Monday, November 30, 2009

Dear Grandchildren

Dear Nana,
What are you doing in Ukraine? Love, Josh, Allison, Kyle, Julia, Tony, and Philip.

Dear grandchildren,
It's hard to explain why I am in Ukraine when I miss you so much and wish I could see you.

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV for short) in a country that's closer to Russia than to the United States. I'm not only in another country, I'm also in a new environment. I am living in a village, Starobilsk (18,000 people), that is smaller than Sylvania, and it's rural, not suburban. For a city girl like your grandmother, it's a big change.

The Peace Corps is a cultural exchange program with other countries. It's a people-to-people program, where you share your skills, learn about other countries and get to know the people, and they get to know you and learn more about America.

When you get to know people like this, living and working together, sharing meals and good times, it's hard to be enemies. Most people in Ukraine today, and in all the former Soviet republics, have never met an American. I'm the first community development volunteer in Starobilsk. I was the first American at Camp Sosnovy. But then, how many Americans have ever met a Ukrainian?

I've always believed in what the Peace Corps does, from the time I was a graduate student and young mother in Madison, Wisconsin, in the 1960s, when president John F. Kennedy created it. Your moms were little, not even in school yet. But I remember thinking, "I'd like to do that some day."

Well, some day is here! I figured if I didn't do it it now, when I'm 69 years old going on 70, I might never get to do it. Lillian Carter, former president Jimmy Carter's mother, joined the Peace Corps when she was in her 70s. She was sent to India at a time when millions of people lived in horrible poverty. She met Mother Theresa. As hard as it was, Lillian Carter said it was the most amazing experience of her life. I believe that.

What do Peace Corps Volunteers do? There are more than 300 of us in Ukraine, working in about 100 cities and towns all over the country. Ukraine is about the size of Texas, and looks like Ohio and Michigan. It has lots of farmland with some heavy industrial and mining areas in the southeastern regions. I like the fields of sunflowers in summer. The Azov and Black seas are to the south, and mountains to the West.

We work in schools, universities, summer camps, libraries, orphanages, and organizations like the YMCA or Goodwill in America. We teach English, organize activities for disabled people, do after-school art classes with kids, work on human rights projects, do civic education, and help groups start small businesses.

I work with a group called Victoria. It helps people who have been falsely accused of crimes or arrested for crimes they didn't commit. It wants to make sure governments enforce the laws. This includes environmental laws. One project is protesting the building of a gasoline station on the Aydar river that runs through Starobilsk, a pretty river like the Maumee in Toledo. People are afraid of oil spills and pollution, like we are in the U.S. That's why a lot of people in Florida are against oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. That's where we swim at St. Pete Beach, Pass-a-Grille, and Fort DeSoto.

Ukrainians have another disaster in mind, Chernoble. You've probably heard of it. That's where an atomic plant exploded and sent radiation into the atmosphere, and the ground, for miles around. People are still suffering from that disaster.

I also help out at the library (Biblioteca). I started an English Club for people who want to practice English. The youngest is 12, Josh's age, and he really does great; I have teens and college students, plus adults. We would love to have some English-language books. The Library doesn't have any. It would be a great help to people learning English. How about collecting books for the Starobilsk library?

I am now working on a project to get computers for the library. Part of this project is funded by the Bill Gates foundation. The "digital divide" is huge here. Very few libraries, hospitals, or any other institutions even have computers. Less than 10% of the people in Starobilsk have internet access. I hope this project comes through.

I also tutor some teenagers who are learning English in school and want extra help. Maybe you read my blogs on Helen and Viola. This summer I did the same at Camp Sosnovy, but in a more informal way. You would have liked the kids by the way and fit right in, playing soccer or volley ball, doing skits, and dancing to loud music!

The biggest challenge for me is learning Russian. It's a hard language with a different alphabet from ours. I think I sound like a 3-year old most of the time when I try to speak Russian. More like Philip than Kyle! I'll keep studying though. I think I am understanding more, so that helps.

PCVs work all over the globe, but no matter where we are, we share the same goals: to help create a more peaceful world and to build understanding between countries.

The hardest part is missing you. I can't wait to see you in March, when we'll celebrate my birthday and Julia's and Tony's. Actually, we will celebrate ALL of our birthdays then. You'll get to help me blow out 70 candles. Take care and let me know how you are doing. Your ever-loving Nana

P.S. Maybe you'll join the Peace Corps one day, and continue a new family tradition!

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