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 www.eem.org 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.
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 week....Strangers...new friends...concern and kindness.