The boy’s pale swollen face is emotionless, his one eye is half-closed — the result of a recent street fight — and he answers questions reluctantly.
Vitalik has no parents and has lived most of his 18 years between the tough conditions of state-run orphanages and the dubious comforts of a runaway’s street freedom.
Now too old for orphanages, during the day he takes odd jobs at a local farmer’s market and spends the evenings in the company of other street kids. He says they “just spend time together” — this could mean various illegal activities: pickpocketing at a local train station, petty theft at the market, drug abuse.
Vitalik and his friends don’t know anything about Jews, and in fact they do not care much. But twice a week they look for a white bus decorated with Hebrew, Russian and English words where they can get some food: a sandwich, some fruit and a can of juice, all packaged in a white plastic bag.
The 24-foot-long bus that has cruised the night streets of Dnepropetrovsk for more than two years is believed to be one-of-a-kind Jewish-run operation in the former Soviet Union.
The idea for the Wheels for Life bus came from Adina Moskowitz of Great Neck, N.Y., while on a trip to Ukraine.
The bus was purchased and operates with funds raised from the Joseph Papp Memorial Fund, a project of Tzivos Hashem, an affiliate of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement that works with children. Most of the money comes from the American theater community.
In Dnepropetrovsk, Tzivos Hashem runs a hub for its activity in the former Soviet Union.
A plaque mounted on a wall inside the bus says the operation honors the memory of the Jewish children of Ukraine who perished during the Holocaust.
Yossi Glick, the young Australian-born rabbi who directs Tzivos Hashem operations in the region, says the needs are much greater than what his organization can provide.
Since the fall of communism, children in the former Soviet Union have suffered greatly as the region has undergone drastic economic changes.
When the bus operation was started over two years ago, Glick and other Jewish officials in this community thought that it would help them to find Jewish youths among hundreds of street children who were believed to live on the streets of the third-largest city in Ukraine.
Those few children with Jewish roots who were located through the food-distribution operation were taken to the local Jewish home for children run by Tzivos Hashem.
But Glick said even with many thousands of families in the region that were hit hard by economic problems, drug abuse or alcoholism, Jewish children remain a rarity on the street.
“Perhaps one in every 400 street kids is Jewish,” he said, adding that Jewish youths from problem homes rarely find themselves on the street even if they do not have a functional family any more. “They are usually picked up by older relatives,” he said.
But there are a lot of non-Jewish children who are homeless.
About 60 percent of street kids in the city are believed to have drug problems — most often they abuse substances such as glue and other chemicals.
“Children sleep in sewers, boiler rooms, on train stations. Some don’t go home often because their parents have alcohol problems,” Glick said.
One recent evening, Tanya, 15, ate her food package inside the Wheels for Life bus. She has been on the street for more than a year, since she was raped by her alcoholic stepfather, she says.
Many of the street children are runaways from state-run orphanages that are infamous for bad living conditions, inadequate nutrition and hazing by older children and personnel.
As the state-run foster care system improves, city social workers have taken advantage of the Bus for Life program. Every time the bus goes out, it has two social workers on board whose task is to try to bring youths back to the institutions and to see if any of the youths require medical care.
“The city was very excited when we started this program,” Glick says.
Among those who apparently welcomed the idea was the local police department. Police often patrol the streets, open-air markets and train stations for street kids.
“We reached a sort of agreement with the police that they don’t touch the kids while they are in or near the bus,” Glick said.
A few months ago, the police broke their word and stormed inside the bus, taking some of the children to a police station.
Glick said it scared the kids away from the bus for many weeks, and there were nights when no children would come to the bus after the incident. Only recently have some of the children begun to return.
Glick believes there will be large demand for the bus operation in the years to come.
“The orphanage system is getting a lot better lately, though it is still not great. Even if it was great, children wouldn’t go there. You can’t smoke in the orphanage, you have to go to school and do your homework.”
Those children who want to can eat their package on the bus — the bus has special perimeter bench seats to create a sense of coziness. But some youths prefer to grab their packages and leave. Glick said they would prefer if the youths eat everything on the bus, because older children sometimes take the food away from the younger ones on the street.
Valentina, a social worker with the municipality who went with the bus on a recent evening, said 20 to 40 children get food packages on the bus, which runs two evenings a week and makes stops at places known for large concentrations of street kids.
She said this was the only such charity effort in the entire city of 1.3 million and that she is not that surprised that the Jewish community started this project for non-Jews.
“They told us they were doing this to say thank you to those Ukrainians who saved Jews” during World War II, Valentina said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.