A group portrait
Matthew Sawatzky

New Life founders Natalia Mezentseva, far right, and Olga Poznyakhouskaya meet with, from left, Oleg Ruchitsa, Andrei Rusnokov and Vitalik Gorbunov at a center for men run by New Life.

An MCC partner in Ukraine talks about her life and her work with people living with HIV and AIDS.

As told to Julie Bell

I am the project manager at New Life Charitable Fund in Nikopol, Ukraine, where I work with former prisoners, with those living with HIV and AIDS and with others in need.

I believe that every person is born with a soft and clean heart. But as we grow up there are different circumstances and all of this piles up in our hearts, in our lives and minds. I know from my own experience that only God can change our hearts and minds.

I grew up in a normal family and was a good girl who studied well. But I was looking for something new, a forbidden adult life. When I was in grade 10, I tried drugs and started to get used to them.

I married a man who was a drug addict and I gave birth to a boy. My husband and I were injecting drugs, and you can understand that we paid no attention to our child.

My husband had been in prison, then he died from tuberculosis. My mom had several strokes and was paralyzed, and my father started to drink a lot.

It’s hard to talk about this, but my child had to go into an orphanage.

This period was the first time that I went to the church, but I returned to my addicted life. Drugs had a hold on me. I wanted to get rid of the addiction, but I couldn’t do it.

“I went to the very bottom of my life, absolutely to the very bottom.”

There are people who go down in life just a little bit. I went to the very bottom of my life, absolutely to the very bottom. I got an infection and lost half of my arm to gangrene. I asked God to either send me to prison or let me die. I couldn’t live that way anymore.

When I was put in prison for four years on a drug charge, I was thankful. I started to read the Bible and I started to pray the way I needed to pray.

It was a time of re-evaluating and I started to hate drugs very much. I understood that they had completely destroyed my life.

My only dream was to be released, take my child back from the orphanage and devote my life to my son.

But when I was released I looked terrible. I had no good clothing, I didn’t have teeth.

I went to the orphanage to see my son, Artem, but he was ashamed of me. My parental rights had been taken away, and I was told a family from Spain wanted to adopt him. It was an absolute shock. I didn’t have money or a job, and there were many other things that I had to resolve.

I was trying to get my legal documents, facing all this bureaucracy and officials who didn’t want to help. I was going to officials and criminals to see if anyone would hire me. I was ready to clean toilets, but when people saw I had one arm they didn’t trust I could do it. Nobody needed a disabled person.

My friend Olga, who I had kept in touch with when I was in prison, was going to church, and she took me to the pastor. The pastor said, “I don’t know your heart and your mind but God knows it all.” And what he said inspired me. I knew what I wanted in my life, and I was sure that God knew it too. After that, miracles started to happen.

My father left me an apartment when he died, and I sold it and split the money with my brother and sister. I had enough money to start my own business buying and reselling clothes.

The family from Spain, who had taken my son to visit them a couple of times each year, postponed adopting him. They stay in touch and still help support Artem, but he started to live with me when he was 16 and he is now at university in Kiev.

When I came out of prison, I hated drug-addicted people. I knew what they could do in order to survive. I had no love for those people.

But when I went to church, people were greeting me and hugging me. They started to accept me. I didn’t believe that people could be so warm, so nice. And I came back to my apartment and I started to pray and say, “Dear Lord if those people have that attitude, please change my heart. Please give me that same attitude so that I can love other people.”

God changed my heart and started to give me this love.

With Olga, I went to the places where homeless people lived near garbage and where prostitutes stayed and tried to earn money. A team came together, and we formed an organization to do this work.

We don’t always have positive results. We are not always thanked for what we do. But if there is one person whose life has changed, that’s more important than the people we wanted to help but couldn’t.

As I analyze my life, I believe that God was with me all of the time, even when I was making bad decisions. I am thankful for all the circumstances of my life because through them I came to know God. If all this hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have the life that I have now. And thanks to my new life, I can help others.

Natalia Mezentseva is project manager for New Life Charitable Fund, an MCC partner in Nikopol, Ukraine.