The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Monday, June 29

Kindness of Strangers

It was not a serious injury, but it hurt like hell. For a moment I got woozy and had to lay down on the sidewalk. Then I learned again about the kindness of strangers.

My story starts last Friday when I reported to the Hearts of Life Center, my primary Peace Corps assignment. Yelena has arranged a meeting with an interpreter whose name is also Yelena. Yelena II is a teacher of English at one of the local schools. She is a warm and engaging person with excellent translation skills. She gives her time freely so that this stranger from America can begin to understand something.

The three of us fall into an back and forth conversation. It's something you do not take for granted when your counterpart knows no English and you are shaky about your beginner's Russian. It feels good to have a full and easy conversation.

I learn more about Yelena and the Center. She has struggled raising a daughter with cerebral palsy. I am told that in Ukrainian society, people with disabilities are shunned. Yelena had hard times, but she also had ideas of how things could be better. Slowly a dream of a Center for children with disabilities and their families took shape.

I still need to learn more details, but here is what I know. She met other families with disabled children and shared her ideas. In the course of several years, Yelena's dream grew. A dilapidated building was located....if only they had funds for restoration.

A benefactor in the name of the Eastern European Mission came into the picture and provided funds. EEM is an evangelical Christian group out of California and has been active in Ukraine mostly with Bible distribution. Check out With the help of work teams from EEM and local workers too, the building was restored and now serves as a hub of activity.

“When can I start an English club”, asks Yelena? Before I can answer, she suggests, “How about next Tuesday!” She says that several other mothers from the Center are interested as well as leaders from other partner organizations.

There is no pretending that I do not understand with an interpreter present. So with a big gulp, I jump in, “Sure, I think we can get started next Tuesday!”

Actually, I think it's a good way to demonstrate value to my new organization and meet leaders from other community partners too. I am excited. Further conversation reveals that it will be less an English club and more of a beginner's class starting with the alphabet. We will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

I get busy making materials and lesson plans. One of the grand things about the Peace Corps is the chance to try something brand new. In a few days, I will meet a room of strangers eager to learn something from the new Peace Corps volunteer.

My class goes well. Slowly I introduce the English alphabet and we even get to play games. Pick up an alphabet bingo card. Listen carefully to the word. With what letter does it start? When you fill the card completely, get a prize.

We move on to simple sentences. “ What is your name? How are you today? I am feeling great.” My first session had 5 students and my second grows to 8. I see lots of smiles around the room.

The next day I meet with other community leaders in a round table discussion. I tell them that I am excited about learning more about their organizations and Konotop. The Director of Children and Family Services invites me to join her family that evening at a community wide celebration of graduating students.

In the center of town, a platform has been constructed. About 3,000 people have gathered. I am told that even people without graduates come so that they can see who is wearing what. Every graduate is dressed like Americans do for prom night, but maybe even more so. Spiked heels are everywhere.

I listen to the speeches trying to see how many words I can recognize. I am struck by a segment of the program where they recognize parents of honor students before the students get their awards. I am told it is to thank the parents for supporting the education of their son or daughter. What a great idea.

After about an hour or so, I take leave of my new friends and begin my walk home. I am making my way through the crowds when it happens.

I trip over an uneven block of pavement and fall down on the sidewalk jamming the fingers on my left hand. “Damn, did I break something?” I start to feel woozy. I have to lay down. Strangers are stopping and looking. Some are asking me questions....I think. I wonder if I am going to pass out.

That's when familiar faces appear - two of the community leaders from my class. I am so glad to see them. Just a few days ago, we had been strangers and now it is different. They bring me water. They try to console me. I recognize few of the words, but I see the kindness in their faces. Nothing is broken and with my new friends surrounding me I am feeling better and better.

I sit up. They want to get me a taxi or walk me home, but I am feeling normal now and insist that I am all right. Sometimes it's hard to receive kindnesses and I don't want to be a bother. I stand up and take a sip of water. One of them says with a big smile, “Jud, how are you today?” - just as we had done in class. We all laugh.

I walk home slowly. As I climb the 4 flights of stairs to my apartment, my phone rings. Yelena has heard about my fall. She has asked an English speaking friend to call and make sure I am okay.

My first friends...concern and kindness.
Welcome to Konotop!

