His name is Nikita, and he made an indelible impression on my heart. I don’t have a photograph of him, but I can see his face so clearly in my mind.
I met Nikita two years ago on my first trip to Ukraine. Our mission team had already enjoyed a successful week of VBS/Bible Camp in Yasinovataya, and it was Day One of working with a new group of children in Gorlovka. I was teaching the oldest group of kids, those in their early to mid-teens. Nikita, a tall, slender young man with dark hair, first caught my attention as we were getting our morning session started by making name tags to wear on lanyards. Through my translator, Dima, I had asked the children to write their names in Russian and English (with assistance, if needed). Nikita just fumbled with the materials for several minutes until someone thoughtfully wrote his name for him, slid the name card into the plastic sleeve, clipped it to the lanyard, and placed it around his neck. It was then that I began to perceive “shades of Coleman” and indications of autism.
When Nikita spoke, his voice was rather loud, he stuttered, and he often blurted things out at unexpected moments. His hands were in near-constant motion, sometimes just moving about, and at other times intensely focused on some object. By mid-morning, he had completely dismantled his name tag, shredding both the paper and the plastic sleeve. We made him another. After he dispensed with three of them on the first day, we decided that Nikita really didn’t need a name tag.
I moved Nikita’s chair next to mine at the table and gave him some blank sheets of paper and some markers. It kept him happily occupied while we had our class discussions. His kinesthetic activities and self-stimulatory behaviors, however, were in no way indicative of a lack of interest or comprehension of what was going on around him. He would frequently respond to questions that I asked. Sometimes Dima would translate Nikita’s answers for me, but I needed no help in understanding when he quickly replied with a repetitive “da” or “nyet.”
Nikita’s mother had stayed nearby throughout the morning and approached me at the beginning our lunch break. Through Dima, she expressed concerns that Nikita might be a distraction and wanted assurances that it was alright for him to remain with the others in the class. That gave me an opportunity to briefly tell her about my son Coleman. I explained to her that I, too, had an autistic son. Like Nikita, he had dark hair and dark eyes that danced when he smiled. Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she gave me a long embrace. I assured her that I understood, that I had so much respect and admiration for her and the love and care that she provided for her son, and that Nikita would be fine.
Nearly every day that week I sat at the table with Nikita and his mother during lunch. She lovingly assisted him with his meals, as we still do with Coleman. One day Nikita was wearing flip-flops that were glaringly much too small for his long feet, the entire length of his heels dragging the ground behind them. Members of our team expressed concern to Nikita’s mother, along with an offer to provide money for new shoes. She smiled and explained that the flip-flops were hers, but that Nikita had chosen them that morning before they left their apartment and was insistent on wearing them. Been there, done that! You choose your battles carefully with autistic children, and “appearances” soon slide way down the list of things that are worth fretting over.
Nikita and his mother presented me with a box of chocolates on Thursday evening after our closing Family Night presentations and activities. Nikita gave me a tight hug before they left for their home. I was hopeful that they would stay connected with the church in Gorlovka in the weeks and months that followed, but apparently they did not. When a team from our church returned there last year, they were told that Nikita had not been seen again and that no one had an address for them.
Nikita and his mother have stayed on my mind and heart over the last two years. I held out hope that they would show up at the church in Gorlovka on Monday morning three weeks ago when our group was starting this year’s VBS, but they didn’t.
Yet, Wednesday of that week provided a brief, but joyful, reunion! We had taken our class to a park across the street to play a water balloon tossing game that was a huge hit with kids in the heat and humidity of a Ukrainian summer. That’s when I noticed Nikita and his mother walking toward our group. I caught sight of them about the same time they saw me. There were smiles and hugs shared, but only a brief conversation as they explained that they were in a hurry to get to the nearby supermarket to buy a few food items and were pressed for time to reach some scheduled activity. About 15 minutes later, they walked back by us. Nikita ran to me, presented me with a chocolate bar, gave me a firm kiss on my cheek, and then quickly caught up with his mother. No words were exchanged, but it made my day, my week, and my trip!
I hope that I can connect with Nikita and his mother again on a future trip to Gorlovka or through Christian friends who live there. Coleman has access to so many resources, assistive devices, and a large, loving support network that make his life and circumstances (and ours) so much easier to bear. We are blessed; I know we are; and it weighs on my heart heavily when I consider how little of those things Nikita and his mother may have.
But, one thing I know. I know where I will find Nikita in eternity. I will find him living joyfully and freely in the presence of his Creator, released from limitations, perfected and whole, and occupying a prominent place of honor in the Blessed Order of the Least of These.