Missouri Mom Travels Half a World Away to Help 31 Orphans Escape from Ukraine

"I did not breathe a sigh of relief until they were across the border," Wendy Farrell tells PEOPLE

As Russia's ongoing attack on Ukraine began, Wendy Farrell stayed alert from afar.

With her husband Ryan, the mother of five, of Springfield, Missouri, had adopted a daughter from Ukraine in 2013. She later built a bond with a Christian orphanage outside of Lviv, in western Ukraine, collecting money and clothes for them stateside but also escorting friends and family on trips over to engage with those she affectionately calls her "kiddos."

"We wanted to be a family, and that is what we have cultivated," she tells PEOPLE.

War would put those children in peril, she feared — and her fears were jolted to life Feb. 23 as she readied for bed, stopped cold by news reports from seven time zones away blaring that Russia's assault had begun in eastern Ukraine as the orphans slept. She jumped onto the Facebook page of 1U Project, the charitable organization she founded in 2015 to help Ukrainian orphans.

"It has started," she wrote of the war. "We need to pray."

She did more than that. Within 24 hours Farrell had a plane ticket for travel to Poland. Plans she'd hatched with leaders of Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Springfield, which sponsors her work, converged with those of Nikolay Shagarov — director of Children's Path, an orphanage outside outside Lviv and the main beneficiary of Farrell's patronage — to ferry the children to safety.

Wendy Farrell is an American mother who adopted a daughter from Ukraine
Wendy Farrell with some of the Ukrainian orphans that she helped flee to Poland. Maciek Nabrdalik

The war was unfolding hundreds of miles away at the time, but as home to a military base, Lviv was a possible target. A bus owned by the orphanage was fueled up; the children already had packed small bags for the trip. Six days into the war, Shagarov won government approval to take 31 orphans, ages 2 to 17, out of the country. The 300-mile journey on roads clogged by other evacuees took 10 hours, but the children spontaneously broke into song as they neared and then entered neighboring Poland, reaching Krakow on March 2, one day ahead of Farrell and her small band of welcoming Americans.

"I did not breathe a sigh of relief," Farrell says, "until they were across the border."

For more on Ukraine — including UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Orlando Bloom's travels to meet with refugees — pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

Now among the more than 2 million children who have fled Ukraine, according to refugee experts, the orphans of Children's Path are staying temporarily in a summer camp dorm an hour south of Krakow. Farrell and those who assist her nonprofit are there to offer smiles, hugs and hoped-for familiarity rooted in their many prior visits to see and play with the kids, while also seeking U.S. visas to provide them a longer-term place of refuge if needed.

"I feel more comfortable because I know these people," says Leah, a 15-year-old who lived at Children's Path. (The group asked that no last names be used.) Of Farrell, Shagarov adds: "She has a huge heart."

Wendy Farrell is an American mother who adopted a daughter from Ukraine
Leah, 15, one of the orphans displaced by war from Children's Path home outside of Lviv, Ukraine. Maciek Nabrdalik

But Farrell is not overseeing an adoption pipeline to the U.S.; she wants to support the Ukrainian children in their homeland, to help them learn to break cycles of abuse and neglect that put them in the orphanage in the first place. At their emotional reunion in Krakow, "we were grieving for what was lost, and entering this in-between, and knowing that life will probably never be the same," she says. "But also thankful that we were together, and we were safe."

Farrell, 39, started on her path after following the blog posts of a family friend who was adopting a teen from Ukraine. Through them, she learned of another girl, who at 15 was on the cusp of aging out of Ukraine's orphan-care system and hoping to find a family.

"I just felt like God was telling me we were supposed to adopt her," Farrell says.

Her husband agreed, and they brought home Alona, now 24, in 2013 after a month spent with her in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, treating her like the tourist she'd never been in her own land.

"Through her," Farrell says, "we fell in love with her country."

Six months later Russia overtook Crimea, fueling Farrell's concern about the high stakes now. In addition to supplies delivered to Children's Path on Farrell-led trips three times a year, 1U Project's American volunteers assist her with summer camps and other activities, and bring orphans to the U.S. for eight-week exchange programs to spend time with families that Farrell recruits.

"The only picture they've really had of families is traumatic," says Farrell. "We want them to see what a loving structure looks like so when they grow up, they know how to be good parents to their own children."

Wendy Farrell is an American mother who adopted a daughter from Ukraine
Wendy Farrell serves a meal April 5 at the dorm outside of Krakow, Poland, where she has helped to temporarily house orphan refugees from Ukraine. Maciek Nabrdalik

Shielding them from the trauma now unfolding in their own country is a more urgent goal.

"When I think about unknowns in the future, I feel a little bit scared," says Myroslav, 17, another teen who lived at Children's Path.

Lena, a 26-year-old caregiver at the orphanage who fled with the group, says of the children: "When we told them about traveling to Poland, for the little kids it was like a little journey. But I also saw fear. Every time our distance grows, we feel like we left our hearts in Ukraine."

But she adds, "We knew we would meet our friends [in Poland]. It made us more peaceful."

After one night spent in a Krakow hotel, and a few more nights split among Airbnbs, the group learned about the dorm space from a Polish restaurant owner who overheard their Ukrainian accents and offered his help. For now the space is free but short-term. (Through connections back in Lviv, they've learned that Children's Path being used as a safe house for other refugees fleeing the country.)

With the youngest children now enrolled in a local school in Poland, the oldest still receive lessons over spotty internet from teachers in Ukraine. Basketball, volleyball and snowball fights fill off-hours, offering distractions from a reality that worries more than just the children. "If we can go home," says Shagarov, the orphanage director, "will my home still be there?"

Farrell won't permit herself that thought. "These children are like extended family to me," she says. "I don't know when, but I believe one day they'll be able to go home."

To support 1U Project's Ukrainian orphan relocation effort, visit 1Uproject.org.

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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