Victory Day

Ukraine has about a million holidays. This country that I now call home loves a celebration. They have had a difficult history, so in the context of that, it makes sense that they appreciate any chance to celebrate when they can. (If you’re still referring to Ukraine as ‘The Ukraine’ and you don’t know much about what I’m talking about, I highly recommend Borderland, it’s a fascinating book that details the complex history of this incredible country.

We celebrated Easter with what felt like a million loaves of паска, which is special Easter bread, a special dinner with way too much food crafts and time off of school. I loved getting the chance to be involved in this holiday and to observe these fascinating traditions.

Before Easter, we had Women’s Day. Celebrated on the 8th of March, this day celebrates mothers, women and girls. We had school performances, a day off of school and presents! I was given flowers, lotion and candy by my students. This teacher thing ain’t so bad.

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Most recently, we celebrated Victory Day. Victory Day celebrates the end of World War Two, or, more specifically “a holiday that commemorates the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War” (Wikipedia). This is most similar to Veteran’s Day or Memorial Day in America.

A few fun facts:

  • Ukraine has recognized this holiday since its independence in 1991
  • It wasn’t until 2013 that people got the day off, if it falls on the weekend, then they get Monday off. We got two days off because it fell on a Tuesday, but not everyone is as lucky
  • Since 2015, it’s been officially recognized as “Victory Day over Nazism in World War II,” separating it from Victory Day which was how it was celebrated when Ukraine was a member of the former Soviet Union
  • They used to refer to World War Two as the “Great Patriotic War”
  • The symbol of Victory Day is the red poppy
  • The motto of the day is “1939-1945. пам’ятаємо. Перемагаємо” or “1939-1945. We remember. We prevail.”

In Mamalyga, Victory Day started with a parade. The students armed with balloons and flowers, walked from the school to the monument across the street. Every city, town and village has at least one WWII memorial. At the monument, we listened to a speaker talk about the history and importance of the day, had a moment of silence and the kids put the flowers in front of the monument. Someone read the names of the men who died fighting in the war and a priest came and blessed the veterans standing in the front.

Afterwards their was a concert by my students in the house of culture, which is another fascinating remnant from the Soviet era. It’s basically a large meeting and recreation area. Like WWII monuments, every city, town and village has one. They generally have concert halls, dance studios and other rooms. The idea being these “Culture Houses” would provide meaningful leisure activities to the inhabitants of the villages or towns. In Mamalyga, I’ve seen it used for concerts and for ‘discos,’ which was basically school dances.

Update on me, I’ve got two more weeks of school left. I’m running a half marathon next weekend. I’ve got a camp for my students the week after school gets out. My summer is starting to fill up with camps I’m helping out with and with trips I’m planning to explore this beautiful country I call home. It’s been ridiculously hot already, so this PNW girl is in for a treat/rough summer. All in all, I’m excited to spend the summer exploring and preparing to jump back in to clubs and classes when we come back for school in September.

 

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Reflection

The Peace Corps was created to promote world peace and friendship. It has three goals-

Every six months, Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world are required to document every aspect of their volunteer efforts on a daunting document known as the VRF or “Volunteer Reporting Form.”

It is onerous and detailed and while I completely understand why it is necessary, it’s also frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting the chance to brag about myself, my students and the activities I’ve been up to at site, my adorable millennial self is also all about the fact that I can use my Instagram and blog as a “Third-goal” activity, but it’s tedious and time consuming and also I hate it.

So, I’m taking a break to work on my “third goal” and to reflect, as I’ve been asked to do.

Peace Corps has three goals.

1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

  1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.

I accomplish that goal by teaching with my counterparts, running my English clubs and helping run camps and workshops that train teachers in new teaching methods and teaching students about English and other topics.

