My arrival into Chișinău seems like a long time ago. Indeed, six months have passed, taking me through several former Soviet countries: Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and now Uzbekistan. The presence of solid grey apartment blocks has become a reassuring familiarity, signs in Cyrillic have made me feel at home and there has been an increasing spontaneous warmth as I’ve headed East.  

These are countries that feel very different outside their modern and vibrant capitals, where the young often speak English, wear jeans and chunky trainers and carry takeaway coffee. I passed through many villages where the side roads were dirt, there was just a shop or two, and the animals outnumbered the children. I think it’s fair to say the opportunities in these areas are fewer and that, if you don’t fit the conventional mould, life can be very challenging. 

In countries of the former Soviet Union children and adults with learning and physical difficulties have it particularly hard. They were often hidden from sight in orphanages with conditions bordering on the inhumane. However I have met several individuals and organisations who are passionate about changing attitudes and opportunities for these individuals and I wanted to support the positive change they are enacting. 

That’s why I am so pleased and honoured to have been partnered with ChildAid to Eastern Europe for Leg 3 of the expedition (see news release from November, 2020). ChildAid works with local partners to create life changing hope and opportunities for children living with disabilities, orphans, those living in vulnerable families and those living with the consequences of conflict, and their work is so important in this region with so much need.

Visiting the Tony Hawks centre

Visiting the Tony Hawks centre

One of ChildAid’s projects for which we have been fundraising these last several months is the Tony Hawks Centre.  It’s a free-to-access multi-disciplinary rehabilitation centre for children living with disabilities, but those words really came alive for me when I visited the centre in Chișinău. I  saw the facilities - from swimming pool to physical therapy studio - and sessions, including speech therapy, that provide an outlet that is otherwise not available.

I recently learned that the centre had very nice things to say about the visit.  Please know that the Bristol2Beijing Team insisted on including these quotes (I’ve tried to avert my gaze):

“We were all deeply marked by Luke’s enthusiasm for moving forward, even though he went through a lot of suffering in his life. For us, he is an example of courage and determination.

Luke's journey was very inspirational for us and for other people from Moldova also, especially for those who went through similar situations like him.

Luke’s journey gave people hope that everything is possible, and life must be lived here and now.”

Later, in my travels through Ukraine (shortly before I was joined by Mike Rumsey to film The Road to Mariupol, our new 12-min film), I made another stop just west of Kiev to visit a centre for which we have been fundraising. ChildAid’s Little Lighthouse programme is focused on developing a multidisciplinary care programme in Makariv, where no such care facility currently exists. It will be free-to-access for vulnerable and disadvantaged children and their parents. I was better prepared for this visit, after my stop at the Tony Hawks Centre and, in Kosovo, at the Care for Kosovo Kids centre in Pristina (see my blog from November).

When visiting the Little Lighthouse Centre in Makariv, the team took me to see a young girl named Polina who was living with severe physical disabilities. However, she moved and spoke with such energy that this was not noticeable at first. It was only when we walked down the garden path that her dad scooped her up and carried her to the car. 

On the rare occasions that she goes for medical examinations, it turns into quite an adventure for her. I spoke to her whilst she was being taken to hospital for examination and I told her about my expedition. Many people pull a face of surprise or delight (or sometimes shake their heads - what does this man think he’s doing?) when I tell them I’m cycling from the UK to China on a tandem but Polina’s reaction was exceptionally memorable. Her eyes really lit up and she told me how she longed for that kind of adventure.

I recently learned from ChildAid that Polina now dreams that she will be able to travel one day as I have been fortunate enough to do. I’m told that she has even come up with the name of her trip, with similar alliterative allure: Kiev 2 Cardiff! (I hope she includes the exclamation marks!)

Among the many things for which the Little Lighthouse is fundraising is a specially-equipped mini bus that can make exploring possible for children like Polina. Before (or during) her expedition, Polina dreams of seeing other countries and of touching the ocean. Ihor of the Little Lighthouse Centre in Makariv says:

“Children's dreams must come true. Thank you, my friend Luke! You teach those who have lost hope to dream! And it's really invaluable!”

With Ihor of the Little Lighthouse Centre as he explains his plans to me

With Ihor of the Little Lighthouse Centre as he explains his plans to me

It’s really wonderful to hear this and an important reminder of the power of hope. I feel immensely privileged to be in a position where, by telling my story, I can have a small, but hopefully significant, positive impact on others. I’m very proud that, as a team and community, we have been able to raise nearly £9,000 for ChildAid to Eastern Europe, and specifically in support of these projects and the children, families, and communities they serve. I hope you will continue to give generously to their powerful work. Hope is so important for us all - but for no one is hope more important than for children.

Guest Blog | Written By Jeremy Sigmon & Luke Grenfell-Shaw