Former Drumahoe firefighter Wills Lynch’s determined humanitarian and evangelical mission to some of the poorest communities of Europe continues.
It’s a quarter of a century now since Wills started delivering aid to the poverty-wracked peripheries of Romania, Ukraine and Moldova.
From the chaos that followed the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in 1989, to Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007, to the catastrophic floods of 2008, to the much more recent ripples spreading west from the bloody conflict in the Crimea, he’s seen it all in those 25 years.
This Friday (April 24) at 8pm the cream of Irish Christian Gospel music, including the Montgomery sisters, Simple Faith, Nell Hire and James Strange, will join local well-wishers for an ‘Evening of Gospel Praise’ in Glendermott Presbyterian Church Hall in Drumahoe, at which a freewill offering will be taken up for Wills’ mission to the children of Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
A few days later Wills sets off in a reconditioned fire appliance for Eastern Europe once again.
When he arrives he’ll link up with colleagues and help distribute aid that has been provided thanks to the generosity of the people of Londonderry, Tyrone and Donegal.
Last year Jade McClements from Drumahoe, Rachel Smyth from the Waterside, Ryan Marshall from Drumahoe and Jim Wilson from Bellaghy, travelled with Wills on a number of trips to the former Eastern bloc.
Wills explained: “The girls were outstanding workers. We were travelling up, sometimes up at five and six in the morning, we were travelling all day and all night.
“They were doing Christian camps - Sunday Schools camps. They were excellent with the children. Facepainting, hand painting, craft work, giving out sweets, giving out eggs, playing games and all.
“Great to get them all together for fun and carrying on and swimming. The mothers and the parents were all delighted that they gave up their time and where they came from.”
Wills started heading to Romania soon after the collapse of the Ceausescu 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 and still does.
“This woman we found lying in the road. In the middle of the road, the heat, it was about 40 degrees. She collapsed. We gave her first aid and took her home.
“There weren’t that many people on the road and ordinary people were walking past.”
Wills’ modus operandi is to travel to poor areas throughout Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine and deliver various essentials and Gospel tracts.
“We went down to visit this place away out in Iaşi, [northern Romania] away out in the country.
“It’s near the Moldova border, on our way. In these villages a lot of people would say to you, you know, ‘You wouldn’t go - there’s a poor family up this wee laneway up here - would you help them?’
“Or: ‘There’s a family up this way with some orphans, would you give them some food or some toys?’
“We’d bring up the sweets and the chocolates. I remember the wee girl said to us, ‘Pray for me and my brother.’ It would have brought tears to your eyes,” says Wills.
Sometimes natural catastrophes unconnected to poverty can intrude on people’s lives.
But whatever the cause, it makes no difference, Wills is willing to help.
“We met a family in a village, you know, the heat was wild warm, and then you have thunder and lightning at night, the wee boy was out with the cows watching them or to put a chain on them.
“A thunder storm come, he was struck by lightning, he was 14 and burnt to bits.
“It was sad there, we went to that house three or four times, because they were heartbroken.
“It’s just sad. It’s no difference, I always say. They cry the same, they laugh the same, their heartbreak is the same as here, anywhere in the world no matter where you go.”
Wills says the generosity of the people of the North West is unbelievable, has been for the past twenty-five years, and his ongoing work wouldn’t be possible without everyone’s support.
“We brought rice and sugar and pasta and oil and all the stuff. We’re getting a wild lot of hats and blankets from people all around here.
“Churches. From PW [Presbyterian Women] meetings, from people in homes who knit.
“There’s a woman in Donegal and I think she’s 91. She knits away. You want to see the bag she sent me up. Full of hats, blankets. We took them out and gave them out to them too.
“And then I sent a load out. I sent two loads, a load of stuff out, aid, food and that and clothes and blankets and sweets and stationary and stuff like that there and bicycles for them.
“Also we sent out two beds for two families whose fathers had strokes. They live in the country. In the city it’s different. They have flats and that and you always have people who are better off but out in the country, in the villages where we work, it’s just like a square room, their houses, a clay floor, bits of board and that, jacked up and they lie on that as a bed and it’s hard for them to get down and to turn with the strokes.
