Wednesday, December 2, 2009

On my way out - 2 days to go

I’m writing this entry three days before I leave my site and for that reason this update will be more emotional than the reflective blog found below. Due to an outbreak of swine flu, Ukrainian schools have been under quarantine and were therefore closed from November 2nd and only starting again on November 23rd. This was a rather sour way for Group 33 to end their service, with many volunteers’ departure date during the quarantine, preventing the proper farewell needed for students and teachers.

So after travelling to our final conference in the Carpathian Mountains, then taking part in a weekend training session with the new arrivals of Group 37, I sat in my apartment for three weeks with not much to do. Fortunately, I had one final week before leaving my site, although it has been difficult to show up after a month of not seeing my students and announce that I’d be leaving in a week.

This week has been rather difficult, as I explained to my students, Ukraine is my second home. I’ve lived here for two years and although it will be easy to an extent to go home, it will be difficult to leave here. Inspired by the always creative Brad Luckhardt, I decided to organize small student projects this week to discuss school life, families, and culture in Ukraine and my town. I have been recording these presentations all week and can’t wait to edit them and show them to friends, family, and students in the U.S.

Although it is often easy to feel unproductive, this week I believe I’ve felt the impact of my work through and through. Watching students speak and give presentations who were initially frightened or simply unable to speak to me made me realize how much they’ve grown as pupils and people. Certainly Americans do not have the most flattering reputation abroad, and I’m proud to say that I worked my hardest to improve how Ukrainians perceive us.

My school often refers to me as “Our American” or “Our Mr. Alan” which is a common occurrence throughout Ukraine. I’m not sure if the use of “our” is cultural or linguistic, but it clearly shows the development of a relationship over the past two years.

So on the eve of Group 33’s departure, though most have already left, I wanted to share some statistics given to us. Group 33’s impact on Ukraine includes:

6,000 Ukrainian students taught by Peace Corps Volunteers
200 Ukrainian teachers directly collaborated with PCVs
2,000 Ukrainian teachers trained by PCVs
Participation in local, regional, and national Olympiad
18 resource centers and 10 internet centers funded and organized
70 camps organized and implemented

And here are some of the things I did:

65 teachers trained in the sphere or HIV/AIDS prevention and Awareness
Organized two community events, a school dance and rock concert
Participated as a judge in the Belovodsk and National English Olympiad
Personally organized two camps and participated in five camps total
Organized a pen pal program with an American school
Obtained English books for my school
Worked directly with 6 Ukrainian teachers and over a hundred students
Focused heavily on Environmental education
Russian speaking ability of advanced low
And of course the absorption of Ukrainian culture, history, traditions, pop culture, and more

I only wanted to share these things, 1) for those who haven’t been able to follow all my other blogs or updates, and 2) feel a little better about my experience. I always knew I would never leave my service early and would stay for the entire 27 months, but at the same time I did not want to simply stick it out. Sometimes reflecting and stating such things helps one realize their work and of course feel a little proud.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following the blog and reading about a place which receives less attention than it deserves. Ukraine is now and always will be my second home.

And to close, the following text was written by a ninth grade student, Tonya Bondarenko. I asked students a few questions to keep in mind this week and she went the extra yard and wrote down her thoughts. I haven’t altered the text and believe students should always have ownership over their work and to be proud of their mistakes as much as their achievements.

1. What did you learn from me?

I learnt that every English lesson can be interesting, useful and fascinating. I could to know more about USA not from books or films, but from real American, who always answered our questions. He told us what books had he read, what films had he watched. He played the guitar for us; we watched films about nature together. Once a week we tried to gather and spent a time together. We talked on different topics, discussed some problems, made projects. I think we can learn an optimistic soul, kindly, curiously, and friendly character from Mr. Alan.

2. What did I learn from you (Ukrainians) while here?

As for me, I think he could learn some Ukrainian words and phrases. He always was interested in Ukrainian teens’ tastes, hobbies, spending free time and attitude to life, love, wars, and other important things. So, he knows more about Ukrainian pupils. I think it was intresting for hm to know more about our culture and customs, about our holidays and our famous people.

Mr. Alan lived in our town for two years, he went on travels in our country, he spend all time with Ukrainians. As for me, it was good time for him and he can be proud of these years, because we had a really nice time with him.

3. What did you think about Americans two years ago? And now? Did your idea of Americans change?

Honestly, I think that Americans are lazy and naïve people. But when I made the acquaintance with Mr. Alan I understood that Americans can be open, helpful, and merry people. Mr. Alan told us about his family and his friends very much. They are friendly, polite people. Americans are not worse than we are. They are just different but we have much similar. I changed my opinion about Americans and now I even have some friends from USA which I like to communicate with.

I’ll miss our friendly atmosphere, our amazing lessons, our good wonderful teacher who always knew what we wanted to do. I’ll miss our summer holidays, which we spent with Mr. Alan. We played sport games, listened to his playing guitar, took part in different competitions and spoke about everything we want. We went for a walk with out class near the river, had picnics and did other nice things.

I’ll miss Mr. Alan because we always found things, we can speak about. He is a nice person, and as for me, he became a good teacher and a perfect friend for all of us.

How can I not be grateful for the last two years after reading words like that from a student?

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Final Peace Corps Blog

This blog I intend and believe will be my final update of my Peace Corps service. I’ve mapped out the topics which I plan to break down in sections, each of which I promise to write about honestly, reflectively, and as objectively as possibly. However, I will often admit the subjective nature of certain observations and conclusions reached during my service, contrasting what I’ve learned from my American upbringing and my growth in Ukraine. I do not write out of hostility toward Ukrainian culture, or out of veneration of the U.S. This is merely a summation of what it means to be an American in Ukraine.

I mentioned in my last blog that after Peace Corps I can say that I lived in Europe for two years, though it has never felt like that. Perhaps Eastern Ukraine is that different, or my assumption of what it means to be Europe is that incorrect; however, had I lived in Budapest, Prague, or Madrid, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have felt like I lived in real Europe either. I did however get to see real Ukraine and I’m happy to tell you all about.

Coming Home

I’ll be home in two months time and though my course of action is not definite after settling in, I’m thankful for my last two years. I set out in hopes to learn more about myself, earn something on my own, gain independence, travel, and of course, to attempt to help others. How many of these goals were reached and to what extent is still something that will take years to decipher, but I feel stronger, wiser, and more confident. Much like college, Peace Corps is an atmosphere of academia which surrounds you with information, new and old. From the diversity of fellow volunteers with worldly experiences and Ukrainians with unique perspectives, I simply could not have been exposed to as many learning opportunities were I in the States. In addition, I have confidence which I am proud of, if only for the reason that it is new. I remember walking dozens of city blocks in San Francisco out of fear of attempting to brave public transportation. Yet last summer I arrived in a foreign city with no reservations or planned route and successfully navigated my way to an even more foreign place. Life as a volunteer often makes me feel as though nothing in the States could intimidate me again.