Monday, June 22


Already, it's time for another transition. Training is over and I find myself in Konotop (accent on the first syllable). Of course, there is a story behind the name so please read on. Konotop will be my new home.

For 11 weeks Chernihiv had been like my Ukrainian cocoon. I felt safe and secure there. Slowly and steadily I became wrapped up in Ukrainian culture and language under the watchful and supportive care of Peace Corps staff.
I met my host family and received a warm welcome. I will never forget Luda and Pavil and Ksusha and Andre and Natasha and Valerie and Vitaly. You are imprinted into my memory...always.

I learned how to speak some Russian which surprised me. About forty years ago, I dropped out of the Peace Corps because of my lack of language comprehension. That time it was Portuguese and now it is Russian. I think Russian is harder, but then I am older...huh?
Imagine my delight when I learned that I scored “Intermediate One”. That's the second level. With further study, a personal and very functional goal is within reach – to be able to communicate in the native language. Hooray!! I owe a real debt of gratitude to Larisa who has been an amazing teacher, mentor and friend.

I also started new friendships with other volunteers. They are amazing people with deep commitments and a spirit of adventure mixed with a lot of fun. For example, I now have the entire collection of “South Park” down-loaded on my computer. They tell me I can keep my American irreverence alive and healthy by watching. Thanks, Jacob!!

It has been an exciting start. Ukraine was only a name on the map some 11 weeks ago. I use to figure it was some where beyond Germany and before Moscow. But now I know it as home. I am emerging from the cocoon of Peace Corps Training and like every volunteer, I will be place alone.

On June 18th, it became official. I was sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer pledging that:

“I will support and defend the constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I take this obligation freely and without reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge my duties in the Peace Corps of the United States of America, serving Ukraine to the best of my abilities and demonstrating the respect and consideration due its people, so help me God.”

It was a spiffy affair with everyone dressed in what we use to call “our Sunday best”. A nice reception followed. Briefly I got to meet the ranking Embassy Liaison ( the new Ambassador has not yet been appointed by President Obamah). He congratulated me and then spoke Russian to my new partner – Yelena. She was all smiles. It was not long till we both were off to Konotop.

Konotop is about a 2 ½ hour train ride from Kiev. My placement is the furthest north of the new volunteers, not far from the Russian border. I guess they figured... ”Maine has lots of snow...why not Jud in Konotop!” Actually Peace Corps gives it a lot of thought and tries to make a good match. I think mine should be just fine. But why didn't I bring those snow shoes?

Konotop is a small city of about 80,000, maybe 100,000 depending on who you ask.

And here is that story I promised. I've been told that Konotop means horse dead. It seems that during the reign of Catherine the Great, she was inspecting her realm and got stuck in Konotop...literally. Back then the area was a maze of swamps. Catherine the Great must have taken a wrong turn. Soon her entourage was engulfed in the swamp. A bad situation got worse. The horses drowned. Some monarchs might have taken their anger out on the people, but instead Catherine the Great gave the town its name – Horse Dead. Maybe that is why they called her “Great.” I don't know for sure.

So here I am in my new town. Swamps are drained. Yelena walks me to the Activity Center which will be my primary site placement. It's not far from the center of town. We squeeze our way through the crowded Bazaar and down a gravel road.

I cannot help but smile when I see the brightly painted fence that surrounds the Center and grounds. It's painted in pastel colors....Wow! As I enter the gateway, I notice several beds of flowers growing. It's delightful. What a refreshing contrast to the crowds and dusty gravel I just stumbled through. It feels like an oasis.

The Activity Center is for disabled children. It's called “Hearts of Life” and is supported in part by a religious organization out of California. I do not know much about it and my role and responsibilities are yet to be defined.

But initially, I will be teaching English as a second language to a group of 6 volunteers and staff. I have never done it before, but it sparks my interest and creativity. I'll have a chance to learn more Russian too as I give instructions in my best Russian during classes. What a good deal! Russian and English. English and Russian. I have my first session in a few days. I plan to play alphabet bingo. Wish me luck.

So you see, the training cocoon is gone blown away with the summer winds of Ukraine. I am on my own in a new place. I think its time to stretch my wings. Transitions can be such an adventure...huh?