Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Well is Covered

Yesterday, Vitaliy finished constructing the well. Here you see the before and after shots.

He also put a steal door on the basement. Unfortunately, people have been known to steal such things as pumps (actually, a gas stove was stolen from someone's house last year - and that was no easy feat!). So, we are trying to be careful, particularly since the house remains vacant. Tomorrow, they will begin laying the pipes and the electric in the ground.

"You know Shelia," Iryna said to me, "We have to get this done before winter. I cannot think about ___ living at the stadium again this winter. It is very possible she could die out there this time. And, what about ___ living near the bazaar? We said we could have two mothers with their children in that big room, but if we have to, we can put three mothers and their children. It isn't ideal, but we could do it."

"How much will it cost to do everything we have to do to make the house livable?" I asked.

She thought about it awhile and replied, "Maybe $8000."

I had previously suggested we approach a national firm, called "New Line," and ask them to donate new windows and doors. They had provided such donations for another project on which I had worked and this seemed just as noble a project. So, I brought up this idea again.

I could see the wheels turning in her head. I thought maybe she was doubting me; she never believed volunteers would dig that trench and they did!
"Iryna," I said, "I cannot think of a better cause than providing for homeless, orphaned youth; besides, the worst they can say is 'no'."

She replied, "You know if we are going to build that second building in the future, we should think about asking them for a larger window on that opposite wall, instead of two small ones where we will put the other building."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Down in the Trench(es)

Thanks to a $500 grant from "Appropriate Projects," a $300 wire transfer from Ginny Tranchik, of New York, and 105 hours of volunteer time (21 volunteers for 5 hours), Opika house is about to let flow the water!

"When Shelia told me we would get volunteers to dig the trench, I told her that Ukrainians would never do this," said Iryna Sydakova, Director of Opika. Said Youth Bank volunteer, Oksana Kydora, "I don't think any of us thought we could get this done in one day, but we did it!" So, what was it that made 21 volunteers come out and work for five hours straight to dig a 100 meter long and 1.5 meter deep trench in a day?

Motivating volunteers isn't just about giving them food - but that's important! Not just because of the free food, but because it is a cultural custom among most of the world's peoples to celebrate with food. Iryna had asked for enough female volunteers to "make lunch," but about 1/3 of the volunteers down in the trench were women - unusual for such hard work in Ukraine. These women stayed in the trenches and, it was actually a guy, Sasha Shelevey, who built the fire and baked the potatoes for lunch. When asked about the role of women and men in such tough work, Misha Vakula, used to working alongside American Peace Corps volunteers likes the equitable way in which Americans work. He explained the Ukrainian mentality this way, "I think men do the heavy lifting when digging things like trenches, but women have more endurance and can last for longer." Indeed, Oksana Kydora, a 21 year old Ukrainian and Youth Bank member, picked up her shovel with the first wave of volunteers and was one of the last to put it down. "I like the hard work; I like knowing that I helped dig that ditch with my own two hands."

PCV Erin Sims was onsite, as part of a project to make a documentary film abotu Peace Corps for the 50th anniversary, and asked volunteers why they came out today. Here is what our volunteers said about why they were here.

Because We Wanted To Do Good
Perechyn Community Foundation Youth Bank member, Bogdan, declined to be interviewed, but when I asked him why he came to volunteer, he smiled and said, "Because it's what we do!" Youth Bank member Mykola Radchenko agreed. "We are trying to activate people to do more for the community. We are an example for what others can do if they just take a little time out of their day to do good for someone else." Igor Vyshnayk said, "I love my community."

Because We Want to Give Back
"Why does everyone call Iryna 'mama'?" asked PCV Erin Sims of Maxim Olah. "Because she took care of us these years." Iryna took him into her home after he left the boarding school. He lived with her for seven years while working and finishing college. "I would be living on the streets if not for her." Max knows this house is a place where kids just like him will have a chance to transition to life on their own.

Misha Vakula, a volunteer from the village of Turya Pasika (20 kilometers from Perechyn) explained that he came today because Peace Corps volunteers have done so much for him. Returned PCV Neil Patrick O'Toole (2007-2010) helped him learn English, but even more importantly, taught him the importance of community service. Misha was recently selected to participate in the prestigious UGRAD program (funded by the US State Department) and leaves in August to study for a year in an American university. "Volunteerism has changed my life; it is something I will always do."