Schools in Ukraine

My professional experience in U.S. schools may best be described as an apprenticeship, however, my understanding of it as a student, like most my age, is broad. Working in any school is a challenge, but the task of understanding the idiosyncrasies of a school in a different culture is a battle. The following observations are some of which I think an American, or Westerner, would find interesting.

The ever changing schedule of a Ukrainian school posed one of the main difficulties of teaching here. Concerts, holidays, the lack of running water, and other external forces were constant chisels chipping away at the predictability of American schools I tried and failed to duplicate. To us Westerners, five of twelve students being removed from a lesson so they can take part in a concert rehearsal is an inadequate excuse and gross misevaluation of priorities. However, in the culture of Ukrainian schools, students have an obligation to assist in such events which are seen as helping the entire school.

Cell phones proved to be a constant interruption, whether teaching fifth grade, eleventh grade, or sitting in a teachers’ meeting. It is very easy to impose the manners of our culture in a foreign place, like cell phone etiquette. Perhaps we think we’ll feel less alien if we have some rules which seemingly hold things together and provide some order in an environment which is not yet understood. I’ve seen Ukrainians on cell phones during concerts, student presentations, teachers and students in class, and more. However, why should I expect students to stop using their phones in class if the teachers do not do so? Ultimately, this rudeness is no more irrational than our quickness and fervor to label it as rude. I know volunteers who confiscate students’ phones if they ring and even call their family in America, a few minutes of which would spend all the money on the SIM card. This is just an interesting cross cultural moment on a micro-scale. A few weeks ago, a student’s phone in seventh grade rang and she asked if she could go into the hall. My initial thoughts were “No! This is my lesson. Your parents can call you during the passing period. They need to cut this umbilical cord or you’re never going to be able to make decisions for yourself or face situations on your own.” I let the student into the hall, stating only, “quickly”. Ukraine simply isn’t ready for such tirades and nitpicking. We have bigger fish to fry.

Similarly, I often ask students to make charts and tables for grammar exercises or games in the notebooks. Every time I give the imperative to copy down a chart or graph, students take on the appearance of 15th Century ocean navigators, equipped with compasses, rulers, and protractors. Two years ago my reaction was “The chart is not important, the information you write inside the lines is what matters! Hurry up!” This sense of perfection in writing and presentation is an integral part of students schooling here. They only use pens, have white out if they make mistakes, and presentation always factors into the grade. I’d be creating an unfamiliar environment for the students if I prevented them from talking to their parents for twenty seconds or by asking them to discard the expectations of neatness established by the teachers who worked with them before I was here and will continue to teach them after I leave. These are short lessons in the comfort of the many over the few.

I’ve also been quick to criticize the form of Ukrainian classroom management or the ostensible lack thereof. Ukrainian methodology is very scientific, most likely a lingering shadow of Soviet influence. Studying to be an educator in America instilled me with a more philosophical and pragmatic approach. Although I see the trend changing over the next few years with the retirement of older teachers, I can’t and perhaps shouldn’t expect to see developments in pedagogy equating Ukraine with America. Practices and beliefs simply vary among places with radically different histories, economies, and governments. Unfortunately, I feel like I’ve used these differences as a crutch. For instance, if the majority of my students failed to do an assignment or a particular class was disruptive, I caught myself pinning the fault on being a different culture: “Well, this activity would have worked had I tried it in America”. While I don’t necessarily belief this after closer scrutiny, I do believe there was a cultural gap that complicated the atmosphere. Copying answers, or what we like to label as blatant cheating, is common in Ukraine, whether exam, quiz, or essay. I tried to convey my beliefs of individual work inside and outside the classroom, but to little or no fruition. Students simply could not understand why I turned into such a tyrant on test day. “Mr. Alan, we help each other. It is good for everybody during exams!” My response was “Ok, I’m your doctor. I copied another student’s work on an exam about human anatomy. Now I have to perform a surgery on your mother.” Although my argument was irrefutable, the stigma of plagiarism and academic dishonesty is simply not to be found. Another cross cultural moment than only needs observing and not ridiculing.

Ultimately, I have cherished working in my school. There are days when I feel like there is no other work I could ever do other than teaching, and others when I feel the opposite. This would be the case in a school in Indiana, Lugansk, Taipei, Kigali, or Buenos Aires. I’ve had to adjust to working in an unfamiliar environment, with either a lack of or poor of resources. Teaching is the constant struggle of the bell curve, with a small percent of students excelling, a small percent failing, and the majority in the middle. However teaching a foreign language is more like a spike and there is no curve. Students understand you or they don’t. Catching up with a foreign language is so much more difficult than math, which usually has a moment of epiphany when one finally understand a problem, or history, which can be compensated by additional readings. There is grammar, vocabulary, listening, and speaking/pronunciation. Students are never held back a grade in Ukraine, so I could have a new student recently moved from a village in tenth grade who can’t say a word in English. The task of enticing the advanced students while not losing the struggling ones is a challenge every teacher deals with every day. Additionally, it was a challenge to engage the shy or struggling speakers because they simply don’t understand. The strong students will initiate conversations and I had to work to prevent students from being abandoned.

Perhaps I mentioned this before, but I will again for reiteration. I assumed, during training and the first few months at site, that simply being an American would inspire students to take English lessons seriously, attend English clubs, and be in awe of my presence. While the latter is true to an extent, the former couldn’t be more incorrect. After contemplating this point for quite some time, I ultimately told my brother Chris, “How much would I have cared in seventh grade if some Ukrainian came to teach at my school”? To which he replied, “Well, yeah, good point.”

Telling People How to Live: the Favorite Past Time of All Americans

Several factors contributed to the lack of influence I had in imparting words of wisdom and life lessons to Ukrainians. If the topic was diet, I was the guy from one of the most obese nations in the world telling people how to eat. If the topic was politics, it was my government who had its proverbial thumb in the pies of other nations. If the topic was money, well, you get the picture. All in all, Americans aren’t the easiest people to trust. If the tragedy of nationality wasn’t enough, my physical appearance as a child, my age signifying almost no longer a child, my marital status which negates the possibility of being a man, and my Russian language ability which makes me sound awkward, unrefined, and often hesitant. Some of the following things include some of the observations which can also be described as concerns on behalf of Americans towards Ukrainians and vice versa.

I rarely see Ukrainians drink water. Tea is as much an integral part of Ukrainian culture as it is void from American life. Students drink tea with breakfast, receive it with their lunch at school, and every corner food stand, bus station and train will offer you tea. With that said, I rarely see Ukrainians drink water, the tea of America. I’ve tried to explain that lack of water leads to advanced aging and health problems, but I come from a place where one can safely drink the water from the faucet. Equally, food is a constantly debated topic among Americans and Ukrainians, with mostly finger pointing as to who has the unhealthiest food. Ukrainians, in their inventiveness and refusal to waste anything from an animal, eat strips of lard called salo though they refuse to call it fat. Whatever you call it, salo is cholesterol incarnate. The mythos of Ukrainian food dictates salo and white bread are good for you, though it is often recommended to limit these as much as possible in America. When criticizing salo, Ukrainians will condemn McDonalds, hamburgers, and any other fast food which they believe makes up our diet. An interesting part of globalization is nations newly affected by such things as McDonalds or iPods fail to realize that people in America also are being plagued with such overwhelming simplification of products, especially food.

