well-developed Russian-speaking leadership team runs a camp for the special needs kids, the team from Second provides a much appreciated get-away for the moms. They lead seminars on God’s view of their children, facilitate small group discussions, pray personally with each mom, enjoy artistic outlets, and create an environment where the moms can build friendships with those who understand and appreciate them. Very few have any Christian background, and many are Muslims. But all have positively responded to the care they receive at these retreats, and many have continued to participate in Bible studies throughout the year.
This ministry is not limited to Almaty but has spread to other cities throughout the former Soviet Union. Tim, a member of Second serving in Kyrgyzstan, together with his wife Tanya, help lead the Bishkek special needs ministry. They have started a regular club and are training volunteers to develop the same style of ministry in their country. Similar to what is done in Kazakhstan, many of the volunteers for this ministry are kids from the typical Young Life club ministry.
Across town Dina is raising two special needs children of her own. Together with her husband, Nurmat, they have four children. Their second child Abigail was born with Down Syndrome, as was their adopted fourth child, Eliazar. As they learned to love and care for their own children, God led them out of student ministry, where Dina had served for over 20 years, into a new ministry to families with children born with Down Syndrome. While Zhanna focuses her ministry on young people and adults with disabilities, Dina has focused on families with infants and very young children with Down Syndrome. Many of the moms are young and are still processing the loss of the dreams and hopes they had for their children. Dina knows that struggle and shares with them how God met her and continues to give her hope and joy. In this highly Islamic context, many of her neighbors are then introduced to a God whose mercy, grace, and redemption are different than they had been led to believe. Through these partners, and through God’s surprising providence of children with special needs, people in Central Asia are beholding the Lord’s glory in new and powerful ways.