A Place to Share: A Peace Corps Volunteer Goes to Camp

by Lani Horowitz

“I’m one of those boring business volunteers who teaches courses like marketing to college students,” I warned a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) when I offered to help out at her summer camp in western Ukraine. To my surprise, volunteering for two summer camps meant not only that I had to quickly learn how to teach English to teenagers and little kids, but I also needed to re-learn how to play games like checkers and “Duck, Duck, Goose” — which I surely haven’t played in some thirty years.

One concern was that I would be working at camps in Western Ukraine, where — surprise — Ukrainian is primarily spoken. In my city of Chernihiv, Russian is the primary language. My other concern was that I would — surprise — work with children. Except for visiting my young nieces about three times a year, I don’t spend much time with children. On the other hand, I might learn something, contribute somehow to the development of some children in Ukraine, and actually have fun. In fact, the latter turned out to be the case.

The first camp was an overnight camp called “Youth Leadership Camp,” sponsored by the Lviv Youth Employment Center. The camp was held at Konvalia, a camp facility in Truskavets, about two hours south of Lviv.

The camp facility itself was bare bones — even though the children’s parents paid hefty tuition (grant funds covered volunteers’ food and lodging and all supplies related to programming costs). The Youth Leadership Camp gave twenty-five teenagers the opportunity to learn about a variety of topics — business, advertising, health, environment, debate, gender issues, and more. I was there to teach English two hours each day and provide general exposure to Americans.

The organizer of the camp, PCV Cristina O’Keeffe, created the programming for the camp from scratch. She actually had never been to camp before, but with diligent research and common sense she designed a training program for Ukrainian college students to learn how to run the camp. In the end, these Ukrainian volunteers taught most of the lessons and kept the show running, with Cristina taking a backseat and giving occasional guidance.

In between the lessons, debates, and speeches, we played countless hours of checkers, Scrabble®, and Monopoly® — imported from America. One twelve-year-old boy, Anton, wanted to play Scrabble® all the time. More than once, I would find him waiting for me outside the stall in the bathroom just to see if I wanted to play. By the end of this eighteen-day camp, our spending 24/7 with each other meant a sorrowful departure — the children were literally weeping at the thought of leaving their new best friends. And, Cristina and I choked back a few tears, knowing that we may have touched the lives of the future leaders of Ukraine.

The second camp was not just a camp for kids in the small town of Pidvolochisk (population 10,000), but it was also a camp for PCVs — all fifteen of us who showed up to help. Our demographics probably matched what Peace Corps looks like worldwide: nine recent college graduates, five retirees, and I — the monkey in the middle — at age thirty-six. Two PCVs hosted us in their apartments, where our sleeping bags lined the floors like the rows of kielbasa at the bazaar. Neither of these volunteers had hot water, so we all took turns boiling large pots of water to take baths. The weak plumbing system meant that toilet paper had to go in the garbage can, certainly not a pretty sight with so many of us. Feeding this group was also a chore.

This day camp was sponsored by Pidvolochisk’s School #1 but was free for any child in the town. PCV Elizabeth Mendenhall organized the camp. She bought most of the supplies herself or had items generously donated from America — such as baseball bats, gloves, and balls. Using the school gymnasium and the town’s public stadium, we held two sessions daily. Approximately forty children attended each session. In the morning, we offered basic English lessons for kids between five and ten years old — covering the alphabet, numbers, and colors; in the afternoon, junior high and high school children learned about American culture and history, within the limits of their language abilities (and ours). Each session lasted two hours, with the second hour usually left for playing games. I had no idea that little kids could play “Duck, Duck, Goose” for an entire hour. As well, I was fascinated by the interest and enthusiasm of the older kids when we played baseball, made tie-dye shirts, and wove friendship bracelets.

Now, I am back in Chernihiv. With laundry to do (all hand washing), vegetables to be devoured and canned for winter, and school lessons to be planned, I am like little blonde-haired blue-eyed Yulia in Pidvolochisk — who, everyday, asked me in Ukrainian (three times until I understood her), “When can we go play?” Somehow I doubt it will be another thirty years before I play “Duck, Duck, Goose” again.

Lani Horowitz is a Peace Corps Volunteer serving with her husband in Ukraine. She holds an M.A. in international communication and a master’s in business administration. She has previously worked as a college student advisor and has taught in Slovakia.

Originally published in the 2004 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.

 

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