Similarly, alcohol and smoking are admitted problems in Ukraine, with some of the cheapest cigarette and liquor prices in Europe. It was difficult being an occasional beer drinker in Ukraine where real men imbibe vodka. It is hard comparing the abuse of alcohol in the U.S. and Ukraine, but in Ukraine the problem is certainly more visible with limited or weakly enforced open container and public intoxication laws. I often felt angry by Ukrainians using culture as a defense, and though to an extent that is true. However, more than 90% of all Ukrainians die from just three causes; smoking, drinking, and auto accidents – and all are preventable. Drinking can be cultural, but when a nation’s male life expectancy rate is actually decreasing, culture cannot be an excuse.

Ukrainians always yell at Americans for having the bus windows open, sitting on the cement, having wet hair outside, not eating enough, and not dressing warmly. Much like our concerns about food, drink, and health, this is their way of showing they care about our health, even if we disagree. So it was often a sort of mutual “I have to look after you” relationship with Americans and Ukrainians both in shock at how the others live!

Gender Issues

One of the most clearly visible differences in Ukraine includes the gender relations and what it means to be a man or woman here. It was often an atmosphere I felt which I feel currently unable to express in written form, yet it includes a lack of or completely different expectations for men’s and women’s occupations, abilities, relationships, and even rights. Women in the U.S. still receive less pay than men for equal work, but in Ukraine gender relations are more equitable with America perhaps forty years ago. Again a paradox exists, because the U.S. did not have a female prime minister (or president for that matter) fifty years ago.

Ukrainian women are extremely beautiful and everyone will remind you constantly from the Beatles song “Back in the USSR” to the theory that Lugansk has so many beautiful woman because Catherine the Great banished all attractive women from St. Petersburg and Moscow so they could not overshadow her looks. Women are expected to dress to impress the men and marry young. Men are seldom expected to help at home. A mutual understanding and manipulation of each other’s needs exists. Quoted from the PC Cross Cultural Reader, “Ukrainian women had to become very competitive to get a good man. We know what men like, how they like to be treated. We know all about their fragile egos and how to manipulate them. This includes the way that we dress. Unlike other kinds of animals, the human female should be the one beautifully adorned. And savvy in psychological manipulation in order to catch the good man.” Ultimately, this all makes for quite different gender relations.

Racial issues

Additionally, racism is a peculiar issue in Ukraine. Though Ukraine, much like Poland and other Central/Eastern European countries have ultra-Nationalist neo-Nazi type groups, hardly representatives of the typical citizen, it is hard to judge the perceptions of race on the small, individual scale in Ukraine. Other than hearing students make occasional comments about Jews, Blacks, and Middle Easterners (certainly not unheard of in any school in the States), I never experienced that blunt “those people” mentality often expressed in America once someone feels comfortable with you to share their bigotry. Now part of this lack of indifference may be due to fewer minorities, but I don’t think that would fully explain the situation. Lugansk, Kharkiv and Kyiv have huge international student populations. I’ve met Nigerians, Malaysians, Senegalese, Syrian, Iraqi, Jordanian and many more in just Lugansk. However, I’m sure their perceptions of racial issues differ greatly from mine, because I fit in if I don’t talk. I’ve heard some volunteers criticize Ukrainians for saying negro, partly because in Russian it sounds like the N-word. However, I’ve defended Ukrainians, assuming they are not using the word in an offensive way, because they haven’t had the cultural revolution related to race and vocabulary which America experienced. Through the 80s it was still acceptable to refer to blacks at Negroes, so the politics of language are simply different here as they lack a population of color. One place you can judge he beliefs of a mass group of people is in the sports arena and I’ve been to many professional football (soccer) matches in Ukraine. Nigerians frequent the Ukrainian club teams and despite the foul taunts and heckling, I never heard one comment relating to race. However, in London, Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, well known cities of celebrated high culture, fans often make gorilla sounds or throw bananas on the field when a black player has the ball (read more in Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World).

Fashion and Brad’s Middle School Theory

Fashion mostly proved to be a topic to make volunteers laugh and express friendly disapproval. Some of the outfits I’ve seen Ukrainians wear, men and women, I’m sure I will never see again, whether they include shiny suits or fish net stockings with ivy patterns. Fashion here is an interesting paradox, because it is extremely important for expressing oneself, but many people buy their clothes, Versace, Armani, and Prada rip offs, at the bazaar! My friend Brad explained to me on several occasions his Middle School Theory. Despite Kyiv being older than Moscow, independent Ukraine is still a very young country – I’m seven years older, for example. He explained Ukrainian identity is in a Middle School phase, were you experiment with all the silly, strange, and exotic fashions, because for the first time in your life it seems like you can and want to express yourself through fashion. It is not rare to see something as contradictory as a fifty year old grandmother at the bazaar rocking pink hair and a cellphone on the back of a horse cart. Other than a general Ukrainian observation that American girls dress more or less like boys, I’d like to hear more of their ideas regarding our fashion. The U.S. has its collection of laughable and impractical fashion – furry boots, popped collars, ripped jeans, etc. I’d like to hear a Ukrainian babushka critique a torn jean, muscle shirt guy.

Holidays, Holidays, and More Holidays

It isn’t rare to hear even Ukrainians joke about how many holidays they have. There are days for teachers, students, women, miners, veterans, workers, and then religious holidays which have a new and old date due to the Orthodox Church switching its calendar. Most holidays in my town coincide with a concert at the House of Culture with student performances which are either really talented or extremely awkward. My site mate and I usually dread these events as they are really long, packed with people, and consist of the same performances month after month.

March 8th marks International Women’s Day which included a concert and then a party at my school. I was glad to see schools participate in a holiday which technically started in New York but has since been discarded. However, I wished for more open discourse about women, their struggles, rights and like there of, and their feelings. The same student performances from graduation were repeated at the Women’s day concert. Wine and vodka were in abundance, yet being an American, I yearned for discussion.

This goes for Teacher’s Day as well. The first Sunday in October marks Teacher’s Day. Our school had shortened lessons, a concert, and a party. Several students gave me flowers, chocolate, and even a planner. My immediate reaction was “If you want to give me a gift, study in my class! Do your homework! Don’t make excuses for misbehavior!” and of course this is not only cynical and ungrateful but unrealistic. I was thankful for many teachers in school but that doesn’t mean I did everything they asked. I loosened up by the end of the day at the concert and tried to remove my cultural blinders and although there was still no real discussion of what it means to be a teacher, I enjoyed the concert.

Things I’ll miss

There are so many things to list.

