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Family photo
Missionary Charlene Lee, center, presents a seminar on strengthening families in Poltava, Ukraine, in May 2008.

The meeting did not go as expected.

Mormon humanitarian missionaries Brent and Charlene Lee thought that the Ukrainian official would be excited about their plans for another international conference on foster care and orphans. Not only would this conference help several countries, but it would also be great public relations for the LDS Church.

But the official wasn't interested. She had a new mandate from the president of Ukraine.

In Ukraine 2006 to 2008

Brent Lee was an oral surgeon. Charlene Lee was a psychologist — a marriage and family therapist.

Ukraine was the Lees' third foray into humanitarian work. Their first mission was in Bolivia for Deseret International and focused on Brent sharing his dental knowledge and skills.

Indonesia was a similar mission, this time for the LDS Church. In Indonesian villages, crowds would line up for help from the Lees.

Things were more complicated in Kiev, Ukraine. People did not line up for their help, but in some ways the need was greater.

Figuring out how to meet that need was a challenge.

Ukraine officials had seen what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had done for Bulgaria's foster-care system and wanted similar help to reduce the number of children in orphanages. As the country directors for the LDS Church's humanitarian work in Ukraine (which included three missions), the Lees, of Pocatello, Idaho, facilitated the project.

First, Nadia Komaroba, the deputy minister that oversaw foster care for Ukraine, spent a week in Salt Lake City becoming acquainted with Utah's foster-care system. Then, the Lees helped organize an international conference on foster care. Six countries participated.

"As far as we know, it was the first international humanitarian conference done by the church in our area," Charlene said.

"And it was wonderfully successful."

They began to plan a larger conference on foster care for the next year.

Identifying the real need

One night, the Lees were thinking about the work they were doing and the challenges Ukrainian families were experiencing.

"Both of us looked at each other at the same time and said, 'We're really not hitting what we should be hitting. If we were strengthening the families in Ukraine we would have no need for foster care, for street children (programs), for any of these other areas because it's the families that need to be strengthened," Charlene said.

She developed 11 topics for a course based in part on LDS Family Services' new manuals, "Strengthening Marriage" and "Strengthening the Family." The Lees began teaching the "Strengthening the Family" classes to members of the LDS Church.

But other Ukrainian families also needed strengthening.

"Nobody in Ukraine, as a family, knows how to play together," Charlene said.

"There is an awful lot of drinking among the adult population. They drink and they watch a lot of TV," Brent said. "They follow their soccer."

The Lees' mission was to end in December 2007, but the LDS Church's Eastern European Area president asked them to extend their mission for another year.

A new mandate

The Lees visited with Komaroba to begin to schedule and organize the second international conference on foster care and orphans. Komaroba, however, explained that those above her were no longer interested in the foster-care conference. The president of Ukraine had a new mandate"Strengthen the family."

Charlene was in shock. "Really?" she asked.

"Yes," Komaroba said.

Charlene couldn't believe it.

"I know that you did a training last year on strengthening the family," Komaroba said, according to Charlene. "I wasn't interested. But boy am I interested in it now."

"What would you like me to do?" Charlene asked.

Komaroba flipped a piece of paper down in front of Brent and Charlene. On it were the names of 10 cities.

"I will set it up. I want you to go to all these cities and teach seminars on strengthening the family to all kinds of people — government officials, case workers, social care workers, educators, psychologists," Komaroba said. "And we'll partner together."

The Lees spent 2008 giving those seminars.

"I think the president (of Ukraine) was impressed by Heavenly Father just the same way as many people are impressed — that it's really important that you strengthen the family," Charlene said. "My dream was to do these projects to strengthen families. Never did I think it would ever happen."

A new 'mission'

At one strengthening the family seminar, a woman raised her hand and asked Charlene, "You've told us what to do with the kids, what about my husband?"

"Honey, that's a whole new seminar," Charlene replied.

The woman came up after the seminar to talk with her. "Do you really have a seminar on marriage?"

"I do."

"Would you come here and give it?"

"Only if I am invited."

An invitation came. Government officials liked what they saw and asked for more. Even though their official humanitarian mission has been completed, the Lees will make several return trips to Ukraine with help from the church.

They presented the first seminar on May 19.

"It went very well," Charlene wrote in an e-mail. "The participants were very receptive and positive."

The Lees will return in October and February for a total of about 15 seminars in 14 cities in Ukraine, Armenia and Russia.

Just like in the remote villages in Indonesia, people in Ukraine are lining up for help from a few humanitarian missionaries from the LDS Church.