Lviv, Ukraine — During the last seven months, some of the Joint Task Force – Ukraine (JTF-U) members maintained a connection with a worthy cause: the Dzherelo Rehabilitation Centre. They volunteered and helped, bringing smiles to children and needed support to dedicated personnel.

Since the arrival of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF)  at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre (IPSC) in Ukraine in January 2016, members of Op UNIFIER (ROTO 1) had been looking for other ways to contribute to the people of Ukraine outside of their military training. This was done with the hope of showing the Ukrainian people that Canada’s military mission to Ukraine is not solely focused on the military perspective, but has a human side to it as well.

After some research by the JTF-U’s padre, Captain Steve Arseneau, the Dzherelo Rehabilitation Centre was chosen as an ideal candidate. It afforded the members of Op UNIFIER the ability to help with a project that not only has strong Canadian connections through the founding members and the Children of Chornobyl Canadian Fund, but also to help some of the most vulnerable members of Ukrainian society.

Dzherelo is a centre that provides rehabilitation and care for children suffering from cerebral palsy and other special needs such as autism and Down syndrome. Apart from doing a fundraiser that raised more than $3,500 for Dzherelo, members of Op UNIFIER have also been volunteering their time at the centre, visiting the children and participating in various fun activities with them.

Beginning in May, small groups of soldiers went on regular visits to Dzherelo in order to spend time with the children and help the staff. The volunteer soldiers usually spent two to three hours at the centre and conducted various activities designed to bring joy and help brighten the children’s day. These activities included arts and crafts, helping the staff with the children’s physiotherapy, and playing with the children outside in the play yard. Both the children and the staff were always happy to see the Canadian soldiers, since visitors are rare, and the soldiers were always motivated to brighten the children’s day as much as possible.

However, it was not only the children who benefited from these visits. The soldiers who volunteered also spoke about how the visits changed their perspective and made them forget about their own problems and difficulties. The visits provided an opportunity to get out of the camp and were a welcome change to the usual daily routine for the members of Op UNIFIER.

“It was a pleasure for me to play with the kids for a few hours and to interact with the hardworking staff. It is impressive to see the level of patience and dedication these extraordinary people demonstrate every day for these children,” said Corporal Francis Nadeau.

The soldiers also explained that once you have been in contact with one of these children, you cannot help but to have been positively affected and transformed by their simplicity, kindness and humility. Because of this, the soldiers always talked about their visits as an enriching experience and one that they would love to repeat.

Sergeant Piotr Burcew was also one of the volunteers. “When I visited Dzherelo, I knew I was doing a good deed, helping a good organization and the people that work there but I definitely underestimated the effect that a simple walk around the building would have on one of these children’s day. It was definitely a small gesture with a big impact,” he recalled.

During this deployment, members of Op UNIFIER not only focused on their military mission, but also contributed directly to the civilian population of Ukraine. They donated money, time and in some cases pushed their physical limits for the cause. Five members raised part of the donated money by exerting themselves in an impressive and strenuous physical challenge which lasted four hours and 14 minutes, during which they accomplished a combined 10,000 repetitions of various exercises.

JTF-U members have now finished their seven-month tour overseas. Besides the training conducted with the military, all who volunteered at Dzherelo realized that small gestures can mean so much more to people in need. Their kindness and caring attitude has no doubt left a good impression and good memories with the staff of the rehabilitation center.

The most important part, however, is the children who gave the Canadian soldiers a dose of unconditional love. These visits showed the humanitarian side of our soldiers, allowing them to promote Canadian values abroad.