-Walks home from my host families on Sunday evenings, surrounded by small town Ukraine.

-The ladies at my favorite shop who are always thankful for the food I take for them to try.

-The unpredictability of my students to say something great, funny, or heart warming

-Living around completely self sustaining people. I often feel like Nicole Kidman in Cold Mountain. I couldn’t sow or reap a harvest, milk a goat or cow, or survive without a store to buy everything. Ukrainians do EVERYTHING themselves. Make their own oil, wine, honey, beer, kill their own meat, and grow their own fruits and vegetables. It is really inspiring. People have two jobs here, their occupation and their farming chores at home.

-The seasons are so much more distinct here. Life in the States is seamless. I can get tomatoes or pineapples whenever I want, but in Ukraine you know and feel the seasons in your bones.

-My host families consist of some of the sweetest, most caring people I’ve every met.

-My students in general. I have really gotten to see them grow with English in two years. It will be hard to say goodbye to the students.

-My site is amazing. It is green, though now orange, yellow and red, and a wonderful little enclave of agriculture in an industrial region.

-Ukrainian food is really great and creative. I’ll probably realize all the American foods I missed are not how I thought of them.

-It feels challenging and adventurous being here. I know it’ll be hard to go back to the States where the every day difficulties I face here do not exist.

-Speaking Russian. Although I didn’t study as much as I hoped, I still really enjoy speaking Russian and hope to keep up with it as much as possible.

This is already way too long. I hope you enjoyed my observations and gained something if you read this far. Again, I hope you do not interpret any comments or observations as hostile or rude toward Ukraine or its culture.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Life since June

So I was inspired to write a quick update and share some pictures from random stuff I’ve done since June.  I’m writing this before I actually sit down on a real computer and hope to share about 20 photos, which I’ve resized.  

Photo 1.  I got to school early one day during my two week camp after the end of the spring semester.  Some students looked at my guitar longingly so I let them mess around with it.

Photo 2.  The majority of my camp consisted of team building activities and games.  I’m pictured here with Maxim and Maxim.  The Maxim on the left is screaming BLIN, which translates literally as PANCAKE but colloquially means CRAP!
Photo 3.  An old Soviet bus arrived at my school unexpectedly, offering to whisk us away to our local milk factory.  The field trip included a climb up the most precarious ladder I’ve ever seen, flaming milk experiments, and by far the worst smell I’ve encountered yet in Ukraine.  I did find out that a by-product of some of the cheeses they make is mixed with asphalt to make roads.  With that said, I need not describe the roads here to you.  Not only did I want to stop drinking milk after this trip, I thought it should be my duty to euthanize cows to save them from such a fate.
Photo 4. Brinza cheese, which is somewhat sour/bitter but goes well with bread.
Photo 5.  After the hour long tour on a ninety five degree day, the workers at the milk factory gave each student a heaping cup of sour cream!  I received an extremely dirty look after politely declining.  I was also yelled at by the manager for taking this picture. 
Photo 6.  This is me on the top of the factory with the “other side” of Belovodsk behind me.  You can see in the background how the land gradually rises.  The big hill in my town separates my side from this part.
Photo 7.  This is a view of mountains and the Danube river from the Bratislava Castle in Slovakia.  Unfortunately the castle was under construction so the pictures of the structure itself are not very good.
Photo 8.  This is the Danube River which runs through Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and connects it with Vienna, Austria. 
Photo 9. The rooftops of Bratislava and the architecture in general greatly differ from what I’m accustomed to seeing in Eastern Ukraine and even Kyiv for that matter.  After Peace Corps, I will be able to say that I lived in Europe for two years but it doesn’t really it.
Photo 10. This is the old town square in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.  It is one of the biggest tourist cities in Central Europe and is known for being relatively unscathed during WWII (unlike London, Dresden or dozens of other cities).

Photo 11. Same as above.  Prague is great.  It is the home of art nouveau, Franz Kafka, a cathedral with a shriveled arm, the world’s only cubist café and much more.
Photo 12.  This is the famous St. Vitus Cathedral inside Prague Castle.  Even after all the photos and videos I’ve seen, the hype did not kill the experience.
Photo13.  The famous Prague Clock.  Next to the clock you can see small figures representing vanity, greed, pagan invasion, and death.  Every hour, the clock rings and the 12 apostles come through and show through a small window.  The times listed include the hours of the day, the zodiac, the times of sunrise and sunset, and the phases of the moon. Legend has the clock maker’s eyes were removed after he finished so he couldn’t replicate his work for anyone else.
Photo 14. Mural at St. Vitus Cathedral.
Photo 15. Half of the old city hall in Prague's center, destroyed by the bombs of WWII.
Photo 16.  The hostel’s kitchen in Prague.  We stayed at Sir Toby’s which was the best Hostel I’ve been to, equipped with a pub, lounge and outdoor area.
Photo 17.  One of the many many many Cathedrals in Vienna, Austria.
Photo 18.  This is the Summer Palace for the Hapsburgs, the ruling empire of Austria-Hungary up until the end of WWI.
Photo 19. Same as above.
Photo 20.  This is the view from the hostel window.  We stayed at Wombat’s which was like a college dorm.
Project 21.  Camp iKnow, the camp implemented by the Environmental Working Group, expanded from one camp last year in Ternopil, to three camps this year.  We had seven volunteers and fifteen students from Donestk, Lugansk, Mikolayev, Lviv, and Zaporizha.  Kids are taking a break from the environmental lessons and activities to make friendship bracelets.
Project 22.  With 90 degree days, we made daily trips to the local swimming hole.
Project 23.  A fun camp game with singing and hand slapping.  Of course an American won.

Project 24.  Students making fish out of bottles, Alex’s trash art session.
Project 25.  After spraining my ankle, I was not allowed to stand or walk by my PC medical officer.  I had to teach a leadership lesson and decided to just use my body as a blackboard.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Dad's Visit to Ukraine

May 28th

This is my first blog in quite some time and I’m glad I have significant events to discuss regarding my living abroad in the Borderland – Ukraine. On May 28th, 2009, my father came to visit my home of the past 21 months in Eastern Ukraine. We’ve discussed this possibility for some time and before I joined the Peace Corps my dad said he would be certain to visit wherever my country of service would be, whether Morocco, Kazakhstan, or Fiji. When I found out I would be serving in Ukraine, one of my dad’s initial reactions was “Well, I’m excited too because until now I never would have had a reason to go there, so it is a country I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

I was rather nervous about him coming, since Ukraine, like much of Eastern Europe, is not as equipped to suit tourists as Western countries. My dad would have to make his own way to my oblast center Lugansk by himself as I couldn’t take time off to meet him in Kyiv due to my work. However, the excitement of knowing someone who supported me from my early curiosity toward Peace Corps would soon see where I work and live. I think it is very important to have an outsider’s perspective as I may be desensitized or somewhat biased regarding Ukraine. I really couldn’t wait to hear my dad’s interpretations and impressions of this country.


