Until you have seen the transformation of a child from scared and emotionally closed to a free and happy six-year-old, you will not understand what keeps me here in Ukraine.
This transformation is almost like a rebirth — a reclamation of life. These children have had everything taken from them: their homes, their friends, sometimes even their loved ones, but most importantly, their childhoods. And yet,  when they can relax and safely spend time with their friends,  play games,  have fun, and not worry, these children become new people. When I witness this, I am flooded with emotions: joy, happiness, grief, as well as confusion, anger, and relief.
While the ongoing war is difficult for all of us here in Ukraine, the most significant impact is seen in the lives of the children. Any child born in Ukraine after 2014 has never experienced a peaceful Ukraine. Many have witnessed things no human, let alone a child should ever see. But still, they must live and grow like all children living in peace.

One of the boys who attended Novi's program in war-stricken Kherson.

These experiences take an incredible toll on children. War and violence are normal for them. One morning after a large attack, a one-fifth grader told  me, “I woke up and was like, ‘Oh, explosions, ’ and then went back to sleep.” These children have had to grow up much faster than you or I.
Twice, I have traveled to the front lines with Novi to offer humanitarian aid to the children there living under constant fear of attack, destruction, and possible death. Rockets and shells commonly land in the villages, and mines and unexploded ordnance pose a severe threat. The children must survive under these conditions; they are understandably shy, nervous, and withdrawn when you meet them. They hesitate to speak or make eye contact. But when you give them a chance to be children — let them dance, sing, and play games with their friends, or when you help build a playground where they can swing, play in the sandbox, or even give them a football (soccer ball) — all these reservations and fears fall away, and you can see the hidden child in them reappear.
This is what keeps me going back. The places we travel to are dangerous, but we can choose to go there. The Ukrainian children don’t. These are their homes and the only lives they know. So, while you enjoy peace and safety, think of the children who have never had that. They are Ukraine’s future, and they are our world’s future. Help me restore their childhoods so they can be children before it is too late.

Preston Button is currently working as a volunteer with Novi in Kyiv. He is an American and German citizen who has grown up in the Bruderhof community. Preston loves sports, soccer in particular, and computers. Most of all he loves playing with children.

Top photo: Preston with children in Kherson.

All photos: @dannyburrowsphoto


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