Ukraine on the brain

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Photos of camp above

My wife and I went to Ukraine in August and came back different people. I mean, we’re still Paul and Kimberly and if you recognized us before, you probably still do today. But inside, we’ve changed. We won’t fully realize the impact of the changes upon our lives for a while yet, but travel and cross-cultural experiences always seem to have a positive effect on people. For us, part of our experience included working with teenagers, and getting to relate to them over the course of a week-long summer camp really made an impression upon us.

We learned of this opportunity to teach English to Ukranian teens in a Christian camp setting early last year. My wife was the first to speak up, saying that she might like to go. This shocked me because she’d never been on a mission trip and had only once prior been overseas, in 2017 when we took a guided tour of Scotland and Ireland. She also doesn’t travel long distances extremely well due to fibromyalgia. Unbeknownst to her, I’d secretly thought to myself it would be cool to go somewhere that I could use the Russian I’d learned in school (Ukranians speak both Russian and Ukranian). Well, what Russian I remembered anyway. So, when she said she’d like to go, and even if I didn’t want to go, she’d still probably go, I thought “I should go.”

We met with the leaders of the trip (Americans living in the same city as we do), as well as the other Americans who had volunteered to go. The eight of us spent several hours preparing and learning about what we’d gotten ourselves into.

My wife and I did the trip to Kyiv (I’m spelling it this way instead of “Kiev” because this is the way Ukranians spell the name of their capital city in English letters) in 18 hours. Indianapolis to New York to London to Kyiv. The layovers were not long and we had to hustle  (especially in Heathrow in London).

We spent the first two days of the trip in Kyiv, a city of maybe 4 million people, to get acclimated to the culture and history. Having taken Russian in school helped me a bit. As did the fact that a lot of signs in the touristy areas were in both Ukranian and English. Kyiv has loads of tall apartment buildings; not-so-fantastic infrastructure in some areas; great wi-fi at all McDonald’s; really old, ornate churches; and Soviet-era buildings that are so incredibly blah. Lots of modern mixed with ancient in the city the leaders of our American team lived for 10 years.

Photos of Kyiv below:

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We had many adventures here. The apartment they set us up in was small, but comfortable, once we got the bathroom door open. The lock has been taken out by someone and we couldn’t get into the bathroom all afternoon when we got to town. Fortunately there was an Irish pub a block away.

We toured some old churches (11th century!); took a boat cruise on the Dnieper River, which splits the city west and east, enjoying saxophone music along the way; figured out how to ride the subway; and politely tell people trying to sell things to us that we were not interested.

More Kyiv photos below:

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We also saw dancing and singing fountains. During the summer and early fall,  the fountains near Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) dance and sing. Water from the large fountain soar up to the height of 35 meters and from the six small ones up to 15 meters. The water is illuminated from beneath, painted in red, blue, green and other colors. At the same time classical music and modern tracks, selected by the Kyivans by voting, are playing.

From Kyiv, we took a train to Vinnytsia (population 380,000) and spent a few hours there before heading to camp via bus. The Ukranian leader of the camp lives in Vinnytsia, and he showed us around. One of the highlights was going to an American-themed restaurant, complete with a motorcycle and menu items named for U.S. presidents or states or movie stars.

Photos of Vinnytsia below:

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The farther we got from Kiev, the worse the roads got. There were so many potholes that sometimes our bus actually traveled on the wrong side of the road to avoid them. And one of the last roads was so bad, we turned around and went another way.

The site, Camp Karabin, is an extreme sports campsite in southwest Ukraine near the Moldova border (the middle of nowhere, I say). Kids could go ziplining, wall climbing and any number of other extreme sports. Leaders could, too, but I choose to play it safe.

The campers are members of Christian day centers from various parts of the country and were chosen to attend by their leaders from those who expressed interest. They are also kids who have been studying English and wanted to attend “E-camp.” Many of the kids are considered “at risk” for one reason or another. The cost to the children is kept minimal due mostly to funds we raised.

