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Joni and Friends helps evacuate families with special needs out of war zone

Joni and Friends helps transport a family with special needs to a safe location.

NASHVILLE (BP) – With the war in Ukraine continuing to make worldwide headlines, Joni and Friends, the ministry organization of Joni Eareckson Tada, is expanding its usual outreach to disabled persons by assisting them in evacuating the country.

In written comments to Baptist Press, Tada said the devastation caused by Russia’s invasion has left disabled persons among the most vulnerable.

A family rests after making it to a safe location.

“In-country senior services and disability support programs have been significantly damaged and special-needs families are struggling to survive,” Tada said. “The urgent plight of elderly and disabled Ukrainians is more desperate than ever.”

Tada, founder and CEO of Joni and Friends, has herself been a quadriplegic since the age of 17 after experiencing a diving accident in the Chesapeake Bay. She established Joni and Friends in 1979 to minister to families affected by disability.

Over more than 40 years, the organization has ministered in a variety of ways including providing wheelchairs to those in need, hosting a nationwide radio program and holding ministry events.

Jason Holden, vice president for global operations, told Baptist Press that Joni and Friends has hosted many events in Ukraine over the years, and was even in the process of building a Joni’s House relief center in western Ukraine.

Some of the “legacy” programs the organization has held in the country include Wheels for the World and International Family Retreats.

When the conflict made events like these impossible to host in the country, the ministry began to shift its focus toward evacuations.

A hot-line was established stateside where displaced Ukrainians could call in and let the organization know where they were and what needs they had. Once the phone line was set up, the gravity of the situation became clear.

“We’ve received a lot of emails and phone calls and the stories are just of despair,” Holden said.

“People are living with disabilities in tall apartment buildings who were stuck because their caregivers did not come back once the invasion began. They are hearing all the bombs and explosions and not knowing what to do or who to call. They are fearful, scared and often trapped. There are many stories of great fear of the unknown and of who can come and help them.”

Working alongside one of the ministry’s international regional coordinators who lives in Ukraine as well other partners, Joni and Friends began to help transport people out of conflict zones in the western part of Ukraine to a safer location.

Once they got them to a safe place, volunteers helped evacuees fill out paperwork to cross the border into the nearby countries of Poland or Romania. Some went on to final destinations such as Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.

In total, Joni and Friends has partnered with local ministry connections to help evacuate more than 600 people, made up of disabled Ukrainians and their families and caregivers.

“When we started receiving these calls we started to ask, who is doing this, and the answer was no one,” Holden said.

“We said, ‘Well then, we have to do this.’ It wasn’t a choice. This is what we were called to do because we knew if we didn’t do it, we didn’t think that anyone else would. We had the capability and the partnerships, so we just made it happen.”

One evacuated family was so inspired, they have continued to travel to other surrounding countries to help support other families with disabilities even after they became settled themselves.

“This is a perfect vision of the global Church coming together to meet needs and share the Gospel,” Holden said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never seen the global Church come together better than at this time.”

The ministry did not stop once these families crossed the border into other countries. Joni and Friends made sure to connect families with representatives already working in that country and provide them with sanitation supplies, food and oftentimes a language translator.

Additionally, transporting people into surrounding safer countries allowed for more traditional Joni and Friends ministry events to be held, such as their International Family Retreats.

The retreats are camp-like events where the Gospel is shared with families affected by disabilities. Events have been held in Poland, Romania, Germany and the Netherlands.

The events in Germany and the Netherlands were held in August and September and were specifically designed for families displaced from Ukraine. More than 50 different families were served at some of the events.

“We want them to relax and have fun for the week, and really just experience God,” Holden said.

Even though ministry for Joni and Friends has looked much different since the conflict began, everything they do continues to support the ultimate mission.

“Our mission is to glorify God as we communicate the Gospel,” Holden said.

“In a world where people are questioning faith, or questioning is there a God or why does suffering happen, I think we do these things to show there is hope beyond suffering. These events help glorify God and I think it’s an opportunity to show there is hope in Jesus Christ.”