My dad flew from Chicago to Zurich, Switzerland, then to Kyiv, Ukraine, then to Lugansk, Ukraine. He spent some time in Germany and Switzerland a few years back and the layover was too short for the time there to be memorable. However, the flight to Lugansk was five hours after he arrived to Kyiv and opportunities for killing time in Boryspil Airport leaves much to be desired.

I barely slept the night before I went to pick him up. I had to go to Lugansk by bus and hang out at my friend Seth’s apartment who left me his key. It was without a doubt the longest day of my service, waiting around until ten o’clock at night. I had to take a taxi out to the airport which was the size of Gary’s, running only five or six flights daily. I wasn’t sure where to wait but there were others meeting family so I shadowed them. It was a strange feeling to see all the upper class Ukrainians come through the gate, most people travel by train here as it is unbelievably cheap. Then, my dad came through, smiling, and the first thing I noticed was his Harley Davidson shirt. His trip to Lugansk passed free of hindrance, despite it being extremely long and physically tiring. We had to stay at Seth’s apartment due to his late arrival: my town is two hours from Lugansk and buses do not run late.

He refused to take trains to and from Kyiv in order to save time, but I introduce my dad to the Ukrainian public transportation system through minibuses, taxis, and eventually the subway in Kyiv. Riding the bus to my town the next day, my dad had a glimpse of what I have to deal with as the bus was crammed, hot, and not one window was open. I have more than grown accustomed to this form of travel.

We arrived at my apartment, which is a typical Ukrainian apartment with a small bathroom, small kitchen, and one room which acts as a living room and bedroom. Despite its relative tackiness and gaudy décor, including burnt orange flowery carpet, forestry wallpaper, imitation Persian rugs on the walls, and a metal plaque with a naked woman, my dad was relatively impressed with my living quarters. Considering what volunteers in other Peace Corps countries have to go through, my apartment may be laughable in America but here I am proud to live here. He soon realized my idiosyncrasies which I displayed in America were still intact here, as I am rather obsessive about cleaning, organizing and I still working in the kitchen!

Time in Belovodsk

One surprise for my dad was I must walk everywhere in my town as it is too small for buses or taxis yet large enough to tire you if you walk from one side of town to the other. Another early observation was the amount of monuments and statues in my town. Walking from the bus station to my apartment we crossed a giant Soviet WWII memorial, and later he saw the Chernobyl memorial, Bolshevik Revolution monument, Lenin statue, and another WWII monument. Perhaps we have as many monuments in America, but we are never out of our cars long enough to notice them.

My dad had several opportunities to see the emphasis put on student performances and presentations in Ukraine. Our first day in town, a two hour concert at the House of Culture exhibited traditional Ukrainian music and dance, as well as modern song dance routines. I have lost count of how many of these concerts I’ve seen so the novelty has somewhat expired, but my dad was impressed by the amount of activities available to youth even in my small town.

A few days later, he had another chance to view students’ talents at a different concert at the same place. An organization, Lugari which would best be described as co-ed Boy Scouts put on a concert also consisting of various song and dance repetitions. However, the ultimate display of student talent came in the form of a backyard performance in the yard of my apartment complex. Several children, ages ranging from 4-10 from what I gather, knocked on my door and called us down to watch their performance. Basically, it amounted to hanging a rug on a clothesline for a backdrop/changing area and my father and I, along with some parents, watching an hour long private concert. Herman, one of my site mate Chris’s students, played three different instruments; students sang songs and read poetry in Ukrainian, acted out famous fairy tales, and even a hula-hoop act. It was cute in its awkwardness as the children spoke quietly and continuously forgot to address the “audience,” got distracted by people walking by, and played behind the stage curtain. Most of it was in Ukrainian which meant I was as confused as my dad, but we both felt like we had the chance to witness something special.

Unfortunately, the second day of my day camp at school my counterpart informed me my dad could not participate since he does not have the proper documents from the Ukrainian government allowing him to interact with students. Tuesday and Wednesday he was then forced to stay at my apartment. He subsequently spent his afternoons reading and watching 24. Although my apartment is usually hot in the summer, reaching up to 83 degrees in the living room and as high as 97 degrees in the kitchen if I make the foolish mistake of using the oven, it was rather temperate after my dad refused to endure such heat and bought me a fan. I've learned to live without those little privileges and it has helped me to save a large sum of my Peace Corps money for travel.

We spent the afternoons going for walks, looking at my pictures and videos from my service, and we even watched a few episodes of BBC's Planet Earth, prompting my dad to say WOOOW every three minutes. We spent time with my sitemate, eating smoked cheese, smoked fish, and smoked sausage, drinking Ukrainian beer, and playing cards. On Sunday, we went to visit my host family whom I lived with during my first month in Belovdsk before I found an apartment. My dad was amazed by how self sufficient they are, growing, building, and raising everything themselves. In their yard they have bees for honey, chickens, goats, strawberries, raspberries, greens, and just about every vegetable in season. Yuri, my host dad, showed us his cellar where they store food which included jars of jam, fat, and meat.

We ate a large early dinner together which included borsch, pampushky which are garlic buns, and this great dish consisting of fried potatoes which were then baked and meat. The samagon, bathtub vodka, was pulled out at the first chance and my dad got a chance to see what real homemade liquor was like. He brought presents including decorations for my host mom Valentina, US quarters for Yuri because he collects coins, CDs and a poster for Tonya who loves music, and a Boston Celtics jersey for Dima though he was still at college in Kharkiv. Feeling so blessed, they gave us a giant bottle of cherry compote, cherry preserves, cherry wine, and more food than we were ultimately able to eat.

As if this day wasn't enough, the last evening before we set off together for Kyiv, my neighbors invited us outside for a feast on the picnic table. My dad, Chris and I along with five of my neighbors sat around eating for two hours and talking, each group asking questions of the other, much like dinner with my host family. What is life like in America, was the Soviet Union better, will the economy get worse, what do you like most about your country – these were some sample questions of our discussion. At one point, while outside on the picnic bench alone, a different neighbor approached my father trying to remember as much English as possible, explaining he was a soldier for the Polish military. He then went to his apartment to put on his uniform and then presented my dad with gifts, including an autographed book about my oblast and a military photo.

While he was here, my dad had a different perspective on things. I watched the things he chose to photograph or whatever seemed to catch his eye and it greatly differed from the things that strike me. He assumed Ukraine would be perhaps less developed and was surprised by how clean things were. I found this interesting as often volunteers complain about the amount of trash, but having an "outsider's" perspective, it made me try to look at this country differently, look beyond all my biases I have gained living here. His favorite line throughout the trip, however, was "That's not up to code" commented on either bad wiring or construction and absolutely refused to use a public toilet, which are often squatting toilets.


Saving time, we flew from Lugansk to Kyiv on a Thursday morning at seven o'clock, which was a shock for me. My usual trip by train takes at least 16 hours and the flight was only an hour long. In fact, the flight from Lugansk to Kyiv was shorter than the taxi ride from Kyiv's airport to the hotel. It was great to have a chance, on my Dad's dollar which I am more than grateful for, to see a different side of Kyiv and be a tourist for a short time.

