Former Drumahoe firefighter Wills Lynch last December delivered a third decommissioned fire engine to Moldova in the latest instalment of a quarter century mission to provide aid and the Gospel to some of the poorest people in Europe.
“Well, it must be going now 22, coming 23 years,” Wills explains. “As you know, I only went for the one run. But when I saw children in an orphanage way back now in the 1990s, that’s what changed my heart towards them.
“Some people tell you that God changed your heart and your life and gave me a love.”
Wills has been travelling to Romania since the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in 1989 left the nation an economic basket case and its people in the most dire poverty imaginable.
He has witnessed some harrowing sights during that time. Take for instance the orphaned children starved of food and affection packed into poorly sanitised and understaffed homes - sometimes behind chicken wire fencing.
Since those early days his mission has slowly expanded into Moldova and Ukraine, where he now counts many of the locals as close friends.
But after nearly a quarter of a century what inspires him to keep up the efforts?
“The only way I can explain it you. Say, you’re a keen footballer, the way you would likely pay to go and see Man United, you’d do this, you’d do that. Well, I just love working with them boys and girls and the old people who have nothing.
“I mean, it’s a thrill when someone phones - it’s sad - but it’s a thrill when a man phones me up and says: ‘Will you come to help a family, their wife is critically ill, six of a family, and she needs a blood transfusion. But the problem is, we have to pay?’
“So, it’s the pleasure for me going out and paying to save someone’s life. I’d just go in maybe shake their hand...It’s worth it if you save someone’s life.”
Wills recalls another heart-rending instance of a young boy with a “tumour the size of an orange” and a local hospital that simply didn’t have the resources to treat him.
His family were desperate for money to send him from Moldova to Bucharest or Italy for treatment.
“I told people around this area, around the local Derry/Londonderry area, and I told them in different areas that I go around to talk, the wee halls and meetings and that and the people gave me money.
“I was able to go and meet the father and I’ll tell you I was up that street that night and not a street light, all you’d hear was horses and dogs barking.
“I went into this little mud house, the size of a sitting room. The boy wasn’t there, for he was in the hospital, and I said to the father - and when you talk with the mother and father, of course, when they talk about it, you see the tears running out of their eyes, no different from here.
“One thing in the world, no matter what the languages is, two things are the same, is tears and I’ve heard people cry. And laughter.”
Wills says he was able to give the family a few hundred pounds to put towards the boy’s treatment.
“I’ll not hear to I go back how he got on but he was to go and get a scan, and see what the hospital in Italy do,” Wills told the Sentinel.
Coupled always with this humanitarian work is Wills’ desire to spread the Gospel.
And it’s something that appears to be going from strength to strength given the numbers now attending just one Sunday School in which he is involved.
“I started with 14, a way back, in Moldova, and it has gone up to over 400 and hitting 500 and that’s going out on a Sunday morning at 8am and bringing them in for 9am and they’ve got three hours,” he says.
This Friday (April 4) Wills is hosting an ‘Evening of Gospel Praise’ in Glendermott Presbyterian Church Hall in Drumahoe in aid of the mission.
Special guests will include Iris Evans, Faith, Rev David McBeth and James Strange.
Wills says it would be impossible to overestimate the generosity of the people of Londonderry, Tyrone and Donegal.
“Believe it or not last year, people phoned me up after reading the Sentinel and it touched them.
“They have been really touched and blessed by the outreach. Every year it gets bigger. That’s my only problem. It’s like a snowball once it’s started.”
And as for the crisis in the Ukraine, it won’t deter Wills from what’s been a significant part of his life for so long.
“I know as many in Ukraine and in Romania and Moldova just in the same way as I know many in this area here,” he says. “We stay in it, we live in it, maybe three or four days, five days, whenever they want us.”
He adds: “This crisis is just a thing, we’ll see how it goes. Hopefully, the outcome’s better and there’s no loss of life.
“It’ll not affect us...the people - and I was talking to them the other day, yesterday, and - of course, like any place, they are fearful of what happens, if Russia were to start to move and try and take their whole country but people don’t know because it could happen at night and they are also fearful in Moldova as they’re lined up against the Russian border too.
“There is fear but at the same time I plan to go.”
If anyone wants to donate new items of clothing, blankets, toys, school stationary or get involved in the mission, they are very welcome to attend the Gospel evening on Friday. Alternatively contact the Sentinel office and the paper will put you in touch with Wills.