 

 

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

I accomplish that goal any time I talk about American holidays, American foods or American traditions with my students, my host family or anyone here that I interact with. That’s right folks, when I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watched Guy Fieri taco truck videos with my students, I was also working towards one of the goals of the peace corps. When made March Madness brackets and I taught them what a “bracket buster” was, also accomplishing a goal. These may seem like silly examples, but they ar3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.e different aspects of American culture that I have loved having the opportunity to share.

3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

If you know me, or you follow me on any form of social media, you know I’m all about social media. I majored in communications in college and took classes like “Interactive journalism” which could have also been called “how to twitter 101.” I have the same handle for my Instagram, twitter, and blog for ‘branding purposes.’ In reality, it’s more for consistency and to make it easier for people to find me.

I appreciate all three goals, but this one has a special place in my heart. Since I’ve been here, I’ve had countless moments where something happens, I’m at an event or I see something take place and I just wish someone else was there to experience it, to recognize what is happening. My blog, Instagram etc., give me the chance to do just that. I get to document my experiences and show them to people that likely had no little to no knowledge of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture. I love it! From playing dress up in traditional Ukrainian clothes, to beautiful architecture, to performances, I love getting to share my experiences with family and friends at home.

I consider myself lucky to be able to have these experiences, so having the chance to share them is a no brainer. I hope if you’re reading this, you’ve enjoyed what I’ve shared so far and you’re looking forward to me oversharing for the next 20 months of my life.

English Club Corner

This week at my English Club, we talked about summer vacations. I described 4th of July and BBQ’s, we watched videos about summer camp and Disney land.

At the end of the club, I had students write what they would like to do during summer if they could do anything and these were a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

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The one where Whitney has a ball at her feet again-Part 2

Three and a half years later, I graduated from university, packed my bags and headed to Ukraine! (That makes it sound so much easier than the year-long process that it all entailed). I had gone back and forth on whether to bring my cleats with me when I packed and they were ultimately left at home, more room for peanut butter. (No regrets there).

When I got to my training site, I was a little too timid to go kick around in our little village. It took me a few weeks to be comfortable enough to even run in my village. It’s a tough thing to move to a country where no one looks like you, you don’t know the language or the culture and everyone stares at you when you just walk down the street. Now try running in those conditions. God forbid you try to run in shorts.

All that to say, it took me a while to work up the courage. Then winter started and no one was doing anything outside because it was like negative 1,000 degrees all the time. I spent a lot of time working on my downward dog during those months.

When I first got to my permanent site, it was a little warmer, but only a little. Definitely still too cold for soccer. Then it warmed up and my sweet little village was covered in mud. Now it’s legit hot and I love it and I finally got a ball at my feet again.

It started with having class outside. I remember asking all of my teachers (and professors if we’re being honest) once the weather warmed up if we could have class outside. I LOVE having class outside. I’m well aware that little to nothing gets done if you have class outside, but that doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it. Therefore, whenever my students ask me in broken English and Ukrainian if we can have class outside, my gut response is always yes.

We don’t get a whole lot accomplished, but it sure is fun. On one of these lovely days, one of my fourth graders had a soccer ball and asked if I wanted to play. I said yes, mostly because I knew I probably wouldn’t embarrass myself too badly in front of these kids.

I quickly came to the realization that A. I was out of shape. I run here, but my body was not (and is still not) primed for the quick sprints that soccer requires. My second realization was that I still got it. My feet weren’t quite comfortable, but I felt the mechanics coming back. It was like riding a bike, as the idiom goes.

Since that fateful day…which makes it sound so much more intense than me kicking around a soccer ball with a bunch of fourth graders…since then, I bought my own ball. I use it to kick around as a warm up to my runs at the soccer field here in Mamalyga. My first day walking back to my house with it after school, I ran into some of my students who asked if I would play. I’d just run about 5 miles, but how can you say no to Dima?

I’m very proud to say that we had an uneven number and I was worth two fifth graders. (Ya hatin’ didn’t work).

Sometimes I get asked to join a pick-up game if there’s one going on at the field before or after my run. I also don’t have a day go by without a kid running up breathlessly to ask me “Whitney, you will play football with us today?” Now, it depends on whether or not I have English club after school and what I’m wearing. Soccer in a dress is a challenge, but I’ve played in ballet flats a few times.

