Ukraine Experience (part 2); Lena and Slavik

Ok, let me explain.

A major part of the Camp experience at the Hope Center (did I mention that was the name of the facility?) involves learning the words, tune and motions to the Russian songs that we sing with the kids. Of course this is the ideal, not necessarily the reality. Russian is written in Cyrillic, which I can't read, so having lyrics sheets would be a waste of time. This means that the international contingent attempts to improve their lip-syncing abilities while acting out lyrics they can't understand. I explain this so that the above photo makes slightly more sense. I struggled to simultaneously enjoy the song time and still perform the correct actions to the songs so my remedy was to use the pictured dance as a filler when I forgot what I was supposed to be doing. By the end of the week when Paul caught us on film (or memory card), a handful of "my" kids had taken to joining me in dancing this contagious jig.

The girl on the left is Lena and she is, hands down, one of my favorites. She and her twin sister Inna were among the more out-going and animated kids at the camp. Inna didn't seem as drawn to me, but this may be because I accidentally hit her in the forehead with a frisbee at the beach one day. I'm guessing that they were around 10 years old, but some of the team disputes that (they guessed older). I would have asked her as I do know how to say this in Russian, but my knowledge of their numbers isn't top-shelf. Also, in a multi-lingual environment where the majority of communication is non-verbal anyway, it didn't seem that important. She really enjoyed the fact that at about 70 pounds (soaking wet) compared to my 190, I could carry her around on my back almost indefinitely. I was selected for extensive taxi duty at least once a day. She loved just being a part of what we were doing even if there was really nothing interesting going on. I can't say that our friendship was based exclusively on unselfish enjoyment of hanging out. She quickly realized that I am physically incapable of saying no to little girls (let's hope Sarah and I have all boys) when they ask sweetly. She used me to get extra food, craft materials and eventually the hemp bracelet that I was making for myself. Of course I realized I was being played, but I loved every minute of it.

The boy to my right in the photo is Slavik. He is about 12-13 years old and quickly became one of the consensus favorites for both his attitude and his story. Without being asked, he would clear our dishes (which should have been our responsibility) at nearly every meal. He took this self-imposed responsibility so seriously that we would sometimes be reprimanded in rapid-fire Russian if we tried to do it ourselves. Though prone to whining - which is not nearly as grating when you don't understand what is being said - Slavik was always fun to have around. It was heart breaking when we discovered that after the camp he would be returning to the rehab center where he had lived for the past 2 years (I think) recovering from drug addiction.

The end of camp is the hardest part when you are working with orphans, street kids and deeply troubled children. I am not a regular cryer but I am also not stone-hearted. Leaving the kids that I had come to consider "mine" was one of the hardest experiences I can recall. This process began at the closing ceremonies on Sunday night and dragged through to our eventual departure Tuesday morning. At the ceremony I had a preview of what Tuesday would be like as Lena cried continuously throughout the evening, drenching the fronts of Paul's and my shirts with her tears. After the older girls left Monday morning (stories and pictures will be forthcoming) I knew that I was going to have trouble keeping my emotions under control. As we waited for the vans to come, everyone exchanged "I will miss you's" in whatever language they could. Knowing that many were returning to orphanages or to family situations that involved addiction, alcoholism or abuse made letting go that much harder. I tried hard but cannot deny tearing up several times.

My little dancing friends Lena and Slavik will be in my heart and mind until I can return to Ukraine, hopefully to see them again. More pictures and stories are yet to come.


Ukraine Experience (part 1)

In my previous posts I promised that a review of my Eastern European exploits would be quickly forthcoming so I apologize for the tardiness of the first instalment. I have been waiting to post until I could utilize the thousands of photos taken by my companions on this adventure. While I will not have access to all of them until tomorrow night, I have been able to score a few pics that function as visual aids for my narrative.

Ukraine is a country of contradictions. It can be beautiful and charmingly European or depressingly Soviet. Its historical importance in belied by the near total lack of architectural aesthetics. World War II, known as the Great Patriotic War, treated Ukraine very harshly as both the Nazis and Russian Soviets showed little regard for the country's national treasures. Outside a formerly Jewish neighborhood in downtown Kiev (pronounced monosyllabic, more like Keev) I literally saw less than a few dozen structures that seemed to be pre-Soviet (ie. more than 100 years old). For a nation with quite a few cities that have been constantly inhabited since pre-Greek times, I was shocked at it's drabness and - for lack of a better word - Detroity-ness. Even Detroit's burned-out churches seem to have more history than the vast majority of Kiev. The two photo's shows this dichotomy. The above view from the Simferopol-Kiev train was breathtaking while the Kiev building below is the kids center (sort of a group home for kids whose parents can't afford to support them) from which a number of our campers came. Unfortunately, this particular facility is better than most as it is personally supported by the wife of President Viktor Yushchenko.

Due to my delay in posting, most of you have already heard my review of the 2 weeks in Ukraine. Still, I suppose I'll pretend that my entire readership isn't comprised of people I talk to everyday and give details about the trip itself and its purpose.

My organization owns a camp in Kerch, Ukraine and runs (among other things) 5 camps per summer for orphans and disadvantaged kids from all over the country. My travel team consisted of 5 people from Colorado Springs (Me, Paul, Kacie, Jeremy and Joanna) and Jessie, an intern from Chicago who will remain at the camp until October. The camp team also included another Jessica intern and 2 girls (Megan and Natasha) who stayed over from the previous camp. That gave us a total of 9 Americans to develop and run a 10 day camp for 100 kids. OK, that's not really how it happened...We have an incredible staff of Ukrainians - some paid and some volunteer - who make the camp run. Our responsibility was to handle the program (who does what and when) and present the Bible lessons, crafts and activities; all through interpreters.

I have been on quite a few trips to Latin America and this trip blew me away in several ways. First, I have never been on a team with the cohesion, camaraderie and respect for each other that this group displayed. This is really saying something as we were together non-stop for twice as long as any other team I have been on. From the newbie travelers to the seasoned veterans with experience in these exact camps, everyone was positive and displayed amazing endurance. I made some good friends with whom I hope to travel again.

Second, I have been on teams which concentrated on children before, but this is my first extensive experience with orphans. The change in attitudes as the camp progressed and the genuine sadness at the time of departure made for an emotional roller coaster from which I have yet to fully recover. I had my heart broken to an extent that I was not prepared to handle.

In the next week or so I am going to try to explain my experiences by way of individual children, but I am waiting until I have access to pictures of them.

Stay tuned.


Priviet, kak dela?

I have returned from Ukraine! The post title is my best shot at Anglicising some of the Russian that I learned. Since I am crap with Cyrillic, I needed to phonetically write out the words as they sounded to me in order to have a cheat sheet for learning phrases.

In the following days I will try to express the impact that this trip has had on me, but I fear it will be a futile effort. I have discussed this phenomenon with other members of my team and they are having similar struggles. The three of us that work together have temporarily combined our offices simply to be around people who know what we are feeling. It sounds strangely pathetic and needy but I think it will help us to process.

Between the 5-6 cameras our team brought, there are probably almost 2000 shots of our time in-country. Since I only have access to a small percentage of those, I am going to delay any meaningful posts until I can match them to equally impactful photos. I also don't know that my emotional tanks have refilled enough to take on the topic yet. That said, I wanted to toss out a few great pictures which require little explanation. While in Kiev I bought Ukrainian national team jerseys for me and slick. I also found a guy that had a tiny version of the whole uniform for Campbell. It's a little too big still, but Sarry got some great pictures of her boys in their Andriy Shevchenko unis.