By Wendy Killeen,
When the call for help came in 2010, John Callahan answered.
Manna Worldwide, a Christian group based in Texas, contacted the Hope Community Church in Newburyport seeking tradespeople to help build an orphanage in Ukraine.
“I happen to be an electrician, so I called and said ‘I do wire, will that ” help?’ recalled Callahan, who lives in the Byfield section of Newbury and is a member of the church.
He traveled to Kiev with 24 other men, and over eight days they began turning a shell of a building into an orphanage for teens ages 16 to 19.
Callahan, 61, assistant chief engineer for the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, used his experience overseeing infrastructure projects to lead the construction and wiring for the house.
Last month, he returned to Kiev. “The house was close to completion and they needed one more push and a little electrical work,” he said. “So, away I went.”
He and three other men finished the building, known as the Smile House – Bridge to Life Home.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Callahan. “It’s roomy, airy, and bright and in a great neighborhood.” It will house about 30 orphans, he said.
In Ukraine, Callahan said, children age out of state orphanages at 16 and are “dismissed to the street.”
The statistics are tragic, he said, with more than 30 percent committing suicide and many getting involved with drugs, crime, and prostitution. They end up living in sewers, storm drains, and abandoned buildings.
“Many of them are social orphans,” he said. “Their parents may be alive but alcohol and drugs are a huge problem. And some parents have abandoned their children to take work elsewhere in Europe.”
On his first trip, Callahan and the other men visited a state-run orphanage. “Dickensian is just the word for it,” he said. “The place hadn’t been upgraded since the 1900s. It was primitive stuff. I was stunned.”
He said the children “were just delighted to have someone come and visit them. One little girl latched onto me and had to be pried off my leg when we were leaving. She was saying ‘Take me with you.’ That took a little getting over. There wasn’t a dry eye in the bus coming back.”
The Smile House is quite the opposite. It includes a kitchen, laundry room, library, recreation room, and computer lab. There will be house parents. The teen residents will be required to continue their studies in a trade or academics.
“I had a great time,” said Callahan of his second trip to Kiev. “No tears this time. We didn’t see anything particularly horrific, but saw things that could use changing. And everyone was happy to be together and have work to do in the name of the Lord.”
Bob Johnson, chief of engineering operations at the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad, said a lot of employees help charities but Callahan’s effort went beyond most.
“It’s humbling that someone would give of their own personal time and money to travel and help unfortunate people in any part of the world, let alone Russia,” Johnson said. “He’s quite a guy.
“John is a renaissance man. He’s very intellectual and well-read. He doesn’t have a TV. He is always out. He is always brainstorming and has a great sense of humor.”
He is also a husband, father, and grandfather.
Chris Schallawitz, one of the Texans who traveled to Ukraine with Callahan to work on the Smile House, said, “John is a unique guy and it was a tremendous blessing to have him on the trip. Everything in Ukraine is wired differently. It was refreshing to have somebody there who knew what he was doing. He figured out a lot of electrical problems.
“And he’s a great guy and a comedian,” Schallawitz said. “I’m looking forward to going on more trips with him.”
Callahan said the project in the Ukraine is complete, but he would consider other trips.
“There’s a lot not to love on earth,” he said. “And nobody can fix everything, but if everybody fixed something, things would be a lot better.”
This story was originally posted at http://www.boston.com/yourtown/2012/09/12/byfield-man-uses-his-skills-electrician-help-build-orphanage-ukraine/m6fHnoidJ83yhfVjrpmLvL/story.html