Yaroslav Bilenkyi was showing off the different prizes, medals, and awards his sports club had recently won. Although the club was relatively new, the Wall of Fame at the local church would soon be too small for their numerous certificates, medals, and diplomas.

“Of course, I’m proud of every achievement of my team,” says Yaroslav. “But first of all, this is a testimony of God’s grace and miraculous intervention in my life, for it could have taken a completely different turn in 2016.”

This young man has lived a life of extreme contrasts. Yaroslav’s past includes poverty, hunger, a drug-addicted mother, and total hopelessness. And yet today he is a God-fearing Christian, husband, successful coach and sports ministry leader. The gap between these two lifestyles is dramatic, and if not for HART’s Education Fund, this transformation may not have been possible.

Against all odds
Yaroslav is the oldest son in a family of three boys. Their father was an alcoholic and passed away when the kids were too small to remember him. Eight family members were living in a tiny dilapidated house; Yaroslav’s brothers, his Mom, grandparents, and two uncles. All the adults except for one were alcoholics. His mother was also a drug addict, had AIDS, mental disorders, and a liver condition.

The only person who set an excellent example for the boys was their grandfather – a man with a kind and loving heart. However, due to his old age and poor health, he couldn’t properly take care of the boys since he needed care and nursing himself.

Lubar, a small provincial city in central Ukraine, had little future to offer a young boy like Yaroslav. Many of its teenagers were involved in drugs and the crimes that are associated with it. This future seemed the most plausible for three sons of a drug-addicted mother from a poverty-stricken dysfunctional family. But God was merciful towards them while they were still kids and protected them from getting caught up in a sinful life.

It all began because of a small Evangelical church in Lubar. The Bilenkyi brothers became acquainted with some youngsters from the church and started attending services and Sunday School classes.

God and the church family became the only anchors that kept Yaroslav and his brothers from going astray and following in their parent’s footsteps. Little did Yaroslav know that God had a plan for him – to make him an instrument for transforming the lives of dozens of teenagers in his own city and region.

Education Fund scholarship
When Yaroslav first applied for an Education Fund scholarship in 2016, he shared his aspirations with HART. “I want to become a preacher and bring people to God through my work and ministry. I also love sports and am passionate about starting a sports club for teenagers in my region. It would be my dream to one day be able to spread the Good News and share the love of Christ with teenagers and street kids.”

Prior to this, he had graduated from a technical vocational school as a welder. However, he wasn’t passionate about being a welder. The three years at vocational school was a period of spiritual decline and reevaluation of Yaroslav’s faith. Although he wasn’t attending church regularly, this time of spiritual crisis and solitude eventually strengthened his convictions that there is no real life without Jesus.

After finishing his vocational training, he was now on fire for the Lord and began thinking about starting a Christian sports club for teenagers in his hometown. Yaroslav had always been a good athlete from his early years in school. In 2015, upon returning home, he started a small sports ministry called ‘Strongboys’ designed for teenagers and street kids. In 2016, Yaroslav was baptized and became a member of his church.

However, he soon realized that physical exercise alone doesn’t help youth whose lives are broken and in need of healing, whose families were falling apart and were facing countless temptations as they approached the doorsteps of adulthood.

Yaroslav decided to build his sports club on the foundation of God’s Word and its message of Salvation. He was witnessing and preaching to the boys, but soon felt that God was calling him to Bible College. He believed this would help him lead this ministry more effectively.

In 2016, Yaroslav decided on the college and chose ‘Pastoral Ministry’ as his major. But he and his family had no money to help make this dream come true. His mother, in addition to her existing diseases, was now diagnosed with cancer. Soon after, she developed gangrene.

Yaroslav needed to spend what little savings the family had, on medicines and expensive treatments for his Mom. Even his grandfather’s meagre pension was required to help save his mother’s life.

During this critical situation, Yaroslav applied for and was successful in receiving a HART Education scholarship. This became a pivotal moment in his Christian life and ministry.

Becoming a leader
In 2018 Yaroslav graduated from the Bible college and came back to his home church and ministry. With renewed vigor and a fresh vision, he poured his life into developing the ‘Strongboys’ club. He formed a team of four coaches and invited more than 40 boys from his city and region aged from 7 to 20. By 2019, the ‘Strongboys’ had quickly become one of the most popular social sports clubs in the region.

After the Bible college, Yaroslav modified the club’s purpose and now pays more attention to the spiritual growth of the team. Every week, he holds Bible study and prayer meetings and uses his knowledge gained at the Bible college to mentor the boys and preach God’s Word to them more effectively.

Soon Yaroslav’s suffering mother passed away. However, God blessed him with a new family. He met Diana, a musician and worship team leader, and six months later they were married. She is very active in church ministry and helps Yaroslav with his sports club. He also adopted his youngest brother Taras, who is now in grade nine.

“Thanks to HART, I was able to get more than just an education,” Yaroslav says. “I regained hope! This scholarship was proof that God wanted me in ministry. During our financial crisis and a difficult family situation, it would have been easy to give up on my dream. But through generous sponsors in Canada and the US, I got a chance to change my life and gain knowledge that now helps me change the lives of others.”

Today, Yaroslav’s sports ministry is remarkably fruitful, with many teenagers coming to know the Lord. “I am passionate about helping every boy develop the character of a winner, with an unbreakable, yet humble spirit, who sets and reaches goals, and gives all praise to God alone!”

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