"At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service." ~Mr. Fred Rogers

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ukraine Lives On

"Ще не вмерла Україна" are the beginning words of the Ukrainian National Anthem. Literally translated, it reads: "Ukraine has not yet died" to which so many people have cynically equated with the country over it's long and somber history. But while I was in Ukraine, one of my mentors translated it another way: "Ukraine lives on!" - The same exact meaning, but more of a glass half-full sort of approach to the life and legacy of her Motherland. 

As I'm sure you've seen from the news, Ukraine is in an upheaval. My heart has been sickened with sadness over the past few weeks seeing everything that is happening in my second home. When the peaceful, mass protests started about 2 months ago, I was elated; overjoyed that the people of a country that I love so much, with so much potential, had risen up to speak out, and speak out they did. But over time, the crowds dwindled due to cold weather, lack of immediate governmental progress, New Year and Christmas celebrations, etc. 

What were peaceful rallies are now violent protests that have escalated as the people's patience dwindles. The crowds may have left, but there is still a core of extreme men and women standing as strong as they can. The protests have become deadly, too, as snipers have shot some protesters (and a journalist) dead. Some protest leaders have been found dead in the forest outside Kyiv, while others have been stripped naked, tortured, and beat in the snow (violence caught on camera, sickening to watch). The extreme momentum has spread nationwide with the opposition taking over "state" level administration buildings. Even the capital of the state of Volyn, where Kolky is located, has been taken over. 

The ruling government is outrageously ignoring the pleas from world officials. Some of the new anti-protesting laws were passed unconstitutionally, in a "show of hand/secret/without quorum or discussion" vote. The extreme laws lead to a slippery slope to dictatorship, and Vice President Biden and Sec. of State Kerry have both asked the President to reconsider such "anti-democratic" violation of human rights. This video explains the root of the problems, and what is going on now.  You also may have seen President Obama mention Ukraine in his State of the Union address. While it was only a few sentences, it was HUGE for Ukraine because he sided with the people. With so much international pressure, the Prime Minister resigned and his post was offered to the leader of the opposition...which was rejected. Also, most of the awful protesting laws were repealed, but the Ukrainian people are (rightfully) still not satisfied.

There are so many articles circulating around my Facebook because so many people I know also share such strong feelings about Ukraine. What I failed to realize is that many of you don't have those same articles being shared every hour, so below are a few. There are a lot on BBC, NYT and the KyivPost. If you're the Twitter type, live updates are happening from a former PCV/current journalist for the KyivPost, Christopher Miller. He, along with his colleagues, have been doing an amazing job posting updates for the English speaking world about what's going on. Check out the KyivPost for more stories and photos. (It's been suspiciously taken off the internet a few times over the last few months, but it always seems to reappear) 

Aljazeera: Watching the Protests [Photos]
HuffPost: 10 Questions About Ukraine You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask

NYT: Love and Hatred in Kiev 

In any of the photos you see or videos you watch, please understand that this is Ukraine in a very extreme situation, with their backs against a wall. This is not the Kyiv that I loved exploring and wandering around for hours. The sometimes apocalyptic looking live shots from the heart of the protests are streaming here. Sometimes people are chanting (Usually, "Glory to Ukraine. Glory to Her heroes"), sometimes people are banging things, sometimes speakers giving encouraging words. Always you can see struggle at its most human form, in the faces of tired men and women and the flames of tire fires. 

Which leads to today...protesters are standing fast and so are the Ukrainian officials. And what can I do? I guess I can share my feelings and educate those around me. I write to my congressmen (and one personally wrote back!) but I know if I were still a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, I wouldn't be able to write this post, let alone share too many of my feelings. 

Transitioning back the US has been a lot harder than I imagined, and certainly not for the reasons I envisioned. People understand where I've been, and they've taken their time to really hear my stories and grasp my experience. Culture shock wasn't wrapped up in conveniences and food, but rather being removed from all I knew. I've found a new normal, and really enjoy it, but Kolky put a spring in my step that few things have ever come close to rivaling. I've kept pretty quiet about Ukraine since coming back because I've needed to do a lot of processing on my own and figure out what exciting things are next. 

