The past 10 days have been some of the best in my Peace Corps service. I participated in a 7 day leadership camp for 60 Ukrainian children with HIV/AIDs. These children came from all over the county with the hope of being surrounded in a unique environment…a Ukrainian environment devoid of sigma and discrimination for their positive status.
Unbelievably, this type of camp is unique in Ukraine. It not only provides an opportunity for these kids to be surrounded by love, but they are also surrounded by their peers who struggle with the same difficulties in life. In addition, the camp curriculum provides daily group sessions with a youth physiologist and specialist doctor. This structure seems simple and obvious, but the effect it had on the mentality of these kids was anything but simple and obvious.
The camp staff consisted of about 10 American Peace Corps volunteers and 10 Ukrainian volunteers. As an international pair, each of us were responsible for the daily schedule of about 5-10 kids. In addition, each region of Ukraine that had kids attend the camp also had a social worker stay with them throughout the seven days. They were responsible for making sure the kids took their medicine everyday, exactly at their scheduled times as well as participate in trainings of their own that the camp administration organized.
I cannot post photos of the kids or our activities in order to keep their identities private, but I can assure you they were some of the cutest I’ve seen. Of course they ran wild, got in trouble and did silly things, but these kids were also some of the most grateful and well behaved I have met in Ukraine. They humbled me and I fell in love with each of them. My only disappointment was that none of them lived in my Oblast so I couldn’t keep a close relationship after the camp ended.
Camp OHALOW is now in its fourth year. Without the support of PEPFAR, donations of PCVs’ friends and families and the countless hours of planning by PCVs, Ukrainian social workers and the AUNPLWN, this amazing opportunity would not exist. It makes me so proud to be a PCV, inspired to work in Ukraine and yet sad that such a camp must exist. However, I have found a cause I will support for the rest of my life. I urge you to be aware of it as well.
HIV prevalence by regions in Ukraine (per 100,000 population)
Reported New Cases of HIV in Ukraine, 1987-2012
My namesake and popular Victory Day song. It tells the story of a woman longing for her husband who is off fighting in WWII. After it was written in 1938 it was quickly popularized and as a result became the of the nickname of the BM-8, BM-13, and BM-31 rocket launchers used by the Soviets.
One of my proudest accomplishments while serving in PC Ukraine, was the successful implementation of a bake sale. I know this doesn’t sound like much to be proud of or a reason to validate my 2+ year existence in a small town in Eastern Europe, but it wasn’t just your traditional bake sale and it wasn’t conceived through your traditional methods.
It started and ended with our USAID Small Project Assistance (SPA) grant. As I mentioned in previous posts about SPA, my counterpart Lesia and I wrote and received a $5000 USAID SPA grant to develop the capacity of our local community by building a project resource center and train its users in project management & design (PDM) and fundraising. Both training sessions were successful as we trained almost 100 youth leaders, community members and secondary school administrators & teachers. After that, the hard part started; the inspiration for the actual implementation of their new skills and ideas.
It was April and the last quarter of my service in Ukraine. It was the time to show results and prove the sustainability of all my work through the actions and reactions of my host community. Well, long story short, there was no action and only negative reactions. I felt like my colleagues and trainees were avoiding me so that I didn’t bring up the subject with them. Some encouraged me to extend the project implementation goals to next semester when there would be more time and energy. I was heart broken and felt immensely betrayed; once their personal creativity, energy and motivation were called upon, they wanted nothing to do with the project. They were tired, overworked and underpaid so I understood their perspective but I couldn’t accept it. As a Scandinavian, Axelsen and woman, I am stubborn, but sometimes this dangerous characteristic can have positive results. I wasn’t going to allow the project to fail and if I had already failed inspiring those around me to pursue its benefits, I needed to do something about it.
I didn’t give up on the project’s implementation but I let the topic rest for the better part of the month. I knew the school administration wanted to see results as much as me, but I also didn’t want to tattle-tale on my colleagues as the culprits of why no action had taken place. Finally, after a month of seeing only closed doors of opportunity, I found an open window: the class President, Valeria.
Valeria is a rockstar, brilliant, ambitious and stubborn like me. She was also expected to implement a class project as President and liked the idea of working with me to the same goals. We brainstormed some project ideas but I explained that my resources were exhausted and I needed her help inspiring action and choosing a project. It didn’t matter what we did as long as we used our new PDM and fundraising skills. Within the week, she had her entire student council of almost 50 students asking their teachers if their class could participate in Ms. Katherine’s European Fair!
WOooo! I was stoked!
In the meantime, my teacher colleagues had been tasked by the school administration to celebrate European Union Day on May 19th. Usually, this involves a school concert, a flashy powerpoint show, lots of missed class time for the students and headaches for the teachers. Therefore, we all quickly saw the benefit of working together to reach our common goals: the class president’s yearly project, the teacher’s European Union Day celebration and Lesia and I’s USAID grant project.