We checked into our Hotel, I believe a four star with something like ten restaurants, car services, and English Speaking staff members and I was dumbstruck. The hotel where I usually stay costs ten dollars a night and electricity and hot water are never a guarantee. My dad took a shower as soon as possible as my apartment doesn’t have hot water and he felt like a new person. He roared 'Man, I haven't showered in eight days' to which I replied 'When's the last time you think I took one?!" We set off for the city, taking the subway to Independence Square, the center of the city and the ritziest part of Kyiv. From there we saw St. Michael's and St. Sofia's cathedrals, taking plenty of pictures and stopping to take in the views as it is greatly different from even the oldest or biggest cities in America.

We decided next to go to the National Chernobyl museum which was an educational and moving site. Equipped with audio headsets in English, we walked around the museum observing tens of thousands of documents, personal items, and pieces of art and photographs of the tragedy. There was almost too much information and at times it was overwhelming.

Feeling rather tired after walking so much and waking up at four, we went back to the hotel and rested until dinner. I tried to find neat memorable places to take my dad for food and the Drum was a must. It is in this scary alleyway and located half underground down a stairwell much like a speakeasy. Of course he made a joke like "I'm not going in there" but ultimately enjoyed the atmosphere as the establishment has room for no more than 20 patrons.

The next morning, I got up at six to meet Bethanie at the train station as she arrived from Crimea. She shared the luxury of staying in such a nice by showering and having a few plates at the buffet breakfast and again we were off to see things in Kyiv. We went to the World War II museum, and coincidentally it was June 6th, the anniversary of D-Day. The facility was three floors yet we had only the strength to explore the first two. Words can't really do these places justice and I will post pictures as soon as I can. Following the museum, we went to the National Art Museum which contained everything from religious artifacts to post-modernism and cubist artworks. Souvenir shopping was done at Andrew's descent, a winding stone street leading up a hill to St. Andrew's cathedral. Along the road are vender's with items and gifts, most of them tacky, to sell to tourists and my dad had a fun time haggling with them as they know enough English to conduct their minor business. We were back and forth top to bottom left to right in Kyiv on the subway and in taxis for two days straight.

The second night in Kyiv and last night of my dad's trip, we made reservations for a restaurant called Porto, which I read about in a guide and thought it would appeal to my dad's tastes. My dad, Bethanie, fellow PCV's Amber and Seth, along with his sister who was visiting, my former Russian language teacher Max and his wife Lena all joined us at this chic restaurant. It specialized in seafood and there were giant ice sheets with whole fish laying out which you could choose, and then select how you wanted it to be cooked. My dad was more than in his element, being a host that is, and more than took care of my friends and me. Max and my dad hit it off, sitting next to each, as Max acted as the main translator and interpreter for the evening. We had more food than I could ever wish to describe, but I will say it was amazing. There were plates of fish on fire, giant salads, octopus tentacles, wine, four or five different kinds of fish and of course desert, and then flaming after dinner liqueurs. Needless to say it was a step up from making tuna sandwiches in the Peace Corps office lounge. My dad was glowing after the dinner and I felt glad the place I chose suited us perfectly. It was the best way to end his trip, hosting others in their own country, meeting my friends here, and of course laughing.

It was an amazing trip and though a lot of this blog is simply a recount of what we did, I have a lot more to say about the impact and impressions it left as well as my Dad's observations. I'll leave that for another time.

I'm off tomorrow on a train and will be spending the next two weeks in Slovakia, Austria and the Czech Republic. Safe travels and talk soon.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

When awareness is combined with sympathy, they always bring tolerance and support.

When awareness is combined with sympathy, they always bring tolerance and support.

Friday, the tenth of May was the second part of my HIV/Awareness campaign relating to my project at my small village site in Eastern Ukraine – a rock concert by and for students. The main focus of the work is giving teachers the tools, facts, and strategies necessary for talking to students about sex, narcotics, and ultimately HIV/AIDS. While planning this work, my counterpart and I organized opportunities which expose students to facts, myths, and statistics regarding the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but doing so through events which attract their attention (see also: the previous blog regarding the school dance).

Unfortunately, Inna, my project counterpart has been out of school for nearly three weeks now, including the week leading up to the rock festival, due to health issues. Inna did an excellent job planning and executing the school dance and similarly planned the rock festival. However, I found out the day before she would not be able to attend so I had to first find out where she left off and then pick up from there. Thankfully, my English teaching counterpart Raisa and my school director Zhanna helped me immensely.

The two hour schedule included four student group performances, Simbioz, Anomalia, Fallen Angels, and Cemetery. In between each performance we hoped to show segments of Queen’s benefit performance for HIV/AIDS awareness in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city containing the greatest student population. The video included information about the life and death of Freddie Mercury, facts regarding the epidemic, and Queens performance which was watched by nearly 300,000 Ukrainians in Kharkiv’s square.

Around 4:45 on Friday, fifteen minutes before the start of the concert, few students had arrived to our school’s auditorium. I faced the conflict of the first band starting with barely any audience versus the inability to delay the start by more than a few minutes. Additionally, the auditorium was still well lit from increasingly longer days and I wasn’t sure the film would be visible under such conditions.

Ultimately, we started half an hour late which proved inconsequential. I gave the same speech in Russian from the school dance and then introduced my really good friend Brad Luckhardt. Having studied Russian for several years, he gave a much better, more advanced speech. Brad’s speech follows:

Good evening respected guests,

I thank you all for coming to this evening’s meeting. I want to say a big thank you to Mr. Alan (me), his colleagues, and especially his students for all of their efforts. Some of us here know the facts about the AIDS epidemic in Ukraine. An independent estimate by the United Nations says that in 2007 there were around 400,000 HIV positive people living in Ukraine. In that same year the United Nations believes that around 20,000 people died of AIDS in Ukraine. That statistic is even more frightening because it represents real people who live around us; our neighbors, our friends, and our relatives. We should know that in reality all types of people can have HIV and that being HIV positive doesn’t say anything about a person’s personality.

It is my opinion that the most difficult obstacle in our fight against HIV/AIDS is a lack of awareness. What does that mean? What should we know? Without question we should know how HIV is transmitted and in which ways we can protect ourselves.

Moreover, we should know that a HIV positive mother has a good chance of giving birth to a healthy child, given that she knows her own HIV status and that she does everything possible for the child’s health. Additionally, we should know that if people living with HIV learn about their status early enough, they can live a full life with the help of medicine which, by the way, is available free in Ukraine.

Knowing all of this we can live without fear. This is most important because if we live in fear we cannot support one another. When awareness is combined with sympathy, they always bring tolerance and support.

I hope that events such as our concert this evening will be the first step towards a society in which we can live hand in hand, with mutual support, without fear, regardless of our HIV Status. I wish you good health, a pleasant mood, good listening, and all the very best.