This is another way that this sweet little village has accepted me and a way that I’ve made it my home. I’m also gaining more confidence here and I love it. Soon I’ll hopefully be teaching these kiddos about some of my favorite American sports.

The one where Whitney has a ball at her feet again-Part 1

 

I used to play soccer. I don’t mean that lightly, there were many years in my life where my world revolved around the sport that I loved. Summers were spent at practice 3-4 days a week, at camps and commuting to tournaments all over the place.

Soccer is where I found some of my truest friends. Soccer also allowed me to travel to new places and share the sport I love with girls that hadn’t ever played before. Long story short, this sport is and was one of the defining factors of my life.

Knowing all that, why was last week the first time I had played soccer in Ukraine? That’s a tale that starts long before Ukraine, and I’m glad you asked. Buckle up folks, it’s a bumpy ride.

I started playing soccer when I was about three years old. You know, beehive soccer where everyone just runs after the ball. My mom was my coach and she would continue to challenge me for the next eight years. My family would head down to Mexico to help organize soccer camps most summers.

When I was like 10 or 11, I started playing club soccer. That was another level and it’s where I had many adventures and met some incredible people.

My family started going to Cambodia when I was 12, but the first soccer trips wouldn’t come for a couple more years. From age 14 to when I was 17, I spent time in Cambodia. I ran soccer camps, coached teams, taught English and played in exhibition matches with girls all over the country.

When I started looking at colleges, soccer was something pretty far back on the list of priorities. I was good, but I wasn’t THAT good.  It just wasn’t a focus for me at the time, I knew what I wanted to study and what I wanted to get out of my college experience and playing soccer wasn’t near the top of the list. I’ve thought about how my college experience would have been different if I had pursued that more, but I don’t regret anything. I played intramurals and had a blast at school.

Teamwork Makes the Dream work

What they don’t tell you about Peace Corps service, or at least I wasn’t paying attention, is how much you need to rely on other people to be successful. I’ve got a solid group of over 70 individuals who are killing it on the daily in their schools, with their clubs and in their towns, villages and cities. This post has some examples.

My favorite part about this job are my clubs. Don’t get me wrong, I am learning to love my time in the classroom, but the area where I have had the most fun as a PCV would hands down be my clubs.

I’ve written about my clubs before, I have one for teachers and I have one for students. My teachers club has surprised me. I didn’t know if I would enjoy it, but the teachers and parents that attend are quick learners and they work hard.

My students club has a focus on speaking and on American culture. We don’t have homework, we play lots of games, generally, it’s just a fun time for them to hear more about America, play some games and practice speaking English in an environment that’s not as pressurized as a classroom.

We talk about all kinds of things. So far we’ve had topics on travelling, Peace Corps, American music and Valentine’s Day. I like to follow my students lead and take their suggestions, but sometimes I’ve just got something I’d love to share.

PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME

One of those was food. I stole this idea from a fellow volunteer (*cough cough* Alex Polk) but it was a hit. If you know me, you know I. LOVE. FOOD. Having the chance to share some of my favorites with my students was a no-brainer.

I started with a game and then had a presentation about different American foods. I got the chance to explain that America is really lucky to have food from all over the world that is considered ‘American,’ because America is a place where people have come from all over the world that are, in fact, American. I love getting to work in a life lesson when I’m discussing hot dogs and pizza.

I explained what burritos and tacos were and that, besides my family, the thing that I missed the most  about America were the aforementioned burritos and tacos.

We watched a couple of cooking videos with Ukrainian subtitles. I introduced them to Guy Fieri, then we moved on to the main event. EATING.

I recently made my way to the city to the Ukrainian equivalent of Wal-Mart (it’s called вел-март, which is pronounced vel-mart, and it is glorious), and purchased peanut butter and jelly. I showed my students the right way to make PB&J, peanut butter on one piece of bread, jelly on the other, but I had no idea what they would think.