Because It's Fun

"It was a lot of fun. It's rewarding to look back and see what we accomplished in one day with a lot of hard work," said PCV Nikita Kangovich, from Cleveland, Ohio and now serving as an English teacher in Mykachevo, Ukraine. German volunteers Johanus and Juliana came, and brought along their friend Anna, because PCV Michele Kanda, from California and serving in Perechyn Ukraine, because she convinced them it would be a lot of fun - and it was!

Because I Was Asked

Arped said he volunteered because Iryna asked him to. "Iryna does so much for all of us, whenever she needs us, we want to help her," offered Balint. "We volunteers help each other and when Shelia and Michele asked us to come, wer were happy to help," said PCV Andy Stubblefield from Florida, now an English teacher in Uzhgorod. In the volunteering training with the Youth Bank, this was the most important fact I shared with them. The number one reason people say they volunteer? Because someone asked them!

Why I Volunteer

I think I might be a volunteer junky. If you volunteer enough, you quickly learn the "volunteer high" one gets from service; much like a "runner's high," this feeling of being inspired by what other people do for others, by what you see they must overcome in their lives and how these things are the fundamental emotions that fuel them to give of their time to others, is palpable.

At one point during the day, I stood at the top of the hill and I could see every single volunteer down in the trench... and for once, that metaphor made sense to me. Here we were, all of us, in the trenches - Americans, Ukrainians, and Germans. The subtleties of this situation would be lost on most people, but consider this.

A generation ago, Ukrainians lived under the tyranny of German occupation and Americans had turned their backs on the injustices perpetrated by Soviets and Germans. Ukrainians in this region could have great reason to hate us, but time has not only changed everything, but now we are learning from one another what it means to overcome and work together.

One of the PCVs is Jewish and immigrated from Russia to the United States with his parents when he was a baby, in order to escape political and religious persecution. Here too was something quite remarkable. Jews from this region were rounded up and sent to concentration camps; they were all but obliterated from Western Ukraine, and there is an unspoken sense of sadness about the fear under which Ukrainians acted by turning their backs on the atrocities. Yet, here was an American-Russian immigrated Jew down in the trenches, joking around (in Russian) with these Western Ukrainians. Furthermore, Western Ukrainians are very proud and there is sometimes great controvercy between Russian-speaking Eastern and Central Ukraine and Western Ukrainians who believe very strongly in preserving the Ukrainian language. Nikita doesn't hide his Jewish heritage - everyone here knows and accepts him for the Russian-speaking American he is.

Here, too, were Lemkiv (white) and Roma (brown) volunteers breaking alongside another to take in the beautiful view from the side of the mountain where the house is located. There is a great deal of racism - not only in Ukraine - but everywhere throughout Europe where Roma people live. They are the fastest growing ethnic group in Europe and the European Union has invested billions in hopes of educating the millions of Roma who are unable to read. Myths about the Roma's ability to "hypnotize you and steal your money" are perpetuated. Often, they are characterized as lazy and entitled, yet here they were - volunteering alongside the rest of us.

Here, too, were kids who grew up in the Perechyn orphanage. Abandoned by their families, they would have great reason to expect life to give to them, not the other way around. Yet, they were down in this trench digging, to help others like them who are in need and to insure that a new generation of children stay out of the orphanages and have a chance at a life with their parents. They may be there because of their love for Mama Iryna, but her service - her volunteerism - is an example to them for what it means to be a good person and an active citizen.

Of privilege and poverty, of families and institutions, of diverse ethnic composition, these aren't simply volunteers. They are a statement about all that is good about volunteerism and international exchange on the local level. That is the power of volunteerism. It can bring people together from all walks of life to focus less on each other and more toward the common good.

I likely could have raised enough money for us to rent a backhoe to dig the trench, but, my experience, gut - maybe my addiction to the feeling of volunteerism - told me that this project had the potential to be a powerful experience for bringing people together. It most definitely was.

Erin asked, in her interview with Iryna the following day, if she could explain some concrete differences Opika has made in the lives of the graduates of the boarding school over the past ten years they have been in existance and how Opika House will help continue this work. Iryna explained that back then, none of the kids went on to college - most went to a trade school or the army, and some ended up homeless. Today, a great number of kids have already finished college. Some of the ones who volunteered dig the trench are going on for their Master's degrees. One of them just returned from an internship with the United Nations in New York City. The biggest problem for boarding school graduates is finding housing. These kids were able to succeed because they lived with her - Opika House expands the opportunity for more youth and their children.