“So we got two beds and they lift up, tilt, slide, you can pump them manually - you could pump them with the electric if you had electric and you can bring it up and down. I hope it will be a good help to them.”
Wills says the evangelical aspect of his mission is going strong.
“We did a week of Christian literature work with children and it was excellent. With poor families who wouldn’t have heard of it we done a Sunday School.
“Five hundred and sixty children at one of the Sunday Schools, the man started with fourteen, you hear them complaining here that they can’t get children to Sunday School and here is a story that I tell them when I go around, the man started with 14 and he goes around in poor districts and orphanages and lifts them in vans, now he has buses and that and we are able to feed them.”
The sheer logistics of the whole operation can be testing but it usually comes off without major mishap.
Travelling out with Jim last summer was a pain-free experience except perhaps for an encounter with the Hungarian equivalent of the blue-bag brigade.
“Jim and myself went out with a caravan. We travelled right through Europe, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, right through Europe with this whole caravan, hoping it wouldn’t break or nothing,
“We had no problem at all. Right enough in Hungary at about four in the morning there were a few boys, probably at the weekend, had something in them, and started to bounce on it. Jim says, ‘What’ll we do?’ I said, ‘Just sleep on! Just you sleep on! They’ll get tired jumping!’”
Needless to say the power struggle in the Ukraine hasn’t made life any easier in terms of negotiating international borders and the local bureaucracy.
For years Wills has been delivering aid to orphanages and asylums in the Ukraine.
But last year he had to ask friends to take the aid across for him, due to the more stringent border checks.
“We went on to the Ukraine border and met people down there who are Romanians who will go into the Ukraine and we give them stuff to take in to the Ukraine.
“The problem is there are queues of traffic going into the Ukraine and they are checking everything going in. It’s having an effect. The borders are sealed.
“The borders are very tight. It’s military and it’s very, very tight, when you’re moving in and out. They are checking everything, where you are going and where you are coming from. There are long queues in and out.
“Also Russia is in control in a wee bit of Moldova as well. Romania’s free insofar as until you go up near the border because on the Romania side it is European Economic Community (EEC) and Romanian troops.
“They are on a high alert on their end too as you can tell and then when you go into Moldova they are on a high alert.
“You know by the feel of the air. There is tension in there and they are watching every move, who’s in and who’s out. Who’s getting in and who’s not getting in, you know.
“But I had a great conversation with the boys on the border, the guards and also with the customs men, they asked me what I done and all, what I’m doing, they couldn’t get over the work we were doing and bringing the fire engines in and we used the fire engines in the village.”
Eight years after accession to the EU the verdict is still out on whether membership has been a curse or a blessing.
Sure, grant-aid is coming in but new regulations and the rationalisation of agriculture isn’t universally popular.
“In Romania they’d be up-marketing, they’d be bringing in things the EEC has here.
“As usual, some people like them; the majority of people don’t like them.
“There are parts of it good and there are parts of it that affects their own living.
“When you bring in things, laws, that they aren’t used to dealing with - motor cars, new regulations and so on, the same as here, small MOTs, they just drove about before, whatever way you drove.
“They were reared in a different culture.”
“Farming has taken a good up-turn. The EEC has sponsored and is grant-aiding a lot of machinery and the farms are all getting bigger.
“The only thing I can see, boys were telling me, especially in the south, is that multi-national companies are coming in and taking over masses of land.
“Jim is a vegetable man. He says, ‘When you look at the land out here a field could be a mile long. When you look at the farms in Northern Ireland, the land that people fight over, they’re nothing, they are only gardens.’
“So they are, they’re only gardens. Then, you see, companies coming in and taking the land down at the bottom. They are going to come in and take the land down at the bottom for the farming and the cows.
“I can see they’ll eventually start getting their milk and all from there [Western European and North American supermarkets].”
Wills can’t help notice change after change as he travels back each year.
But in the end it won’t distract from his work.
“There are places I’ve been and things I’ve done and I can only say: this has been a miracle. God has really blessed this work. It’s unbelievable the people we have reached in different parts and it’s expanded out.”
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.