It was personal tragedy that inspired Natalia to set up the ‘From Heart to Heart’ organisation, which includes a community centre for injecting drug users and people living with HIV, in Cherkassy, Ukraine.
‘My younger daughter got sick,’ says Natalia, ‘and in 2003 she died from AIDS.’ Natalia has another daughter, who is HIV free.
As she relays the story Natalia’s pain is visible, but she explains how ‘my tragedy motivated me to work with people who are vulnerable to HIV, such as drug users, as I know what it is like.’
‘I went from smoking, to cannabis to stronger drugs, and I was a regular user for five years.’
After trying rehab, substitution therapy and anything else within her means, Natalia eventually drew her strength from her parents support and from her church, successfully completing a church led rehab program. ‘Now I have been drug free for 14 years. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke – nothing’.
‘From Heart to Heart’ is able to refer clients to rehab, which can be through similar church programmes, but not necessarily. Different rehab programmes exist so ‘the client can pick and choose, it’s a personal choice.’
Natalia has just secured larger premises for the community centre; moving from its first, smaller centre, to an old nursery, which is yet to be fully converted.
There is ample space, but unfortunately not the funds to match. ‘I don’t have a penny to spend on fixing the place up,’ says Natalia, ‘but I can see the potential, I know we will be able to use the space in the future.’
She has a reputation as a resourceful woman, and it’s clear why. While much of the sprawling property is an empty shell desperately awaiting structural work, decorating and equipping, the centre is already functioning. The lounge, medical room, shower and laundry room, and office are all complete. Natalia has a vision for each of the rest of the rooms, which include more spaces for groups, including peer driven initiatives.
It may be possible to raise some funds for the work from within the community. ‘Most people here have been affected by drug abuse in some way, so they are supportive.’
Despite the size of the task that lies ahead, Natalia is not just looking forward to completion but also beyond. She already has her sights on expansion, wanting a second building that can be used for art therapy.
‘The clients needs come first, we find out what they need, and then a way to get it.’
From films to psychological support, clients can walk through the door and get the support they need. The centre is open every day from 10-6, and up to 15 people visit the centre each day. Many clients are homeless so they can take a shower and do their laundry while they’re there. Staff include a psychologist, a doctor, and a nurse who can provide HIV rapid-testing. On a Saturday a self-help group meets for people living with HIV, and injecting drug users.
One client is Larisa, who has been visiting the centre since 2004. ‘My husband died in 2004, and then three months later my daughter was born.’ Her daughter, now six, was born HIV free. She sits up close to her mum as she talks. ‘I come here whenever I can. I can chat, get food packages, medicines, attend groups and help arranging trips to Kiev for my antiretrovirals (ARVs).’
Larisa was diagnosed with HIV 13 years ago and has been living healthily on ARVs for the last two and a half years. Seeing the difference is what makes Natalia’s job worthwhile.
‘My work is to help other people and that keeps me going, because otherwise you would just get tired and stop doing what you’re doing.
When you first meet people and they are dying and then you see them recovering, coming back to life, and getting together, getting married - that’s very rewarding.’