After seeing story after story about the men, women and children who were killed as Russia invaded Ukraine, Jan Hernandez of Helena was furious.
“I started screaming at God: ‘You have to do something,’” she said. “’These are innocent civilians. These are children. These are the elderly. You have got to do something. You have got to send somebody to help these people.’”
It turns out that somebody was her.
A sign in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv makes a plea for help as the country is under attack by Russian forces.
Although the 69-year-old widow and owner of Motherlode Sports Bar, Restaurant & Casino served in the U.S. Air Force from 1974-1978, Hernandez said she never saw combat and is too old to fight in a war.
So she contacted several organizations helping Ukrainians in Poland and Ukraine and volunteered to serve in any way she could.
“I told them I’ll scrub toilets. I don’t care,” she said. “I just want to serve those people.”
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Bible Orphan Ministry in Zhytomyr Oblast in northern Ukraine was the first to accept her offer. The organization provides assistance to eight orphanages and several families in need throughout the region.
Hernandez said some of the military veterans from her church in Helena helped her find body armor and even taught her how to shoot various types of guns before she left for Ukraine, although she did not carry a weapon while she was there.
“I’m not excited by the prospect of being kidnapped by a bunch of thugs in Ukraine or the Russians, but God told me he’s got my back and that’s how I felt the whole time,” she said.
Jan Hernandez of Helena hugs a child in Ukraine.
Hernandez flew into Krakow, Poland on Sept. 13 and toured the Auschwitz concentration camp before taking an eight-hour bus ride to Zhytomyr. She was traveling alone and didn’t understand the local language, so someone from Bible Orphan Ministry met her in Poland and helped her find the right bus and navigate the border crossing with armed soldiers on both sides.
After arriving in Zhytomyr, she helped purchase and distribute food, diapers and other supplies to nearly 20 families and the children living in two of the orphanages served by Bible Orphan Ministry.
“It’s not children who have no parents. Basically they are abandonment homes,” she said, adding that many of the children in the orphanages have special needs.
Hernandez said many of the families they served had a dog on a chain for protection, and she couldn’t help but notice they needed some assistance too.
“Once I realized how many dogs there were that were starving, I started bringing small bags of dog food and cat food,” she said, adding that many in the region are living in extreme poverty.
Jan Hernandez of Helena offers food and comfort to a dog in Ukraine.
In a note to the Independent Record, Bible Orphan Ministry head Alla Vasylieva said the organization was “incredibly blessed” to serve with Hernandez.
“Her courage and her age is amazing! After all, not everyone dares to come to a country where a terrible war is still going on at the age of almost 70,” Vasylieva said in the note. “Her big heart, generosity, love for Ukrainian people and care of street animals, inspire and teach real sincere love and goodness!”
Hernandez spent some time in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which she described as a beautiful city despite the tanks left behind as “souvenirs.” She also toured six villages that she said were “bombed beyond understanding,” reducing some buildings including a school to heaps of rubble.
“I can’t look at any more destroyed apartment buildings where people died or cars that had been burned to a crisp or garages where civilians were tortured and burned,” she said in a Sept. 26 post on Facebook while in Ukraine.
Hernandez said the Ukrainians she met were tough, angry and determined to fight back against Russia.
“I firmly believe if they were to eliminate the entire (Ukrainian) army, kill every single man and woman that’s in the army, the grandmas would come out, pick up the guns and shoot as much as they could,” she said.
Jan Hernandez of Helena toured this school that was bombed in Ukraine.
Hernandez said she heard air raid sirens during her time in Ukraine but only feared for her safety when she was taken to an area near Belarus, which has served as a staging ground for Russian troops.
“I got nervous. Terrified? No. Nervous,” she said. “And that’s when my faith kicked in.”
Hernandez said she has maintained her Christian faith ever since she was a teenager but lost trust in God after her daughter died at age 18. Part of the reason she was in Ukraine, she said, was to “learn to trust him again.”
“When she told me we were going to be 30 minutes from Belarus, I said: ‘OK, is this the lesson?’” she said.
Although Hernandez made it home safely from her three-week trip to Ukraine, Zhytomyr was among the areas bombed about 10 days after she returned to Helena.
“When I realized that God pulled me out right before that, let’s just say I regained my trust,” she said.
Hernandez has since been in contact with Hands on Global Director Valerie Hellermann of Helena, who spent nearly a month in March offering aid and comfort to people in Ukraine and returned to the country Nov. 30 with local photographer and videographer Jeanie Warden. Hellermann and her team are delivering complex orthopedic equipment for victims of violence and helping an orphanage get needed food and medications.
Hernandez volunteered to purchase two months’ worth of food for the 51 children in the orphanage Hellermann is serving. When asked if she would ever return to Ukraine herself, Hernandez said, “I feel as though it probably will happen again.”
Jan Hernandez of Helena said she toured six villages in Ukraine that were “bombed beyond understanding.”
Jan Hernandez of Helena described the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv as a beautiful city despite the tanks left behind as “souvenirs.”
Editor Jesse Chaney can be reached at 406-447-4074, or find him on Twitter: @IR_JesseChaney.
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