Ukrainian pastor Oleg Shaykevch, left, poses for a picture with Linda Bunk on her mission trip to Estonia in October 2014.
Ukrainian pastor Oleg Shaykevch, left, poses for a picture with Linda Bunk on her mission trip to Estonia in October 2014. (HANDOUT)

Linda Bunk, of Finksburg, grew up with Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder, and ADHD — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Her childhood was not an easy one, she said, but now, she is using her experiences to help others. Bunk gives lectures at her church, Mount Airy Bible Church in Mount Airy, as well as nursing homes, orphanages and churches in the Ukraine and once in Estonia. She talks about growing up with Asperger's syndrome, bipolar disorder and ADHD and how she has accepted all of these issues as part of who she is.

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Bunk's sister, Lannette Rice, said Bunk tries to teach children that their challenges do not define them. Because of what her sister has gone through, Rice said, Bunk is more accepting of — and can better relate to — others.

Bunk said she used to self-harm because of her bipolar disorder. Even though she stopped, the scars remain. When people ask her about the scars, she tells them that she put them there herself, Bunk said. The scars tell a story of something that can be overcome and shows others that there is a way out of their problems, Bunk said.

"She tells people she has a mental illness. She's very forward about it, which surprises people at first," Coakley said.

Bunk said she gives people advice on how to manage mental, cognitive and behavioral issues. She counsels both people dealing with these issues and their families.

Mental illnesses cannot be treated the same way as something like a heart condition, Bunk said, because sometimes people with a mental illness do not want to be helped and do not take responsibility for their illness. There is also a stigma surrounding mental illness, which makes it difficult for people to be open about it, she said.

Beyond the Unites States, Bunk does more than just lecture. She became involved with mission trips to the Ukraine through her church in 2010. With a Bachelor's degree in visual and performance arts from University of Maryland, Baltimore County and a Master of Fine Arts in photography and digital imaging from the Maryland Institute College of Art, she originally started out behind the camera, taking pictures of the people she met and giving them the photos as gifts.

"She was taking pictures of these kids and the kids were so excited of the pictures of themselves that she made them albums," said Kim Coakley, Bunk's friend of 20 years.

It gave the children in the Ukrainian orphanages she visited a feeling of self-worth that someone would want to take their picture and then give it to them, Coakley said.

However, her trips quickly evolved to include more than just photography. Not only does she go to the Ukraine independently to speak about her experiences with mental, cognitive and behavioral disorders, but she also fundraises to provide clothes, toiletries, toys for the kids, and bulk groceries for people who cannot afford these things. As a part of her mission to help people in the Ukraine, Bunk, Rice and her sister's husband, Jim Rice, founded the nonprofit Operation Save a Child in December 2012.

But, Bunk said, the most important thing that she can give to the people she meets in the Ukraine is the knowledge that someone cares about them through human contact, a cup of tea or a picture with them.

"The biggest thing is just spending time with them ... hugging them," Bunk said, adding that personal contact with other people is difficult for someone like her who has Asperger's.

Beverly Mey, Bunk's mom, said she is proud of the work Bunk is doing for others. But she remembers a time when social interaction wasn't always so pleasant for Bunk.

As a child, Bunk was teased and bullied in school because of her mental and developmental issues, Mey said.

"People just didn't understand, and she looked a bit different, and she acted a bit different and she couldn't sit still," Mey said.

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Krissy Cook, Bunks friend, said some people still judge her based on their preconceptions.

"Some people don't take the opportunity to get to know her because of her [medical issues]," Cook said.

But Cook said her funny, junk-food loving, big-hearted friend is worth getting to know.

Bunk does not always think the same way as everybody else, and she sees things that other people miss, Cook said.

"She's definitely very detail-oriented. She can walk into a room and tell you everything about everyone in the room," Cook said.

Bunk said her attention to the details that other people glaze over helps her take better pictures.

"A lot of people with Asperger's see the trees before the forest because they see the details more than other people," Bunk said.

She would not be the photographer she is, Bunk said, if not for her Asperger's, because it allows her to focus on those details.

"She just has a gift for catching something deeper in her photos," Coakley said of the despair lined in the elderly people's faces in Ukrainian nursing homes captured by Bunk's photography.

Pastor Wally Webster, of Mount Airy Bible Church, said that about 15 or 20 years ago Bunk was a very different person than she is today.

Bunk went from sitting in the back of the church where she would not talk to anybody to the front of the church where she has stood several times to share her testimony, Webster said.

"When I first met her she wouldn't look at anybody — you couldn't touch her, could barely get close to her," Coakley said.

One day, Coakley said, when Bunk was visiting at her house, she looked over and her son was sitting on Bunk's lap with his hand wrapped around her hair. Coakley was so amazed, she said, because that kind of human contact was unfathomable for Bunk at that time. Bunk continued to expand her circle of people she would talk to — from children, to families within the church to families outside of the church, Coakley said.

Before Bunk became who she is now, Webster said, she was consumed by making herself better, but now her heart goes out to other people.

"Reaching out to others and talking about overcoming disability is her biggest mission," Cook said.

Coakley said Bunk has found her purpose in life: helping others.

In September, Bunk will be returning to the Ukraine for a six to eight month trip during which she will be able to continue building connections with people.

"It's amazing where she is right now compared to where she was when I met her," Coakley said.

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