“Popeetzee!” she yelled, while shaking her fist at me, before erupting in a fit of laughter.  My translator quickly explained what the word meant. It turns out I was going to get punched in the face by a small girl I had just met at The Shelter.

Luckily Masha, the girl in question, was only joking.  But it was exactly the type and tone of interactions I had with her all summer.  One minute she’d tell me I was handsome, the next she’d say she was going to pummel me, and then she’d promptly demand I give her a million dollars.

I knew I wanted to write about Masha from the first moment I saw her.  There was something different about her.  First of all, she was very small.  So small that I thought it was another one of her jokes when she told me she was twenty years old. 

Despite her size, she radiated strength and confidence.  She carried herself more authoritatively than most grown men I’ve known. 

Probably much more than I do myself.  She was someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.

I kept trying to get an interview with her, so I could hear her life story.  Unfortunately, she agreed…about a half a dozen times. 

Masha might look like any young girl to you, but there’s quite a lot sitting under the surface.

I heard about how she was born in 1904 and suffered through famine.  I listened attentively as she told me of her movie star life in Hollywood, married and with four kids.  I almost clapped when I heard her heroic stories as a commander in WWII.  It was fun to hear her go on and on but I wanted the truth.

My last week in Ukraine, she finally sat down and told me the real story of her life.  And I started wishing that some of her previous fictions could be facts instead.

She told me that was sent to the toddler orphanage when she was six months old.  Her mother was mentally ill and both of her parents had begun drinking heavily.  As a result, they stopped taking care of their children.  Masha’s grandmother took in the older kids, but didn’t want the responsibility of raising an infant.

There are some great places for orphaned Ukrainian toddlers to go.  One example is the House of the Child in Zhytomyr.  The facility there is fantastic and the staff is very friendly.  However, that sort of safe haven is a best case scenario and anything but normative.  Unfortunately Masha was not lucky enough to be sent to such a wonderful place.

Masha explained that at her toddler orphanage (in another town), children were not only neglected but outright abused.  She told me that her caretakers and directors were not people of faith or even of common decency.  And some of the horrors she endured under their watch are simply unspeakable.

When Masha was in the toddler orphanage one of her punishments was to be chained to a radiator for hours at a time.

I asked her if, looking back, she learned anything good from all that tragedy.  She just looked at me and said, “What lessons can you learn from living in hell?”

Masha then told me that when was seven, she was moved into an Orphanage just outside of Zhytomyr.  She told me that living in the orphanage is like living in a prison.  There’s a very distinct societal structure and that you can move up in this structure through one of three ways, physical violence, verbal violence, or being very good in your studies (because everyone would treat you well so you’d help them with their work). 

Masha explained that she chose to make a name for herself through physical violence.  She fought hard and she fought dirty, using everything that her previous caretakers had taught her about the world of pain.  And for once, she was respected.  She was a force to be reckoned with, ordering other orphans around, making them do whatever she wanted.

The infamous Orphanage #4 where Masha made a name for herself, kicking and screaming.

It was in this environment, that she began regularly drinking and smoking.  She was smoking every day by fifth grade, having first tried a cigarette at age four when her mother brought her some at the toddler orphanage.  By eighth grade, she was a full-blown alcoholic as well. 

Then she finished ninth grade and was all set to start trade school to become a construction worker.  The orphans don’t get to choose their majors, the majors are assigned to them depending on what spots are open.  At this point, she hated her parents.  She couldn’t understand why they threw her away like they did but she wouldn’t ask for fear that she would try to kill them when they answered.

Enter The Shelter.  They offered her a safe place, a family, a new way of life.  But she didn’t accept it.  How could she?  You can’t trust anyone when you’ve been through what she has. 

Still, the leaders of The Shelter tried.  They were present in her life.  They were unwavering, even when tested time and time again.  And finally, cracks started running up and down the stone covering her heart.  

While on a trip to the Black Sea with The Shelter, something happened.  Something Masha won’t tell me about.  She says it’s too personal.  Whatever it was, she says that’s what brought her to God; that’s what broke the stone and set her beating heart free.

Two months later, she quit drinking.  Two years later she quit smoking.  She said giving up alcohol was easy but smoking was a different story.  It was one of the hardest things she’s ever done.  She was only able to do it with the help of Oksana, the same leader from The Shelter that helped bring her to Christ.

Her life is far from perfect but she’s found a family and a purpose. She is happy. And that is exactly the sort of hope that we must never forget. We have a big God who does big things and no one is beyond His reach.

Nervously, I asked about her parents.  I know, all too well, how hard it can be to forgive abusive or neglectful family members.  She wouldn’t talk about her father but says that her mother’s mental illness has only gotten worse.  Then I found out that Masha has used a considerable portion of her last check from the government to make sure her mother will be properly cared for while Masha is away.

See, Masha is getting ready to go off on a six month journey.  This year she will be attending Youth With A Mission’s Discipleship Training School.  She’ll study the bible in a classroom for three months, in Kiev, and then spend the next three months doing missionary work with YWAM in other parts of the world.

Her dreams for the future?

To become a missionary.  To love and care for other orphans.  To become a millionaire and give it all away.  But she still wants to make sure her mother is going to be alright.  The same mother she wanted to kill only a few years ago. 

The Shelter staff knows that violence begets violence and hate begets hate, but the same principal is doubly true for kindness and forgiveness.  Our God’s got them both in spades if we are but willing to step out in faith and break the cycle.  And I thank God that they have.  For it’s plain to see the Lord has worked through them in Masha’s life.  From victim to victimizer to saint, oh what a very long way she has come.

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Next Steps
    • You can help by financially supporting The Shelter & The Haven through online donations to Last Bell Ministries HERE. They could really use some consistent monthly sponsors right now.
    • Consider becoming personally involved by committing to praying specifically for one of the individual at-risk teens. More info on that HERE.
    • Masha needs to raise $1000 by September 30th for her DTS missionary training program. Please partner with her in this life-changing opportunity. If you would like to donate to her cause, then do so HERE and specify in the subject line that it is for Masha's DTS training.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Christopher N. Cambell was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2010. He is a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute and an avid reader. He has an endless appetite for stories both true and otherwise and loves using those to better know and understand people.

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  1. Jo Nading said... 


    August 13th, 2010 at 8:30 am  

    completely captivated. not sure I breathed while reading. I would LOVE to meet Masha. My heart will have to recover first. God has done a wonderful and miraculous work.

    I’m speechless really. And I am totally grateful you got the truth from Masha and have shared it so well with us.

    Great, great job.

  2. Brad Ruggles said... 


    August 13th, 2010 at 11:27 am  

    Wow, what a tragic story. But on the other hand it’s beautiful to hear the story of redemption and forgiveness that came out of it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Dave Rod said... 


    August 14th, 2010 at 9:05 am  

    If God can redeem Masha…wow. Once again, thank God for the people of Last Bell who are the agents of redemption. And I have to think that this small, feisty young lady will change the world.

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