Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Happy Camper

I am at Camp Sosnovy (Pinewood) in Leman, Ukraine, a farming village in the forest just outside of Starobilsk. It takes some doing on the part of Olga and Luba to convince the camp director that a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) can be a good thing. After I get to the camp, it takes a few days to convince the counselors and staff that I can do anything other than be in their way. I understand. I have no idea what I'm doing either.
I find out when I get here that it is a camp for 8-15 year old kids from Luhansk Oblast. They are the cutest, brightest, most talented kids you'll find anywhere in the world. Some 270 of them, divided into 8 groups. They live in dorms or 2-story cottages, 3 to 4 to a room. Most of them study English in school. Most have never seen a real American. I am their first PCV, their first Amerikanka. This is so for the adults, too; stereotypes abound, I think mostly around the image of the ugly American.

Not sure where to begin, I wander around the camp site, dictionary in hand. One by one, the children come up to me, full of curiosity. In halting Russian I say I am from America, state of Florida, city of Saint Petersburg. Saint Petersburg? Yes, just like in Russia. I say I want to speak Russian but I am still learning. They catch on right away: I am one of them! I am a student too.
They see I need their help. They speak English. They help me translate. We spontaneously start a game: “My name is...” More children gather round. They come with slips of paper. They want my autograph! I use the dictionary, and they want to see how it works. Then another game begins: they look for words in Russian; I look for words in English. We take turns.
I take out my camera to capture the moment. I take a few shots, then give them my camera. It's okay to use my camera? Sure. They each take photos in turn. We are having a great time. The counselors and staff are watching. Day one ends on a happy note.
Every day is like this. Something new. New opportunities to get to know the kids and for them to get to know me. Same with the counselors and staff. I attend every gathering, sports events, performance programs, which are incredible. I learn the schedule. I just show up. I help out wherever I can, in the dorms, in the dining hall, at programs. For two days I join the kids for morning exercises.
By day three, Iryna, the program director who speaks some English, and I have become friends. She is a beautiful, multi-talented woman whose dream is to live in Odessa and work in year-round camps. I give her a Florida post card: “May all your dreams come true,” I write in Russian.
The counselors enjoy having me around now. Ira asks me to join the activities director up front to help lead the exercises. I like being with the kids, but this is a good sign: I am being accepted. I gladly do it. The kids wave and clap. Ira also makes a schedule for me to meet with the kids group by group, every day. I begin simply by being present, on the floor with the kids, maps spread out in front of us. We are learning about each other. Lots of Q&A. I'm getting ideas from Jud and other PCVs. The counselors start inviting me to join their groups. "The children love you," one says. I beam.

The kids are leading the way. And they are speaking English more and more. “Good morning. Hi. How are you.” I give them two thumbs up and say 'SUPER!” So now when I ask them “Kak dela,” how are you, they give me two thumbs up and say “super!” As we go in and out of the dining hall or around the camp site, I give them a 'high five.” The counselors and staff join in. New rituals are being created! The counselors look happy. The director looks happy. I am a happy camper!

No comments:

Post a Comment