This June, we spent a week in Uman, a mid-sized city in Central Ukraine. Uman’s big tourist draw is Sofiyivka National Park; you might have seen some of the pictures from that:
But we went to Uman not as tourists but to work with a fellow PCV and friend on a camp she was running. June, for PCVs in Ukraine, is camp season. The country is full of volunteers running these 5-10 day events for kids and teens with all kinds of focuses, from creative writing to Model UN to girls’ empowerment to HIV awareness to music and theater. If the youth are into it, there’s probably a camp for it. And when I talk to Ukrainian teens, these camps are the highlight of their summers. My students still say “that one time at Camp ACT,” “last summer when I was at Camp WILD….,” “at Film Camp we…” with great enthusiasm. Peace Corps camps are highly competitive, and many are funded by partnerships between local partners, State Department Grants (like Let Girls Learn), and donations from supporters in the States.
But Camp You and Me was the first of its kind here in Ukraine. This camp was a two-week endeavor. During the first week, 25 teens took part in sessions with topics like gender equality, leaderships, anti-bullying, which are pretty common education goals for PC camps. But these teens also had trainings on inclusive language, etiquette when working with individuals with special needs, tolerance and acceptance. These trainings prepared the teens for the second week, when 25 kids, ages 6-15, arrived. Then the teens became counselors,and they were paired with a kid camper, each of whom had some sort of special need, from autism to dyslexia to Down Syndrome to cerebral palsy. The counselors were in charge of making sure that their camper had a great time, and could participate in every activity. Each morning was filled with different stations that teams rotated through, with activities including making slime in a Sensory Station,
and more. After lunch at a local cafe, each afternoon had a theme. One day was a carnival, where PCVs and teachers ran games like ring toss, face paint, knock-the-cans, etc.
Another day was a quest for treasure, complete with maps and a pirate.
And the last day was a talent show, where campers and counselors performed all kinds of talents from singing to art to puppets.
The best part though, as a PCV, was two-fold: being a part of making camp a super fun and special place for the campers, who had a stellar time, and watching the teens step up and spend a week making sure their camper was having fun, hanging out and playing. These teens went above and beyond to make camp a positive experience for everyone.
And all of these great pictures? Taken by the one, the only:
Chris came to Uman to be the photographer for this camp, and if you want to see more of what the camp was like, all the photos are on their Facebook page. The camp was even featured on local television.
It was a super special experience for both of us, and all of the volunteers involved are hoping that this is the first of many inclusive camps in Ukraine. Here, where inclusive education and attitudes are just beginning to really spread, this is a crucial space for kids to just be kids. In the words of the PCV director: “Just let them play.”