The story of Yana: Abandoned, rescued, and now victorious

by Willie Gendke on January 29, 2015 in Great Commandment

When Leroy and Willie Gendke signed up to deliver containers of humanitarian aid to Ukraine with Texas Baptist Men, they did not realize God would have a child with a cleft palate waiting for them. Willie shares the remarkable journey that has taken place over the last 18 years as she has learned to care for her daughter, Yana, and watched her defy odds and become a victor at the 2014 National Speakers' Tournament.

Yana was born in Latugeno, Ukraine and abandoned in the hospital. She had a severe cleft palate and lip. When I found her, she was 6-weeks-old and had lost more than half her birth weight.

The nurses did not assist her in taking a bottle, but merely put it in her mouth and left her to fend for herself. When I first saw her, she was crying. The pediatrician picked up Yana and held her out to me saying, "Why don't you take her?"

At first, I honestly didn't know what to say, but God put it upon my heart do just that. Those first few months were really difficult. With her face open, there was no way Yana could take milk from a bottle without also taking in a lot of air. That caused colic and projectile vomiting.

I had no provisions for a baby, or at least that's what I thought. I had brought Yana home from the hospital wrapped in a towel from my bathroom. Each time she would start to cry, I would feed her. I had absolutely no experience with a cleft baby.

Fast forward a couple of years and we're trying to get her adopted there so we could bring her home. The adoption center, which handled all adoptions in Ukraine, was being very uncooperative.

I had an extensive e-mail following and was keeping everyone stateside informed of what was going on. One of the people on that email list just happened to belong to the same church that President Bill Clinton did and was a personal friend of his. This person asked President Clinton if he could help. I knew nothing about this at that time. Instead of hindering us from adopting her, we now became the subject of several TV news stories as well as articles in the national newspapers touting how great we were and how we were helping the orphans in the country.

Once back in the states, God provided doctors and hospitals to meet her needs. And the surgeries began.

When Yana was in the fourth grade, she wanted to do Bible Drill. At that time, most people still couldn't understand much of what she said, although she had been in speech therapy for five years. Nevertheless, she competed and won all the way to regionals (the highest for children), where she made a perfect score. Each year after that, she has made it to the highest level possible.

Then came Speakers' Tournament. She'd been in speech therapy for 11 years by that time and still had major problems with articulation. Even after many surgeries, her palate was still not completely closed, allowing air to escape at the wrong time. Nevertheless, she made it to state, but didn't place – her scores in articulation were really low, though her scores in content were very high. The same thing happened the second year. However, in January 2013 before contests began in April, Yana had a major surgery. She was in the operating room for eight hours and 45 minutes.

At the end of that surgery, the doctors wired her mouth shut and left it like that for nine weeks. Ten days before the first competition, her jaws were cut loose. While this was great, there was still the problem with learning to talk again with an almost entirely new mouth. Once again, at the state contest, her scores on content were very high, while her scores on articulation were low.

Determined to win state in 2014, as soon as the topics for the speeches were posted, Yana chose hers and wrote her speech. Then the real work began. Each week her speech therapist would make a list of words that needed correcting. About halfway through the year, we decided to try to find synonyms for the words she was still having major problems with and to just re-write other parts. An example is the word church. She was only hitting that word correctly about 20 percent of the time. So, we changed it to Sunday school. Just before the competitions were to begin, the speech therapist pronounced that every word in the speech was articulated correctly.

At state this year, one of the judges gave her a 100 percent on articulation. I don't think I've ever seen Yana happier in her entire life. Not just that she won, but that she actually managed to stay on target and get each and every word correct.

Qualifying to compete at nationals and winning was just icing on the cake. Winning State was the real prize for her. She said that was her goal, she put in hours of hard work, and she won.

It has been a long, long road. But God is good. Yana knows that He has been there every step of the way for her. Her speech was written based on her life and her beliefs.

No one should be afraid to follow God when He invites them to join Him in His work. He will do the heavy lifting, we just have to obey.

To see Yana's full speech and to learn more about Bible Drill and Speakers' Tournament, visit

Read more articles in: Great Commandment, Bible Drill and Speakers Tournament


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