'These children are like an extended family to me,' she said. 'I don't know when, but I believe one day they'll be able to go home.'
As tensions between Russia and Ukraine escalated earlier this year, Wendy Farrell watched from afar, wrought with worry. In 2013, the mother-of-five from Springfield, Missouri, and her husband, Ryan, had adopted a daughter from Ukraine, and in the years that followed they built a bond with a Christian orphanage near Lviv, in western Ukraine. In addition to collecting money and clothes for those she affectionately calls her "kiddos," she has also escorted friends and family on trips to Ukraine to engage with the children. "We wanted to be a family, and that is what we have cultivated," Farrell told PEOPLE.
She feared the war would put her kiddos' lives in peril and this fear came true on February 23 when reports emerged that Russia's assault had begun in eastern Ukraine. Farrell immediately jumped onto the Facebook page of 1U Project—the charitable organization she founded in 2015 to help Ukrainian orphans—and wrote: "It has started. We need to pray." Within 24 hours, Farrell put a plan into action. She booked herself a plane ticket for travel to Poland and teamed up with leaders of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, which sponsors her work, to help Nikolay Shagarov—director of Children's Path, an orphanage outside Lviv and the main beneficiary of Farrell's patronage—to ferry the children to safety.
Although the war was unfolding hundreds of miles away from Lviv at the time, as home to a military base, the western Ukrainian city was a possible target. Six days into the war, Shagarov won government approval to take 31 orphans, between the ages of 2 and 17, out of the country. A bus owned by the orphanage was fueled up and the children packed their bags. It took 10 hours to complete the 300-mile journey on roads clogged by other evacuees. Still, as they neared and then entered neighboring Poland on March 2, the children spontaneously broke into song.
"I did not breathe a sigh of relief," Farrell revealed, "until they were across the border." The orphans of Children's Path now have temporary shelter in a summer camp dorm an hour south of Krakow. Farrell and those who assist her nonprofit are there with the children to play with them and offer smiles and hugs as needed. "I feel more comfortable because I know these people," said Leah, a 15-year-old who lived at Children's Path. Speaking of Farrell, the teen added: "She has a huge heart." Although Farrell is seeking U.S. visas to provide the children a longer-term place of refuge if needed, she isn't overseeing an adoption pipeline to the United States.
Instead, Farrell wants to support the Ukrainian children in their homeland, to help them learn to break the cycles of abuse and neglect that put them in the orphanage in the first place. Describing their emotional reunion in Krakow, she said: "We were grieving for what was lost, and entering this in-between, and knowing that life will probably never be the same. But also thankful that we were together, and we were safe." In addition to delivering supplies to Children's Path three times a year, 1U Project's American volunteers assist Farrell with summer camps and bring orphans to the U.S. for eight-week exchange programs to spend time with handpicked families.
"The only picture they've really had of families is traumatic," Farrell explained. "We want them to see what a loving structure looks like so when they grow up, they know how to be good parents to their own children." She is now focused on shielding them from the trauma currently unfolding in their own country. While the youngest children have been enrolled in a local school in Poland, the oldest receive lessons over spotty internet from teachers in Ukraine. Free time is filled with basketball, volleyball and snowball as a means of distraction. "If we can go home, will my home still be there?" wondered Shagarov, the orphanage director. However, Farrell won't permit herself that thought. "These children are like an extended family to me," she said. "I don't know when, but I believe one day they'll be able to go home."