In August (of 2008) I traveled to the country of Ukraine with my mom to volunteer at a summer camp for orphans. It was a wonderful, and difficult, journey. Wonderful, because I met the most amazing people, from the children to the teachers.
“Hanging out in the courtyard, eating apples! Sasha, Rita, Yanic, Sasha, Poopsick (yep, that’s his name), Vandam and Andrei.”
Difficult, because the reality of daily life in Ukraine is staggering. I came home very thankful to not only have been born in America, but to be a member of the circle of family and friends around me. Since my trip to Ukraine I have counted my blessings everyday.
And if you’re curious how I ended up in Ukraine (sometimes I wonder myself!) here’s some background:
Corvallis (the city I grew up in) has a sister city–Uzhhorod–in Ukraine. Uzhhorod is the regional capital of a very rural province on the border with Hungary. The Corvallis Sister City Association (http://sistercities.corvallis.or.us/uzhhorod) supports numerous charitable projects in Uzhhorod.
“Our last evening at camp, we presented Zita with a handmade quilt (not handmade by us, although we did hand-lug it several thousand miles!). The quilt was from the Sister Cities Association, in gratitude for all of Zita’s work on behalf of the children. Corvallis-area quilters hand make a quilt for each child in the orphanage, giving the new arrivals at the orphanage their quilts during the Sister City Association’s annual September visit to Uzhhorod.”
My family’s first involvement with the group was in 1997/98 when my sister Denise was in a high school exchange, living with the Maksimuk family in Uzhhorod, and then we hosted their daughter Lina a few months later. After that, we got involved with another of the projects, the orphanage in Uzhhorod. People from Corvallis (or with ties to Corvallis) pay $60 a year to sponsor an orphan. Each September since 2001, a small group of the sponsors has traveled to Ukraine, hand-carrying the sponsorship money for safe keeping. With most of the sponsorship money, they individually take the children shopping for things they need. The rest of the sponsorship money goes to a project for the orphanage–past examples include beds, playground equipment, etc. My Mom has gone on this September trip 4 or 5 times.
“One night, each of the kids was given a new outfit. This was a big deal to get new clothes. Sasha, Yanic, Vandam and Tibi show us the new duds.”
Last year, two American women (one of whom currently lives in Germany) decided to start a summer camp for some of the kids from the orphanage to give them some positive experiences.
“Pat, my Mom and Zita: these are the ladies that make things happen! Pat is an American living in Germany, and is one of the two people who thought up the idea of the summer camp. Zita is Ukrainian and works for the Corvallis Sister Cities Association overseeing the charitable works at the orphanage year-round.”
As you can imagine, it’s tough living in a post-communist country with a corrupt economy and insufficient systems: education, health, roads, you name the system, it’s inadequate. It’s especially tough to be an orphan in Ukraine. As problematic as our social welfare programs and our foster care systems are, unfortunately they are head and shoulders above Ukraine. Orphans there have a huge social stigma against them, and it is difficult to shed. That’s one reason it’s so important to give these children opportunities to feel special.
Last year the first summer camp went so well, that they decided to do it again this year, with a circus theme!
“Ivan Voloshin was also very good at trapeze.”
“All the kids form a pyramid.”
The summer camp was in a tiny village in the countryside 2 hours from Uzhhorod. The camp is a private boarding school during the school year, and then they rent it out to different groups during the summer.
When my Mom found out she wouldn’t be able to go with the usual group in September because of work obligations, she asked about going to the camp instead. Everyone loved that idea, and then somewhere along the line I ended up with an airline ticket also. Since I volunteer at summer camps here, it seemed like a good fit, and I was eager to meet Ivan, the orphan Dave and I sponsor, and see the country and people my Mom has come to love.
The 25 children at the camp came from three different programs that the Sister Cities Association supports, the first being the orphanage. The second program is called “New Family” and it helps kids who don’t have parents but live with a family member, usually a grandparent. The third program is Public School #14, or the Roma school. “Roma” is the nice way of saying Gypsy. People of Roma descent face a lot of discrimination and limited economic and social mobility. The school, which would be condemned in the US, sits in the middle of the Roma slum. Many of the orphans at the orphanage are also ethnically Roma, you can tell by their darker skin tone.
“Another evening activity: Samantha and Simona share their Roma culture with us by demonstrating some of the Roma dances. The girls have anklets with bells on them.”
As you’ll see in the photos, the camp was full of activity and kids. And while it was not an easy experience, it truly was a privilege to get to know the children, and the other staff. Here are a few highlights of the journey:
–Meeting Misha, the little boy I wanted to take home. You’ll see several photos of him!
“Misha! He loved to wear my sunglasses, we would trade them back and forth all day.”
–Getting to know and love the teachers I roomed with, Elizabeth and Natalya, our translator Rita, the camp organizers Zita and Pat, and the amazing circus trainers, Karin, Carola, David and Wilco.
“Rita and Misha. The three of us sat at the same table together every meal. Rita is a Ukrainian college student who came to the camp not just to help with the kids, but also to translate for us. She was my lifeline! And a wonderful person to boot.”
“Me and my roomies! Elizabeth (who spoke fabulous English and teaches at Public School 14–the Roma school) and Natalya (who spoke some English and teaches at the orphanage). Natalya broke her arm at camp on the tightrope (her fault, she was showing off!). Ask me sometime about the day-long ordeal to get her arm set and in a cast, although be forewarned that it’s not for anyone with a weak stomach. As bad as some people say the U.S. medical system is, it’s got nothing on Ukraine!”
–Learning to spin plates for the circus.
–Meeting Ivan (the boy Dave & I sponsor) and his brother Vasyl (who my sister Denise & her fiance Chris sponsor).
“Ivan and Vasyl with a friend also named Ivan (it’s a very popular name there). The book Vasyl is holding is the photo album my sister made for him with photos of our family, Corvallis, etc. My Mom brought it with us for him. He guarded it carefully the entire time.”
–Finally getting to meet in person Vasyl and Larisa Maksimuk, the family who hosted my sister in Uzhhorod ten years ago.
–-Feeling connected to these amazing people half a world away.
Hope you enjoy the photos! I am thankful for each of you, and I hope your blessings outweigh any trials you’re facing.