Camp was a bit rustic, but not bad. The kids slept in big tents with bunk beds. American leaders got the use of small cabins. Kimberly and I had our own cabin, which had no electricity and a metal roof, so that when it rained one night/early morning, it sounded like a hailstorm. Outdoor showers, which if you went at the right time, had plenty of hot water. We used portable toilets.

Each American led two English sessions per day at camp with groups of 10-12 kids apiece. We participated in other activities, too, but the English lessons were our main priority. Each group also had a translator and two Ukranian adult leaders. The kids were at various stages of their English studies, so we took the lesson plans and adjusted as needed or just tossed them out and figured out something else. My translator was awesome, and so was Kimberly’s; they were the perfect fit for both of us.

Some of this was quite a challenge for me. For example, as an introvert, I can only have so much interaction with new people before I need time to myself to recharge. I felt as though I should remain with my group as much as I could throughout the day and didn’t want the kids to think I wasn’t interested in what else they were doing, but I definitely needed some alone time.

One thing I found easy was acting in our group’s skit on the final night. Ours was the funniest (everyone said so, so I’m not bragging). We did one based on the story of the shepherd who loses one of his sheep and goes to find it. I played the part of the shepherd and boy, did I emote to the max when I realized my sheep was missing. There was weeping, gnashing of teeth, falling to the ground in obvious agony. Then, in my best Ukranian, I yelled several times “My sheep is missing!” and went looking for poor Vasya, who had been kidnapped by Gypsies (I thought they were going to be wolves, but they changed their minds at the last minute).

Miscellaneous Ukraine photos below:

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One lowlight of the trip was Kimberly getting sick early on. It became so difficult for her to breathe overnight that she was wheezing and she lost her voice. We had to get a driver to agree to take her the two hours to see a doctor. Besides the driver, my translator and I went along. So both Kimberly and I missed teaching English the first day and were replaced. Fortunately, the doctor visit, a breathing treatment and a shot of prednisone only cost $20 (stuff is inexpensive there). We also stopped for ice cream on the way back to the van. And I think her illness drew her kids closer to her as she got the sympathy vote.

That was the most rewarding part of the trip … the relationships and connections we made with everyone. Besides our duties as English teachers, we shared where we came from, the difficulties we have encountered and overcome, as well as things that we’re still dealing with in a way that teens could understand. As the week progressed, it felt more like spending time with extended family. Some of these people, I’m sure will remain friends for life.

One boy, a 13-year-old lad named Sanya, made sure he sat next to me at every English lesson and every meal. When the buses arrived to pick up the kids the last day, he dragged me toward the bus telling me I should go home with him.

Earlier that morning, as breakfast was ending, the girls in my group got one of the translators over to our table and told me that they were so glad to have met me, that they really enjoyed camp and that they hoped they’d see me next year. I told them they were going to make me cry (which I kind of almost sort of did), and then they all gave me a big, long group hug. I’d found out the night before that two of these girls were routinely beaten by drunk fathers. I have no idea what else was going on in most of these kids’ backgrounds.

This has been a longer post than I had planned. But I don’t have a “real” job anymore (ended my 34-year journalism career on Sept. 27 to write full-time) and I supposedly have time to do all sorts of things now. Plus, the experience left an indelible mark upon my psyche and soul.

We have already thanked our donors individually for helping make a difference in the lives of everyone who attended camp. The English the kids learned wasn’t much, but hopefully it will help spur them on to learning even more; the chances of getting good jobs are much higher for Ukranians who also speak English. But the cross-cultural contact they received from people who care what happens to them will mean as much or more in the long run.

Oh, and on the way home, we toured a Ukranian castle, rode in a sleeper train back to Kyiv, and spent three wonderful days in Ireland having fun and doing research for the novel I’m working on that is based in Ireland. It has been suggested that I write one based in Ukraine. perhaps. I may need to do more research first.

How about some videos to close this out?




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