I wish, more than anything, that I could gather up all of my students and hear their thoughts about everything. They have the best perspective, because talking to them is like looking into a crystal ball, knowing that they are going to be the ones to make changes next. I wish hugs were felt a half a world away, for my colleagues, teachers, friends...my family in Ukraine. I can't to much but continue to pray, write to my elected officials (daily), and remain hopeful. Stay safe, friends. Stay safe, Kolky. Stay safe, Ukraine. Know that many people across the world believe in your plight and are praying for progress. 

If there is any take away from all of this, it's this: ще не вмерла Україна...Ukraine lives on!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Close of Service

Final day as a Peace Corps Volunteer!

How do you wrap-up a dream come true? Most of you know the story -- 9 year-old Ben writes to a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and a dream is born. Fast forward a few years and Kolky is that dream come true. Well, today was the day. Today, I rang my "last bell" and finished one of the best, hardest, most rewarding and most amazing adventures of these 25 years. To say the least, I've certainly experienced Ukraine and now I'm a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer!

So many emotions ringing that bell! 

From reading this blog over the years, this 33-month Peace Corps journey has been nothing short of amazing. Ukraine, especially Kolky, has given me one of the greatest, most intangible and precious gifts ever given to me. They will never know the impact they have had on my mind and heart, but I know and sometimes that just has to be enough. 

But how does it just stop? Am I just supposed to move on? I guess you travel to new foreign places and eat a lot of Mexican food stateside -- I'll be doing that. I guess you cry when saying goodbye to new family and cry reuniting with the ones you left -- I'll certainly being doing that. I guess it's time for me to figure it out, taking what I've learned here and continuing to share the love that was Kolky and Peace Corps Ukraine. And of course, visit again and again. It doesn't stop, because the lessons learned, the memories made, and the amazing relationships established will certainly last a lifetime. 

My two favorite countries and cake, combined!

This is my last day as a PCV, but this isn't my post, because I will have more to share. I'll be posting about my Poland/Germany trip with the delegation from my school, some of my travels throughout the Balkans, and for sure some readjustment stories as a RPCV. 

For now, I say thanks for reading and for all the love and support. I've been incredibly blessed these years to know so many people were rooting and praying for me from both near and far away. I'm so looking forward to reconnecting with everybody and seeing what the future has in store! 

As a wise President once said, "What's next?"

Monday, June 17, 2013

Final Daze in Kolky

This last month has flown, and I've just wrapped up some of my final days in Kolky. Of course, I'll return for 2 days/1 night with after I get back from Germany/Poland with a group from Kolky Lyceum which makes leaving this time a little easier. 

I've been embracing it, really. Enjoying my morning coffee on my porch, saying yes to every invitation for tea/picnic/late night High School bonfire in my garden. The last few weeks, I've been going to school, where the kids are having "School Camp" - which is pretty much government sponsored organized chaos. That's been fun to get some final days with the kids, and easier than me just peacing out while they are still having lessons. 

I've been taking lots of photos of pretty much everything, trying to capture all that I can, so here are some of the happenings from the past month or so -- check the captions for some explanations to a few. Pretty much they just show a lot of summer fun, Kolky love, and the wrapping up to the greatest experience of my life. 

Prayers are always appreciated as I have just arrived to Kyiv to close my service and start the whirlwind month of travelling before finally arriving to Grand Junction on July 23! 

With 2 of my Counterparts at Last Bell

My sash reads: Favorite Teacher

Some of the flowers I was given 

The parents waiting for the graduates to come out for the Graduation Parade! 

Here they come! 

Parading through town -- the band, then graduates, then teachers, then parents

Both of these teachers taught the graduates from the 1-4 forms. 

Roma's Dad addressing the graduates

Roma receiving his gold metal (valedictorian) 

...and the other gold medalist - Sophie!!! (Both were two of my favorites)

Surprise! Roma whipped out this little number without anyone knowing

Some of my kids sing an English song they wrote to all the English teachers. 

Graduation party! 

Morning at the bridge - waiting for the sunrise! 

Students on the road...parents below drinking. 

One last tour around Lutsk - the old German Lutheran Church (now, Baptist) 

Lutsk Castle

Those of us on the tour - Mark, far left, is the new American working in Kyiv

Surprise picnic with my favorites - 830 p.m. never looked so good! 


4 Course Sunday Dinner at Natalia's house

The teachers ensamble singing at the last Teachers Meeting

My present from the teachers - a Ukrainian doll, but it's a guardian to protect and keep me sa

Every thing is handmade, hand stitched, hand beaded by one of the teachers.

