The generous donations of hundreds of alms givers across Londonderry, Tyrone and Donegal, are continuing to help provide much needed aid to some of the poorest people on the European continent.
They’ve been doing so for the past quarter of a century, ever since veteran Drumahoe firefighter-turned-aid worker, Wills Lynch, started travelling to Romania bringing his Christian message and much needed aid to the local people, who were suffering grinding poverty following the collapse of the Nicolae Ceausescu regime in 1989.
On Friday, April 29, at Glendermott Presbyterian Church Hall, Wills, has organised an evening of Gospel Praise during which a freewill offering will be taken up for anyone able to make a contribution to his ongoing mission in Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine.
The evening will commence at 7.45pm and will feature Dustin Black, the Montgomery Sisters, Lynda Lindsay, Margaret Johnston, Justified and Nigel Davidson.
Wills says everyone is very welcome to come along and if they can make a donation all the better.
The tireless humanitarian has shown no sign of letting up on his relentless campaign to help those who appear to be doing no better now than they were following the collapse of communism over 26 years ago.
But during his visits to the North East of the Black Sea, he’s normally faced with searing summer heat and floods brought about by the torrential summer rains, which are not uncommon in that area.
Back in July 2008, for example, the worst floods suffered by the Ukraine and Northern Romania in over a century wiped out both life and livelihood there.
More than 20,000 homes were flooded and 7,000 people had to be evacuated by boat or helicopter.
Dozens were killed by the time Wills arrived and the humanitarian aid he brought to this impoverished part of the world was needed then more than ever.
The Sentinel caught up with him during his most recent, very different visit, when he celebrated Christmas with friends and colleagues, in January unusually, but perfectly in accordance with the Julian calendar.
“I was out in December before but I was never out in January. I wanted to, because in Ukraine and then Moldova, their Christmas is on the seventh of January,” said Wills.
“So we left here on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day and I travelled out. Mind you, you’re always going out in the summer time and you just feel this blast of heat hitting you and you’d think you were going into an oven.
“Now it was different that day. It was -10, -12 when I arrived in Bucharest .
“I stayed there and did some work with the man who works with street children and then I travelled by train up through the snow right up to the north. Where we got out, then it was -16,” he added.
Wills explained how it’s normally extremely difficult to traverse the Ukrainian border, where the queues are generally horrendous and the custom and frontier officals very strict. But in January he got a lucky break.
“We decided that early morning we were going through. We did poor homes, we went into a mentally handicapped orphanage.
“It’s very, very poor, very cold inside. We helped them with electricity, we helped them with bags, hundredweight bags, we’d like to call them, or 50 kilo bags of rice and pasta and sugar and oil for Christmas, a few days before their Christmas, left them a lot of sweets and different things.”
Wills said the contrast with the rampant consumerism evident in Western Europe at Christmas couldn’t have been more stark. In the run up to their Christmas Day, which falls on our Little Christmas, at the time of the Epiphany, for example, there’s no hustle and bustle in the local shops whatsoever.
“We went into the town and there was no difference there than there is on an ordinary day,” said Wills.
Another eye-opener for Wills was the presence of hundreds of refugees from Eastern Ukraine, recently fled from the war there.
When Wills visited he saw first hand the misery that has been wrought.
“We met this pastor who was in charge of the Church and he had 53 families from the war-torn area of Ukraine, which is down in the east and they’d come up here because they had to leave their houses, which were wrecked.
“They had to leave their farms and their chickens, their hens, everything’s left, their cattle, everything.”
And that’s after another war within the borders of Europe, twenty years after Srebrenica and 100 years after the Somme, a war in which outside powers to the East and West were complicit.
Wills and his colleagues did the best they could for the victims.
“They were looking after them and on a Wednesday people can bring gifts, food, clothes, whatever they can, every Wednesday and then they have a big meal in the Church.
“There was 53 he’s looking after so it was good to help in that area.”
Wills said the material poverty in this peripheral corner of Europe is hard to imagine.
He said Christmas was just another day of basic subsistence for many families. So he took it upon himself to give a special Christmas treat to one household.
“I remember in one house we asked them what they ate. They usually ate this cabbage stuff with mince through it and they’d eat that every day.
“So I asked them what they’d be eating in two days time, Christmas Day. ‘Oh, just the same.’
“So I said, have you ever tried turkey? ‘No. Never.’ So I went and got them a turkey and they couldn’t believe it. Their first turkey ever.”
Ironically, given Wills’ past career as a long-serving firefighter, he received a particualarly unwelcome alarm during his visit this year.
“We got a call to go back and visit an orphanage in Romania, where we had helped in, which went on fire during the night.
“It was the part where the animals were kept in.
“It started in the hay shed, whether it was electric or what.
“They got some of the animals out and some of the hens were lost. The pigs, ducks and cattle got out. The orphanage, it stopped at the main part, but they lost the laundry and they lost the heating rooms and things like that there.
“We gave them some money to buy material to start the building and we gave them some tools also to clear the site.
“The water was freezing so with the hoses it’s very hard, it’s very cold.”
Wills then travelled on to Moldova on Christmas Eve.
He spent Christmas going door-to-door carolling and handing out aid and Gospel literature.
He was in a very poor area of the country in the Orhei area, and brought a van load of food, sweets and Gospel tracts.
He said that whilst the people are materially poor they are spiritually rich and remembers calling on one woman who had no food, who tearfully told him they were sent by God at the right time.
“We joined a group of young people, about 33 of them. They went around carol singing to the houses, to the flats. When we went to them all, especially those who were poor, they couldn’t believe that these young people would give up their Christmas Day, this was Christmas Day now.
“I’m sure there are not too many, you know, who would give up their Christmas Day.
“They were going out to poor people, who had nothing and they sang two carols and they gave the children gifts and they gave out a wee tract and a calendar. They thought it was very, very nice that they were getting the gifts. Nobody else had ever come to give them gifts at Christmas. Not like here. And they were very, very heartbroken. Some of the families would come out and give you a big hug and the tears were running down and they were thanking you for the gifts and for thinking of them.”
Wills said none of the work being done on behalf of the misfortunate of Eastern Europe would be possible without the generosity of the people of the city and beyond.
As he’s always insisted: “All over this city people have put their hands in their pockets and helped me through the years and without their help I couldn’t do this,” he said.
“That’s not only here but as far away as Newtonstewart, Strabane, Donemana and right up as far as Maghera and Toomebridge and right around the whole area and in Donegal around Raphoe and that area people have helped,” he added.
So if you want to help Wills with his mission to bring the Gospel and much-needed food and aid to people fleeing war and battling poverty in one the poorer regions of the European continent, come along to Glendermott Presbyterian Chruch Hall on Friday at 7.45pm.