I think this picture of Bruce captures some of the feelings we’ve had. This was what Bruce and I both agree “our best day in Ukraine”. This is one of those times that I know words can’t even begin to convey the amazing day we had. We found ourselves at the end of the day sitting with Olga under a make shift gazebo in the middle of a green meadow that surrounded a pond with 5 new friends who hours earlier had been complete strangers. We had just spent the last hour snacking on cheese, and bread and toasting (with juice) to, “helping others, and friendship”. We had been invited to join the representative from the International Relief Development (IRD) to visit the Mayor of a small town called Ukriansk. We had told her previously that we are looking for organizations that are teaching people to become more self-reliant so we went to see if we might be able to do a project in Ukrainsk. The Mayor, Vitaly has been working to rebuild the city since 2002 when they had a terrible mining disaster that trapped and killed 35 men. The Mayor and one of the women whose husband had been killed in the mining disaster had been our tour guides as we came to know the small town of 13,000 people though their eyes. The woman, Nadia was a representative of a woman’s organization and was hoping we could help them purchase some playground equipment for a public park. There is not one park in the whole town. The Mayor is a true Hero. He was proof that one person really can make a difference. He told us how in 2002 when he became Mayor he got busy firing the people who were responsible for the mining disaster, and other city officials who were not doing their jobs. He told us how the city was in desperate need of proper heat and running water. They had 241 apartment buildings and only 19 of them had hot running water. He said in 2002 they had electricity breaks that lasted 1-2 weeks. The mine closed and the town was slowly dying. The Mayor and his friends began the transformation by physically going out on the streets and picking up trash. He went to the Media and pleaded for help rebuilding the town.
What we saw when we began our tour was a lot of old buildings but many happy people. The Mayor had asked some parents to meet us at the location where they want to build the playground and as we stood in this vacant lot around the corner comes mothers and fathers pushing strollers or carrying toddlers in their arms to meet us. They told us how much they need this play area, and how much the Mayor has done for their town.
Then we went to see the Kindergarten. Nadia had taught here for 24 years. She just lit up when we entered the building. I have to admit so did I. When we entered the first classroom all these little 2 year olds were sitting in a circle reading a story. Bruce sat down and they all started smiling and performing for us. It was so cute. I didn’t want to leave. Then we went into the next classroom of 5 year olds and they were even cuter. They were more than happy to pose for pictures and stood with their arms around each other. One little boy said to his little friend, “she took my picture twice”. They were adorable. Smiling faces everywhere. I want you to know that I could feel the endorphins kicking in. There is nothing like being in a room of happy children. Then reality hit. We learned that last winter the kindergarten had no heat and when the children needed to take naps they had to put hot water in water bottles to place in their beds to keep them warm. I couldn’t believe the condition of the old water boiler. I just kept saying, “Wow”. It was so old and rusty, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
In an attempt to try to rebuild the city the Mayor has made affordable housing available to young families. The mine has reopened and some other plants have been opened in the area. So now they have 2 kindergartens with about 100 children each and 80 children on the waiting list. The Director told us when mothers are pregnant they put their child on the list. We saw one woman walking up to the building with a small child at her side and she was holding a plant. The director said, “she wants us to get her child in the school but we don’t have an opening right now.”Remember that Kindergartens are like our Day Care in America and the children begin when they are as young as 18 months old. We left the kindergarten and headed for the mine. What a grim contrast. I didn’t realize how much so until I got home and looked at the pictures I had taken of the Mayor and Tatiana. The expressions on their faces showed the pain of the memory of the needless disaster that had claimed 35 lives just 6 years earlier. I saw that pain again as we sat under the gazebo at the end of the day and our friend told us of the love story of her and her husband of 20 years and how she was left alone with her 17-year old son.
We got back in the cars and headed for the sports center. It was more like an American boys and girls club. As we approached we got out and entered this little Garden of Eden in the middle of town. The old building was surrounded by beautiful flower gardens. There was a little wrought iron fence in the front of the building with a fresh coat of bright blue paint. We were greeted by more smiling faces, this time teenagers. There were a small group of girls talking with one or two boys sitting on a bench. They quickly came over to greet the mayor and pose for a picture holding the new sports balls that Lubov had brought from another sponsor. Around the back of the building we found a group of boys playing soccer. The mayor and Lubov joined a small group of teenagers for a game of volleyball while Bruce and Olga and I stood and watched. I want you to know if I wasn’t wearing a dress I would have jumped right in. We watched as the Mayor and Lubov both turned into kids again for just a few moments. More smiles and laughter were exchanged by all. When we entered the building we found a room with a ping pong table, another room with a boxing ring, with some punching bags, and a room for gymnastics and dance. Lubov had told us earlier that this sports facility was the dream of the Mayor. The mayor had felt it was really important that the young people had this opportunity to develop talents and participate in healthy activities. We were impressed when we approached the group of boys playing soccer when the Mayor asked one boy by name where he was yesterday. Lubov says he knows everyone by name.
Our next stop was the music and art center. This was located in another building that we had to drive to. We were greeted by the Director of the music school. The children come here for art and music lessons after school. The lessons aren’t free but they make them available to the low income families at a very low cost. The director said that they don’t have a piano, and the children have to buy their own instruments. So I gather all they have is the building and the teachers. Well, you have to start somewhere. The Mayor says they have many talented students but no money for instruments. Then we entered a room where three teenage girls were taking an art class. It is hard for me to describe the limited amount of supplies they have. Let’s just say, this was definitely another lesson in gratitude. There was a still life display in the front of the room and I was so impressed with the drawings the instructor showed us her students had done of it.
I don’t know how to summarize this experience. Except to say that we started the day sitting at a long executive table across from 2 complete strangers and we were ending the day sitting in a meadow under a gazebo having a picnic with two people we would never forget. Can one person make a difference? You bet. This man, who was raised in an orphanage, was breathing life into a city that had died. We had seen the fruits of his labor. The buildings were still old and dilapidated; many were still without proper heat and running water. But the people were happy. They now had jobs and were raising families. This one man was contributing to the future success of hundreds of Ukrainian children. Our new friend, Nadia had been raised in an orphanage as well. She was amazing. She had lost the love of her life in a tragic mining accident and yet I laughed more with her than I have laughed with anyone since I came to Ukraine. When it was time to leave we joked about just getting a tent and staying there for the night. It was one of those moments that you just don’t want to end. It was one of those moments when you wonder as you reach out to shake hands, if they felt what you felt. Somehow you know that even without sharing the spoken language your souls have shared something that surpasses anything words could convey.