As many of you know, a group of graduates from the local orphanage have been chosen to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC from June 28-July 11. Well, kids from the local school are getting into the spirit of this and making crafts to sell at the marketplace for the festival. Here are a few photos of the kids in action.

They have quite a bit of experience working with beads; here you see "pidsnig" flowers (I believe we call them snowdrops), crafted from beads. They are also making small "yarn dolls." If you are interested in having something they made, just let me know and I will be sure to get one to you!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mother's School Training Days 3 and 4

We welcomed back Olena Yesepenko to Perechyn for the second installment of our training of mentors.

This session was focused on puberty, sexual reproduction, and sexually transmitted diseases and how to educate young people about them. Here you see Balint, a graduate of the school himself and local mentor to youth, practicing how he will provide basic sex education to the teenagers at the boarding school. The participants learned about contraception and how to demonstrate such things as condom use to the youth, while also discussing with them abstinence and waiting until one is older and in a committed relationship and married.

We discussed the growing rate of HIV/AIDS infection in Ukraine - the fastest growing in Europe. While Western Ukraine has a slower rate of transmission than that in Eastern Ukraine, graduates from orphanages are at five times greater risk for transmission of the disease.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Open Your Heart for Good

This weekend, the Perechyn Boarding School and Opika welcomed around fifty guests from Holland. As supporters and volunteers of the CHOE Foundation, these are the families who support the organization and host children in their homes every summer.

They spent the morning at the orphanage touring the place where their "summer kids" live the rest of the year. The kids had been
preparing for their visit for weeks, making colorful beaded potted flowers as gifts, cards, welcome signs, as well as, cleaning their rooms and themselves and memorizing new poems, songs, and dances.

At four o'clock, the Dutch arrived at the Palace of Culture for one of the most impressive performances I have seen in Perechyn. I expected to see a group of 50 Dutch people when I arrived; instead, the 400 seat auditorium was standing-room only. Many from the town also came out to show their support, including graduates of the school from all over the coun

Graduates of the orphanage came from as far away as Korea to perform for the guests in a tribute to their generosity for the last 15 years. The performance, called "Open Your Heart for Good" included the youngest of the boarding school residents, seven years old, and the oldest of the graduates on stage, now 37 years old.

"Studio Suprise," the name Iryna gave to her performance group many years ago, boasts graduates who now live and perform all over the world. Joseph, now a performer in Korea, and Oksana, now a professional dancer and student in Kyiv returned for the performance. Sasha, who speaks five languages, just returned from the six months working for the United Nations. He now lives in Kyiv, but plans to return to Zakarpattia. He not only performed, but translated for our guests into their native language.

Throughout the performance, Jan, the founder and director of CHOE and the leader of this delegation of Dutch, moved around the room - hopping from one chair to another. He talked with different graduates he had know from the school throughout the performance and at one point, he sat in front of me. I had told him one of the things that the Americans (Julie and Ted) had told me
about their girls was that they found the school open and the children accepting of their presence and that they thought this was in great part due to the fact that the children from this school had already lived abroad, in Holland, during their summers. Jan told me that this meant a great deal to him to know that this had contributed to the successful adoption of these girls. I imagine it is hard to "adopt" children for a summer and then have to send them back home, just as it is difficult for the kids to have a home life for three months and then return to the institution. But, the Dutch cannot adopt from Ukraine. I am not certain the reason, but when Americans come to adopt children here, it takes quite a bit of time and money to navigate the system. And, being in a school with experience working with foreigners, certainly helps.

I heard Jan speaking some of the "little bit" of Ukrainian the kids told me he knew; all the words he knew were those of love and encouragement - the most important ones.

I couldn't help thinking about the power of one person to be inspired and inspire so many
others to not only give their time and their resources, but to open up their homes for children, who speak another language, to live with them. You could see from the slideshow that these families had become attached to the kids just as much as the kids had to them. I couldn't help thinking, how unfortunate it is that Holland does not have an agreement with Ukraine to adopt children from here. I would bet many of these kids would be permanently with families in Holland already. The good will of the Dutch is legendary here and their international hospitality makes it easier for those of us who can adopt them to build these bonds. I don't know what the future has in store for Max and for me, but I certainly hope that one day it will include opening our hearts and doors for children in our own home. We shall see.
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