Добрый вечер уважаемые гости! Я благодарю вас всех за то, что вы пришли на нашу сегодняшнюю встречу. Я хочу сказать огромное спасибо Mr. Alan, его коллегам, и особенно его ученикам за все их усилия.

Некоторые из нас знают факты об эпидемии СПИДа в Украине. По независимой оценке ООН в 2007ом году на территории Украины проживало около четырёхсот тысяч ВИЧ-инфицированных людей. В этом же году ООН тоже считает, что около двадцати тысяч погибли из-за СПИДа. Такая статистика страшнее потому, что она представляет настоящих людей, которые живут вокруг нас – наши соседи, наши друзья, и наши родственники. Мы должны знать, что в действительности все категории людей могут иметь ВИЧ, также позитивный ВИЧ статус не говорит ничего о личности человека.

По-моему мнению, самая большая трудность в борьбе с явлением ВИЧ/СПИДом недостаток знаний. А что это значит, что мы должны знать? Однозначно мы должны знать, как ВИЧ передаётся и какими способами можно защищать себя, также мы должны знать что ВИЧ-инфицированная мама имеет все шансы родить здорового ребёнка при условии, что она знает свой статус и делает всё возможное для спасения своего ребёнка. К тому же, если инфицирован человек узнаёт свой статус достаточно рано, с помощью лекарства, которое между прочим выдаётся бесплатно в Украине, он может жить полной жизнью. Зная всё это, мы можем жить без страха. Это главное потому, что если мы живем со страхом, мы не можем поддерживать друг друга. Когда знание соседствует с сочувствием, они всегда привносят толерантность и поддержку.

Я надеюсь, что такие мероприятия как наш концерт являются первым шагом к обществу, где все могут жить рука об руку с поддержкой и без страха, невзирая на их статус. Я желаю вам всем крепкого здоровья, хорошего настроения, приятного слушания и всего всего наилучшего.

The explosion of applause was thunderous at the close of his speech. Brad spoke confidently yet assertively, with a presence that helped illustrate the dire situation Ukraine currently faces. We then watched the first ten minutes of Queen’s televised performance. The teachers in attendance commended the video as it discusses Freddie Mercury’s isolation and fear upon discovering his HIV status. Regrettably, too little time was allotted for the video and I wish we could have watched more than ten minutes.

The students’ performances were great, ranging from rap metal, classic rock, and even some rather epic hard rock. During their performances, some of the group members grabbed the microphone in between their songs to speak what was on their mind regarding HIV/AIDS. This was one of the best parts of the night as I had solicited them to share some words. I felt proud as I watched them speak about HIV/AIDS out of their own free will.

As the students performed, my great friends and fellow volunteers Amber Webb and Marnie Ajello passed out red ribbons to the audience. In addition to those two and Brad, group 35 volunteer Chris McDonald, my site mate Chris Russell, and Curtis Schwieterman were in attendance to support the event.

The many talents of the students in my village can not be overstated. The other volunteers were all impressed with the singing, song writing, and playing abilities of each and every group on the stage. Having played with some of the groups, mostly Sergiy and Marina from Anomalia, I was amazed to see how much their music has progressed in the little time I’ve been here. Another great aspect of the concert was that it provided a free, fun, and positive environment for kids for a few hours after school.

In between the groups, students read information about HIV/AIDS, including myths, ten important facts, and finally a quiz that allowed the audience to display their knowledge. Each group had twenty minutes to perform and they stuck to their word and required only three minutes to set up after the previous group had finished.

The final performance of the night was what my counterpart dubbed “The American Boys,” Curtis Schwieterman and I. We put our years of guitar playing to use and Curtis brought down the house with his smooth and forceful voice. We played Better Together by Jack Johnson, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, Curtis’ own song Walking in Circles, Redemption Song and No Woman No Cry by Bob Marley, and Northbound 35 by Jeffrey Foucault. One of the best parts during our performance was when I asked in Russian, “Do you know Bob Marley?” and the audience roared. Ukrainians LOVE clapping along and they tried do likewise during our songs, which didn’t really mesh since some of our songs were very mellow and solemn, so it turned into a funny cross cultural moment. We received a more than warm reception and it was truly an amazing opportunity my school was never hesitant in providing. We took many photos and videos and hope to share them with you all when I can.

Ultimately, seven Americans and about 150 Ukrainians were in attendance for the night’s two hour concert. I was proud to see sixth graders to teachers and school alumni and of course especially happy to see my students present. It was the most exciting and personally rewarding thing I’ve done so far and I hope it had some lasting effect.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

An opportunity to help volunteers in Ukraine

The following introduction and article was written by PCV Amber Webb who shared a training site near Kyiv with me and currently lives in my neighboring oblast. She's spearheading a project with PC Ukraine's Environmental working group, which I take part in, and together we will implement this project if we receive the required funding. Enjoy. Keith

Hello Friends and Family of Keith! For the past year and a half, I've been a Peace Corps volunteer with Keith here in eastern Ukraine. I'm writing today to tell you about an exciting project you can get involved with! I'm sure Keith has written often of the circumstances we live in, yet wonderful people we have the brilliant opportunity to work with! As a member of the Environmental Working Group, our current project is to increase environmental awareness across Ukraine. The Project is called 'Eco Meters Across Ukraine' and can be viewed more on the Peace Corps website. I'd really appreciate if you could take the time to read a quick article about our lives here in the East, and go onto the PC website to donate to the project if its within your means. Thanks for you time! Email me with any questions or comments you may have! To donate: Go to, Click Donate, Click Current Volunteer Projects, wait for the entire screen to pop up and scroll to the very bottom. You'll find our project title 'Eco Meters' A.Webb KS Peace, Love, and Smiles,Amber WebbPCV Yasinavataya, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine


Babas, Bucket Baths, and Lynch Mobs - Amber Webb

Yesterday a baba asked me why I chose to come to Ukraine. What’s a baba, you may wonder? Baba is the affectionate term for ‘grandmother’ in Russian. They are the hardened post-soviet women, draped in head scarves and thick stockings, pedaling their pickles and beets on every street corner, and absolutely the purest representation of Ukrainian culture. They’ve endured famines and wars, don’t even flinch at sub-zero temperatures, and can drink vodka like its water. Don’t you know in Ukraine, a shot a day keeps the doctor away? So when one of these stoic daughters of Lenin asks you a question, you’d better be prepared to answer.

Seventeen months ago, I arrived in Ukraine as a Peace Corps volunteer. Ukraine is not a country that you’ll often see in the media for such horrors as the kidnapping drug cartels of South America or the child soldiers and spreading AIDS epidemic in Africa, but it is a country of many problems that simmer just below the surface of the world’s attention.