Peanut butter is one of those things that has largely stayed in America, its popularity hasn’t spread to a lot of placed in the world. If I can have an impact on that, I think my work here is done. My kids loved it. We finished up club by watching another cooking video and talking about what they wanted to learn about next week.

THE WORLD’S LONGEST GAME OF UNO

In another idea borrowed from a fellow PCV, my topic this week for my teachers’ club was numbers and colors. I knew I wanted to teach numbers, but I had no idea where to start. One of my fellow volunteers posted the curriculum she created for an adult English club with learners at a beginner’s level.

Guess what my club was? If you guessed ‘an adult English club with learners at a beginner’s level,’ you would be correct!

She had the genius idea of presenting both the numbers and colors, like normal, but then following it up with a game of UNO. Instead of just playing like normal, every time someone played a card they had to say what number and color they were playing, in order to reinforce the topic. For example, if I played a blue 7, I had to say “I have a blue seven.” Pretty simple stuff.

They game worked well, but it also took forever. I had five teachers and parents, which was the perfect number of people. I do have to say, the UNO cards came from my grandma and the packages that I’ve received from her and my parents have given me a chance to feel a little bit of home and, more importantly in my opinion, share some of my home with my students and friends here.

These club examples are a small example of the ways that PCVs support each other to succeed. Whether or not it relates to our work, I’m surrounded by people who are rooting for me, who understand what I’m going through, have great suggestions for me to be better and are open to hearing my suggestions. When it comes to Peace Corps service, teamwork definitely makes the dream work.

Sometimes I have days that don’t feel very “peace corps.”

I talk a lot about the places where I have found successes on my blog, but I think it’s also important to highlight the days or times where I have struggled. There are plenty, trust me.

For example, when I got back from Lviv, I was sick on Tuesday. The long week of travel and the overnight train just took me out and I took a day to recover. I headed to school on Wednesday knowing that my counterpart wouldn’t be there, so I’d be covering the lessons for our shared classes. Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to teach without a Ukrainian teacher also being present, so there was a bunch of confusion over being in different classes and not being able to teach and the lessons were just messy and I felt useless. I was able to end my day with my (crazy) fifth formers, who are obsessed with high-fives and handshakes, and that helped the day. I can’t say they actually learned anything, but class was fun.

When my crew from that class walked me home that day, they asked me what my favorite music was. I considered this an excellent time to plug my English club because the topic is music this week and told them that if they came to English club, they could find out.

The students in this particular class have a test during the day before club and one of them said that he wouldn’t be at school tomorrow. I asked чому? (Why?) and he said because he didn’t want to take the test, but that he would come to English club. I told him I appreciated that, but if he didn’t come to class, he couldn’t come to English club. They all laughed at that and told me that I was very funny. (Does that sound like someone who was voted the least funny in her family? I don’t think so).

Everyday brings new moments like these ones. Moments that challenge me and moments that make me laugh. This kids are incredible and I love getting to know them and seeing them learn. I can’t believe I’ve been in this country for five months now! Time really does fly when you’re having fun I guess!

“The toughest job you’ll ever love”

Talk to any current Peace Corps Volunteer or RPCV (returned peace corps volunteer) about their service and you’ll commonly hear them describe it as “The toughest job they ever loved.”

I remember hearing that phrase after I found out I was accepted from a fellow Whitworth grad, who had served in UKRAINE of all places. Beyond being a wealth of helpful information for me as I prepared to leave for my service in Ukraine, he was the first one I heard that phrase from.

This week is Peace Corps week because it marks the date in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued the executive order establishing the Peace Corps.

I didn’t really understand the description before I started my service, but it really is the only way to appropriately describe what it’s like. That’s also impressive considering how widely different Peace Corps service is in the 140 odd countries currently hosting or that have hosted PCVs.

Each location has its own challenges and each host country is completely unique and that’s so beautiful.