Within a fortnight, about 600 students, 70 teachers, 4 European Union volunteers (guests from the Region’s capital), 2 Peace Corps volunteers and 1 Ukrainian counterpart gathered for Specialized School Number 1’s first annual European Union Day Fair. Each of the participating classes represented a country of the European Union and created a booth with traditional food from that country, decorations (and sometimes handicrafts), costumes and a trivia game. Each class had to develop a system of sales and monitoring of their booth so that they could sell their products while also enjoying the fair themselves. The top 3 classes/countries who earned the most money were given prizes of sport equipment from the administration to be used during recess.
The weather was perfect and everybody had a marvelous time. Not only did each class learn about a country in the European Union through hands on experience, but the creativity and marketing skills of the kids completely wow-ed their teachers as well and the fair raised 100x the money that the administration, students and teachers expected. (A bittersweet result since the administration had promised to double whatever the students were able to raise at the fair.) They were speechless by their own success and amazing that the process had been so fun and rewarding.
After the fair, we offered a “Living Library” where kids could take optional lessons from each of our European Union guests and practice their French and German with native speakers. Our German and Belgian volunteers presented their cultures and our two French volunteers presented a special dance lesson and analysis of French sterotypes.
The student government and school administration agreed to use the funds to better the school facade and garden (an idea that originated in our Fundraising Training). They bought 7 new benches with a flower box and spring flowers to match each of them.
I can’t tell you how proud I am of everybody who participated in this project. Not specifically because of the money they made or the successful conclusion report I was able to write to close the grant, but because in the end they amazed themselves and were proud their abilities.
I left the resource center’s future in the trusted hands of my counterpart. She is an amazing woman and I know she will do her best to keep its goals and sustainability alive. However, if its potential fades away, I just hope that one day the project’s participants will remember what they are capable of and believe in themselves to accomplish anything and everything. That possibility makes this bake sale one of my proudest accomplishments in PC Ukraine.
Today, Ukraine and many other post-soviet countries celebrate their 1945 victory over Nazi Germany in WWII or as it is commonly referred to here, The Great Patriot War. This is considered one of the grandest and most important holidays for many Soviet Russians. Recently it has become a more somber event because the number of veterans commemorated each year is drastically decreasing. In my town of Romny, we lost almost half our veterans this year. Only ~20 were present at our memorial event.
There are many symbols that are seen during these memorial events. One of the most prominent is the orange and black striped St. George’s ribbon. This ribbon is often worn on clothes and affixed to cars as a sign of respect and remembrance. The pattern was designed to symbolize fire and gunpowder and is one of the most recognized symbols of military valour in WWII. It was conceived from the Order Of St. George established in 1769 by Catherine the Great as the highest military decoration in the Russian Federation. Red Carnations are often seen at the memorial events to symbolize the red of the Soviet flag and blood of the fallen soldiers. They are always placed in an even number at graves or memorials to symbolize mourning and rememberance. An odd number of flowers always symbolize a celebratory event. Lastly, the Red Star Medal is a military distinction for bravery.
Most memorial events conclude their services with a parade to their eternal flame. Nearly every WWII memorial has an eternal flame near a group statue of soldiers.
Below is a selection of photos showing Victory Day events and Veterans throughout post-soviet countries…
I spent this Easter in my sitemate’s village located about 20 miles from Romny. Our two European volunteer friends who serve in Sumy came to celebrate as well, Peter from Belgium and Marie from Germany.
All in all it was a great time. So many memories were made.
We visited churches and ran their bells…
We rode old soviet transport and explored deserted structures…
We ate tons of food and enjoyed the beer tents…
We took a walk in the nature….
We colored Easter Eggs, Ukrainian style…
and of course, Garrett baked Paska (easter) bread…
What a beautiful life in the village…
I signed Lesia’s 5th form class up for a really cool art exchange program with One World Classrooms and the experience has been great. It was even free to participate as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. The program connects classrooms from all over the world by gathering and sending out collections of K-12 student traditional artwork. So for example, 25 of my students each drew a traditional picture of Ukraine. We took photos of each student with their piece of art, wrote a description in both English and Ukrainian and then attached it to the picture. We then sent them all into the One World Classroom headquarters. In a few months we will receive 25 pictures form throughout the world along with a picture of each student who drew it and a description in English and their native language.
I love this program because it gives my students a chance to proudly share their culture and use their English as a truly global language. When receiving artwork and English messages from children their own age in China, Africa, Mongolia and South America, how can they deny the potential their languages classes can provide them? We are scheduled to receive our global collection in June.