From heart to heart: rehabilitation in Ukraine

“My younger daughter got sick,” says Natalia, “and in 2003 she died from AIDS.” 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.”

Natalia set up ‘From Heart to Heart’, an organisation which runs a community centre for injecting drug users and people living with HIV, in Cherkassy, Ukraine. It is largely funded by Alliance for Public Health and the All-Ukranian Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS.

Safe space

The community centre offers a safe space for clients where they can access health and harm reduction services, psychological and peer support, referrals to rehab centres, and use of laundry and shower facilities. It is also a place to relax. “I went from smoking, to cannabis to stronger drugs, and I was a regular user for five years,” Natalia says. 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, as Natalia puts it, “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.

“My work is to help other people and that keeps me going."

— Natalia

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 is 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,” she says. 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.”null

From films to psychological support, clients can walk through the door and get the support they need. The centre is open every day from ten until six, and up to 15 people visit the centre each day. Many clients are homeless, and they can take a shower and do their laundry while they are there. Staff members 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. Larisa was diagnosed with HIV 13 years ago and has been living healthily on ARVs for the last two and a half years. “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 as her mum 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).”

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.”