My sweet little village is named after food. Everyone here cares about me so much. Yesterday I didn’t wear tights to school and I was asked by ten different people in three different languages if I was cold.

When I go for a run, the next day my students run up to me in the halls and exclaim proudly “я бачала вас бігати” “I saw you running!” While the teachers and other people in the village discuss the impact that running in shorts in 50-degree weather will have on my health. They care, and that’s what matters.

I get invited to birthday parties, religious events and celebrations for the countless holidays that this country has. Mamalyga is my home.

I also get to teach some incredibly smart kids. All of my students speak two to three languages in addition to studying English. I love seeing them learn and I love learning from them. I love the 5th graders that walk me home everyday and ask me questions like “what are Americans like?”

I’ve never loved a job like I love being a PCV, but this is also the toughest job that I’ve ever had. Being dropped in a village in Ukraine and having to figure out how to live my life in a place where I don’t speak the language, I don’t look like anyone and I don’t know the customs and culture is incredibly difficult.

It’s so worth it though. All of the struggles I’ve had don’t come close to matching up to the moments of sheer joy I’ve had. Like when I’m running and my students stop me just to give me a piece of candy, or my 5th graders take me out for pizza, or my 6th graders ask for selfies after ever single class, or my host mom makes a special dinner on American Christmas just for me.

If you’ve been thinking about Peace Corps service or you’re hearing about it for the first time and you want more info, feel free to reach out to me or check out www.peacecorps.gov for info. It’s the most incredible experience. I know I’m supposed to be serving here and I do believe that I’m imparting something, but man I’m learning so much.

This is the toughest job you’ll ever love. I found myself using that phrase to a friend from high school who was recently offered a position. It’s pretty cool how this kind of thing comes full circle.

 

Looking ahead

I’ve got a lot coming up in the future and I’m excited to see where it goes. My clubs are continuing. I’m getting more involved in lessons. I’ll be helping out with some workshops that some friends are putting on and hopefully hosting one of my own soon.

I’ll start working on our project soon, doing some grant-writing. If you or someone you know has some experience in that world, I would love any tips you could offer.

I’ll also be travelling a bit more, for Peace Corps events and for fun, exploring this new country I call home. If you want to surprise your favorite Peace Corps volunteer with a sweet surprise, I know she’d appreciate Airbnb gift cards to help with travels!

Last but not least, I’ve had a couple people reach out to me and ask about the political climate given what’s happening in Eastern Ukraine. I am safe. I am fine and will continue to be so unless Peace Corps sees something change. I recently had the safety and security officer for Ukraine make a visit to my site and that’s basically what he told me. I encourage you to read this piece written by a fellow PCV about how her students are dealing with the conflict. It’s heavy, but it’s worth the read. This conflict is very real here.

I’m happy, I’m healthy, I’ll try and update this more consistently. Thanks for reading!

‘Lviv-ing’ it up

Formal apology for the pun headline. I couldn’t resist.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Lviv last week. It was incredible. Lviv is such a beautiful city and there is so much going on. I was there for Peace Corps training on Project Design and Management. We spent five days in the city, in meetings learning about grant-writing and working with counterparts in order to create sustainable and impactful projects at our sites.

I learned a lot and I am excited for Chezara and I to start working with our community on the projects that we came up with. We are looking at pursuing a project that centered around recycling and the environment in our village. Creating and promoting a recycling center in the school and improving a school greenhouse to make a school garden.

I also got to spend time with fellow PCVs, which is always a blast. I’ve mentioned before how weird PST is to throw you together with a group of random individuals that you see all the time and then fling you all over the country. These people have become close friends and even family.

Even though they are basically constantly making fun of me, I appreciate them. Luckily, my family shows affection through sarcasm, so I was well-prepared for the savagery I encounter here on a constant basis. It was great to explore the city, eat western food (burgers! Pesto! Garlic bread! ENCHILADAS!), and hang out with these guys. I can’t wait to explore more of this country and Lviv in particular.