My assignment is in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. It is the most industrialized and polluted area in Europe. I’m sure after two years in the Donbas, my daily runs will result in Black Lung and the occasional dip I take in the river will produce a second belly-button or 3-eyed offspring, but this is my life as a Peace Corps volunteer. I wake every morning hoping for running water, sometimes arrive to work dazed and slightly euphoric from the exhaust-filled buses, and have on occasion, slept in a parka and snow boots on the bitterest of winter nights. But for all its hardships, Ukraine has also given me moments of confused but well-intentioned oddity.

On a Peace Corps budget, my washing machine is actually a bucket which doubles as my bathtub. Hence, I hand-wash my clothes… and apparently not very well. One day, after returning from work, I went to collect my drying garments from the line. Under the watchful eyes of collecting babas, I took my clothes only to find that they were a little cleaner than when I’d first left. Wondering how this was possible, I looked around until the herd of babas that had secretly re-washed my clothes, tried to hide the evidence by scattering to the wind and avoiding eye contact. I didn’t pursue any accusations in hopes that the practice would continue.

On another occasion, it was yet one more evening of the frequent power-outages in my town. On the assumption that the clumsy American girl probably didn’t think to have candles, the neighborhood kids came to bring me some. When they found I wasn’t at home, worry set in. Armed with flashlights and candles, babas and parents in tow, they marched through the streets to find me. After buying a phone card from a man on the street, I glanced up to see what looked to be a lynch mob coming my way. My initial reaction was to run. I do only live a few hundred short miles from Transylvania and visions of Frankenstein and burning at the stake were running through my mind. However, in a brief and rare moment of rational thought, I realized that Ukrainians are generally a kind and giving people. They returned me home safely, stocked with candles and matches and I have since wondered why they take such care of me and have such respect for what I do?

One explanation is that many Ukrainians wonder why I would leave the comfort and affluence of the US to be a volunteer in Ukraine. For them, this is a county that was dealt a bad hand. The constant political instability and on-going corruption has only lead to a public acceptance of stagnant development. The economy is failing, public welfare is neglected, and the environment becomes more and more detrimental to health everyday. Even now in the second decade of post-soviet development, mentalities have been slow to change, activists are few and far between, and for many it is a waiting game of unlikely government support. Yet, Ukraine is a country with much potential for development. For years now they’ve teetered on the edge of success and efficiency, yet never quite crossed the finish line. My job and the job of Peace Corps volunteers worldwide is to help facilitate this process.

So why did I come to Ukraine? Why do I live in darkness 16 hours a day and survive on a diet of cabbage and potatoes? I’d like to say it’s the exotic local and easy life, but this is the Donbas. The kid I see recycling his trash, the students I see collecting clothes for orphans, and the activism of my blind friends here to make a better life for all minority and repressed groups, that’s the reason I came. The Ukrainians I work with may lack funds, but they definitely don’t lack spirit. Introducing these ideas of sustainable development and volunteerism to such people is what makes me smile, even on the darkest days here in Ukraine. It is for this reason I write. Currently, many of my students have embarked on a project to increase environmental awareness. The project is call Eco Meters Across Ukraine and the idea is to start mass clean-ups in urban areas and to paint environmental murals in the most dirty and polluted regions. Because the economic crisis is hitting worst abroad in the developing world, our ability to fundraise is limited. Hence, we write to you in hopes that you can spare a little extra money to make a difference not only to my hard-working students, but also to the thousands of Ukrainians that will see our murals on a daily basis.

If you would like to contribute to this project donations are tax-deductible. Please visit the website:, click on donors and donate to a volunteer project. For region, type Europe and Central Asia. You can also type that my home state is Kansas. Submit and scroll to the bottom of the page. The project is called “Eco Meters Across Ukraine”.

HIV/AIDS Project - Pt. I

Friday, March 20th was the first activity of several up and coming events related to my HIV AIDS prevention and awareness project which was funded by PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Action Plan for AIDS Relief).

Our school had a dance to help raise awareness about the problem of HIV/AIDS in Ukraine, Europe, and the world. It was mostly organized by my PEPFAR colleague, Inna, a teacher of biology at my school who attended a week long training seminar with me in Kyiv provided by Peace Corps.

We’ve had some disagreements and a few snags with the implementation of our project, mainly due to lack of experience executing a real project with real money and the language barrier. Most of my time is spent speaking English as my primary work is teaching English as a foreign language. Not to mention, she speaks Surzhik rather heavily, a blend of Ukrainian and Russian, so my Ukrainian vocabulary has slowly increase.

We invited all students from 8th grade and up from my school and School Number 2 where my site mate Chris works. At first I was uncertain as only a handful of students arrived by the official start time, 4:00pm. We pushed back the opening speeches and introductions by an hour and students danced and talked while others arrived. At 5:00pm we had about 30-35 students, which was less than we were both expecting. Anya, an 11th grader, gave an introduction of my project work with Inna which includes training teachers to be service providers and how to talk to kids about HIV/AIDS and then I gave a short speech in Russian.

Good evening. I would like to say that we have worse diseases than HIV and AIDS; for example, fear, hatred, ignorance, and discrimination.

HIV and AIDS are problems which are both important and serious. This is not only a problem for people citizens of Ukraine, but citizens of the world. We have a responsibility so that people who live with HIV and AIDS don’t live alone.

Ukraine has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in Europe. Protect yourself and those you love.

And remember that HIV is not transmitted through laughter or friendship, and certainly not through dance. Let’s dance! In Ukraine and America, it’s fashionable [smart] to be healthy.

The students starting cheering despite my inability to pronounce the word ignorance in Russian, obyazannast. The students organized the music and acted as DJs and every fourth song or so, students gave information about HIV/AIDS transmission and prevention, which was executed wonderfully.

They spoke about Freddie Mercury, the former leadsinger of Queen who died of AIDS. Queen is an exceptionally popular group in Ukraine and only last year the remaining members performed an HIV/AIDS benefit concert in Kharkiv for free in front of about 300,000 screaming Ukrainians. After speaking about the death of Mercury, they played a Queen song and every student knew every word in English and as they screamed the words at the top of their lungs I felt foolish as I didn’t even recognize the song!

I’m really proud of my counterpart and how well she planned the activity. We had about fifty students come and raised just under 40 UAH which at the current exchange rate is about 5 dollars but for Ukraine that is quite a bit. At first I was disappointed at the small turnout, but the students had so much fun and as I thanked them as they left, they said “No, thank you!” which totally sealed the event as being a success.

I never thought dancing with 14-17 year olds for three hours would be so much fun, but really it was a great time. Chris came as well as one student from his school and it was just a great, fun, positive environment.

In two weeks, we will be having a Rock Festival at school. Three of our school’s rock groups will play. My good friend Curtis will accompany me on some acoustic songs as well which makes me excited. In between groups, Inna will show segments from the Queen concert in Kharkiv which was broadcasted. It’ll show information about Mercury’s life, HIV in Ukraine, and select songs from the group. I can’t wait for this event as rock is more popular than the disco scene and more students will come as they won’t be expected to dance – or at least I hope this forecast comes true.

So signing of with our project’s slogan, It’s smart to be healthy!