Story by Monica Chang

Lukasz (right) bought a lightly used computer from a tech company and personally delivered this gift to Max’s mother, Maryna Bondarenko (left).|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

On a warm spring day in Poznan, Poland, the sky was a clear blue, and sunlight streamed through the fresh green leaves onto the streets. Tzu Chi volunteers were busy distributing Biedronka cash cards, striving to bring a touch of warmth and hope to twenty-seven disabled families.

The Courageous Mother’s Escape

Maryna Bondarenko, a Ukrainian woman, was one of the beneficiaries of Beidronka cash cards. At thirty-two, she was a professional hairdresser living in Bucha with her two children. When the Russia-Ukraine war broke out on February 24, 2022, Russian forces concentrated their attacks on Bucha and occupied the area. A month later, although the Ukrainian military successfully rescued the residents of Bucha, they also discovered at least 1,200 bodies, including innocent children. This horrific “Bucha Massacre” shocked the world.

As explosions echoed over Bucha, Maryna’s home was destroyed. Faced with immense danger, she decided to flee with her eighteen-year-old son Max, who has cerebral palsy and limited mobility, and her thirteen-year-old daughter.

Eighteen-year-old Max, who has clubfoot and cerebral palsy, struggles to walk. His single mother, Maryna, had to abandon his wheelchair and carry him and his thirteen-year-old sister on a four-day, thousand-mile journey from Bucha, Ukraine, to Poznan, Poland.|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

Max not only has cerebral palsy but also suffers from clubfoot, making walking difficult. During their escape, Maryna faced a cruel choice – the bus seats were limited, and they had to abandon Max’s wheelchair to ensure their escape.

Their thousand-mile journey from Bucha to Poznan, which would normally take just a few hours by car, became a grueling ordeal due to the war. They had to take detours to avoid Russian forces, destroy all road signs to prevent pursuit, and even hide the bus at night in concealed locations where passengers had to disembark and hide intermittently.

Throughout the journey, Maryna carried her son, enduring physical pain and emotional torment, as each step was a matter of life and death. The bus's jolts, the long hours of hiding, and the terror of the escape left her sleepless, with every night filled with anxiety and fear. Max felt deeply for his mother’s hardship, and from her eyes, he saw her unwavering determination and boundless love for him.

Maryna, moved to tears, tightly embraced Poznan Tzu Chi volunteer Monica Chang (second from left), expressing her gratitude for the new hope the volunteers brought to her son’s life. | Photo courtesy of Tzu Chi Foundation

Volunteers Bring Love and Hope with a Computer

Despite his disabilities, Max has dreams just like any other teenager. He loves music and longs for a computer to learn programming, hoping to become a computer engineer someday. However, this dream seemed out of reach for his refugee family.

Over the past two years, Poznan Tzu Chi volunteer Lukasz (center) has donated seven computers to help underprivileged Ukrainian youths. | Photo courtesy of Tzu Chi Foundation

Their story reached Lukasz Baranowski, a local Tzu Chi volunteer deeply moved by their plight. Lukasz decided to make a difference for Max by purchasing a lightly used computer from a tech company. He personally delivered this gift to Maryna. This was the seventh computer Lukasz had donated over the past two years to help underprivileged Ukrainian youths.

When the Poznan Tzu Chi volunteers presented the laptop, Maryna (center) was overjoyed. Her son had always dreamed of becoming a computer engineer, but they couldn’t afford to buy a computer.|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

When the computer was presented to Max, he was speechless with surprise, while Maryna burst into tears, gripping Lukasz’s hand and repeatedly thanking the volunteers. To Max, this computer is more than just a tool; it is a symbol of hope for a brighter future.

For the past two years, Tzu Chi volunteers have supported Max through his rehabilitation and helped the family through their toughest times.|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

Tzu Chi volunteers in Poznan has been supporting Maryna’s family since May 2022. They helped them find a place to live, provided cash cards, and accompany Max to physiotherapy sessions.

Inspired by the volunteers’ selfless care, Maryna decided to join the ranks of Tzu Chi volunteers. She uses her skills as a hairdresser to give back, offering free haircut courses to fellow Ukrainians in need of a skill to find employment. These courses not only helped many refugee families but also helped Maryna find joy from helping others.

Maryna and her students regularly collaborate with Tzu Chi to host free haircut events for retired seniors and children. These events have quickly become popular, with hundreds signing up. They provide practical experience for Maryna and her students and spread love and kindness, creating a cycle of goodwill and assistance.

A Beacon of Hope

Despite being in the terminal stages of cancer, professional hairdresser Katarzyna (second from right), who fled to Poznan with her two children, opened a free haircut course to express gratitude for Tzu Chi’s assistance.|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

Another Ukrainian hairdresser, Katarzyna, who is battling cancer, also found solace and purpose through Tzu Chi. In 2023, she fled to Poznan with her two children and received aid from the foundation. Grateful for their help, Katarzyna began offering free haircut classes, becoming a beauty instructor to assist others in need.

For Katarzyna, each day is a gift. She works alongside Maryna, using their skills and love to bring hope and support to those in need. Despite her illness, Katarzyna continues to volunteer at haircut events, often with a smile, cutting hair for the elderly and children.

“This is the last thing I can do. I hope this love can continue to spread,” says Katarzyna (left), undeterred by illness, steadfast in teaching haircutting skills to Ukrainian women.|Photo courtesy of Monica Chang

“This is the last thing I can do, and I hope this love will continue to spread,” said Katarzyna. Her story touches everyone involved, demonstrating the power of life and the limitless possibilities of love.

A volunteer’s act of kindness has lit up a young boy’s future. No matter how challenging life gets, love can create miracles. Max’s story is just the beginning of such a miracle. His programming dreams are slowly becoming a reality, bringing new hope to him and his family.

With volunteers like Maryna and Katarzyna passing the torch of love, more people are feeling the power of kindness. This love will continue to spread, warming the hearts of those in need.

Tzu Chi volunteers in Poznan have shown through their actions that the cycle of goodwill can expand, making society better. Every person helped can become the brightest beacon of hope, reigniting the light in lives overshadowed by darkness.