Another late night picnic/bonfire - 10:00 is still pretty bright! 

Best Ever.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Spring Awakening

With my 4th Form Class

I knew that Spring was going to be bittersweet. As much as I absolutely loved seeing Winter finally leave (in April, no less...), I knew that Spring would bring a lot of renewal, green, heat, but certainly more and more 'lasts'. This week is the last week of school -- how did that happen??? Grades were due last week, honors award ceremony was yesterday afternoon, and Last Bell ceremony will be on Friday. Whoa. 

With time winding by and everything starting to wrap up, I've noticed that soon enough, I'll need to start with the goodbyes. I was talking with my Mom yesterday, and 'the end' just seemed too far away to start the goodbyes or start the packing... It's time to start. 

I've never been good at goodbyes, and in fact in the past I've pretty much avoided them. I'm down to about 6 weeks left in Kolky and goodbyes can't be avoided this time and I'd like to be more intentional than I've been in the past.

This is what I wrote in one of my first blog posts, the day before I left in September of 2010:

"In many ways, my reluctance [to say goodbye] is coming from the fact that saying goodbye seems abrupt and final. It really does solidify the fact that I am leaving, the distance and time I will be away from what is safe, and what I know.

Those of you who have known me longer know how emotional my goodbyes can be sometimes. For this experience, I have been more interested in the casual goodbye to the serious and complcated process of explaining to someone their worth and how the distance will be felt."

Some of the goodbyes that I will have in Kolky soon won't be so abrupt, but many will be final.  The next 6 weeks are going to be tough...really tough. Nothing I can do will prepare me for ultimately saying goodbye to this experience and the growth it has brought me, but being present and soaking it all in will allow me to leave knowing that I can carry this experience forward.

Below is my schedule the beginning of Summer, followed by some photos from the past couple of weeks. You can see that from the photos that even though my service may be winding down, it certainly isn't slowing down! 

June 19 - Official "Close of Service" date; gain the coveted title of Returned Peace Corps Volunteer 

June 20 - June 30 - Travel to Poland & Germany with 10 Students and 3 teachers from Kolky Lyceum to participate in our exchange program. 

July 1 - 2 - Final Days in Kolky

July 4 - Fly out of Kyiv to start 3 weeks of traveling 

July 23 - Land in Grand Junction

At a Seminar in Kolky for Teachers of Young Learners
We call this: "The Hokey Pokey"

"You put your head in..."

Reading a book about dinos...what else?!

Our school band welcoming us in to the 50th Anniversary of the Kolky Technical College

My Director giving his greetings to the Director of the Technical College

Volyn Choir and Dancers 

Go Cossack, go!
I hope to post some of the videos of the singing and dancing soon in a post!
My School Administration (Director ont he left was really happy, I promise!!!)
This photo makes me laugh

"Kolkivs'ka 50th Anniversary Vodka"

Shooting a beer commercial in L'viv!
Tommy is easily distracted by all the pretty Ukrainian ladies in L'viv

Atlee, however, is always camera ready! 

Americans playing frisbee in the park
(Pavlo, white t-shirt, is Ukrainian - but studied in the USA, so...semi-American?)

Look at that form! 

Then we made Ukrainian friends who wanted to play! 

Boom! Frisbee champ! 

Tommy was the frisbee all-star
Day 2 of Frisbee in L'viv but this time, only Tommy and Ben plus a bride and groom! 
My favorite train station in the whole world! 

Opening of the Honors Award Ceremony 

Some of my 11th Formers receiving the "Light of Ukraine" Award

3rd Graders are hard to capture when they are dancing
School Ensemble 

Teachers receiving awards! Mr. Benjamin (Bow Tie) and Anastasia (English teacher) to the right

Accolades and a flash drive from my Director and the Volyn State Parliamentarian Representative

All the teachers that had students who received awards in Oblast Olympiads or competitions

My students took a lot of photos

Sophie - 11th Form and Svetlana 10th Form
State Olympiad: 2nd place and 3rd place, respectively 
My clothes can finally dry outside!!!
(Except when the horse is munching on them...)

My bike is fixed. My garden (IceV!) is thriving!
Spring is grand! 
My last lesson with my 2nd Formers!