Churches throughout West Orange County were sharing the news Sunday about a locally based mission group that is concentrating all its efforts on sheltering and caring for some of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Ukraine after last week’s Russian invasion.
Mission 823 works with Ukrainian orphans and at-risk children — but last week its mission changed suddenly when the Donbas War escalated, sending residents of the Eastern European country scrambling for shelter and safety.
Shawn and Amy Sullivan created Mission 823 as a nonprofit in 2018, but they have been dedicating their life to the country and its people for decades. The former Ocoee residents, who now live in Clermont, started the mission after Shawn Sullivan accompanied an acquaintance on a trip to Ukraine in 1995, a journey that changed his life, he said.
“We had been working with orphans and refugees from the war on a lower scale because, obviously, it wasn’t a nationwide crisis at that point,” Shawn Sullivan said. “The Donbas War has been going on for eight years. We’ve been receiving children at our youth camps who have been traumatized. Refugees’ children have come to our camps.”
The Sullivans felt called to Eastern Europe and took a great leap of faith to move there with their two children. They lived in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, catering to the needs of the country’s least fortunate children.
“It’s expanded over the last 18 years … to get to the point where we focused all our work on Ukraine,” Shawn Sullivan said.
The Sullivans named their organization Mission 823 after Psalms 82:3-4: “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Shawn Sullivan serves as CEO and president, and Amy Sullivan is the CFO. He handles the field work, and she works in the office. They have a much larger team in Ukraine, and they are in contact daily.”
Shawn Sullivan travels to Ukraine six or eight times a year and was last there Thursday, Feb. 24 — the day Russia began its attack. He got out just before the chaos began.
“Immediately after I finished that team trip, I got home, and the war started almost immediately nationwide,” he said. “That’s when we started to pivot almost immediately to refugee transport and shelter. We’re providing food and shelter and water and anything else they need. Transport to the border when possible; transport from dangerous areas to our safe location in the west.”
Worried about his friends who are like family, he hopes to return as soon as possible.
“We’ll wait until the conflict subsides, at least to a scenario where we feel it is safe to travel,” he said. “We’ll return with triage and relief teams almost immediately.”
Long-term support will be needed, Shawn Sullivan said.
“Almost everything we need in the humanitarian supply chain is available at the western borders where Ukraine meets Europe … so if we need clothing, furniture, household goods, we have access to container goods,” he said. “Right now, we need funding for a few things that are absolutely critical right now.”
Funding is crucial to continue the humanitarian efforts, and monetary donations will help in three ways, he said. Establishing a trust fund in the hands of Ukrainian staff members will allow them to continue caring for and feeding the refugees. It costs about $5,000 per month to support two facilities, which currently are full. Mission 823 has two smaller vehicles but is in need of two passenger vans, priced at about $16,000 each, so they can shuttle more people to safety. The third immediate need is to have enough money to finish construction on a 4,000-square-foot home in the Carpathian region of western Ukraine. It originally was designated for orphan children but now will be used to house refugees.
“We need about $4,000 or $5,000 to finish the home, and then we can allow refugees to come and stay with us,” Shawn Sullivan said.
“We need people to pray and support,” he said. “This is going to be a very, very long recovery, years. This has literally changed the face of Ukraine, and I will spend the rest of my life helping with recovery.
“I’ve given my life to Ukraine, so the people we're talking about, we love these people, we’ve given our life to them,” Shawn Sullivan said.
The nonprofit’s original mission was working with orphans and at-risk youth in Eastern Europe. About 15,000 children age out of the orphanage system annually. Of those, 60% of the girls will enter into prostitution, 70% of the boys will turn to crime to survive and 10% of these children will commit suicide, according to Mission 823.
About 106,000 children currently live in more than 750 state institutions, and another 800,000 children are refugees from the war zone, according to the website. All of these youth are at high risk and with limited opportunities, making them more susceptible to human trafficking.
Community Editor Amy Quesinberry was born at the old West Orange Memorial Hospital and raised in Winter Garden. Aside from earning her journalism degree from the University of Georgia, she hasn’t strayed too far from her hometown and her three-mile bubble. She grew up reading The Winter Garden Times and knew in the eighth grade she wanted to write for her community newspaper. She has been part of the writing and editing team since 1990.