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Byfield man helps build teen orphanage in Ukraine

By Katie Lovett
The Daily News Of Newburyport / September 8, 2012
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NEWBURYPORT, Mass.—For John Callahan, a vacation this summer meant he would spend his days working long hours. But he was OK with that.

Callahan, 61, traveled to Kiev, Ukraine, in July to finish a job he started in 2010 -- the construction of Smile House, an orphanage for older teenagers.

The Byfield resident, who is an assistant chief engineer for Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail, learned of the project through a friend, Doug Stoddard. He first met Stoddard several years ago through his church, Hope Community Church in Newburyport, and though Stoddard is now a missionary in Kiev, he keeps in touch with the church.

In March 2010, he told them of a new project the Christian mission Manna Worldwide would be starting in Kiev. Smile House would be solely for teenagers too old to live in government orphanages. In Ukraine, teens are turned out into the streets once they turn 16 years old, Callahan said.

Smile House will include a laundry room, kitchen, library, recreation room and a computer lab. Plans call for it to house about 30 teens, along with a house parent, as they finish school.

Callahan was told the mission was looking for volunteers with certain expertise and skills to help construct the house. His experience as an electrician and overseeing infrastructure projects for the commuter rail enabled him to assist in wiring the home.

His first trip in 2010 lasted for nine days. The building at the time was a "shell," he said, with only one room that was habitable. During the trip, he and the other volunteers visited a group of children at one of the government-run orphanages.

The experience was eye-opening, Callahan said.

"To describe the conditions there as Dickensian does not convey the primitiveness of the place," he said. The beds the kids slept on were tiny wooden platforms with a few blankets, he said.

"There is a severe social stigma attached to an orphan in that part of the world," Callahan wrote in an e-mail. "The general mindset appears to be, `if you were not of inferior stock, you would not be an orphan in the first place.' Orphans are regarded as potential social problems."

Once turned out of the orphanages, teens find shelter in storm drains and many turn to crime or prostitution, he added.

Returning to Kiev last month, Callahan said the eight-day visit was to wrap up the construction. While the first trip included about 30 people, Callahan's most recent visit included only three others.

On each of his two trips, Callahan worked from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day, with the exception of Sunday.

Having worked for the MBCR for more than 20 years and living in Massachusetts, a state with strict building codes, it was "enlightening" to travel to Ukraine, where they barely exist, Callahan said.

Traveling through Kiev and not being able to read a billboard gave him a new appreciation for visitors to America who cannot speak and understand the language.

"It was a real taste of what it's like to be illiterate," Callahan said.

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