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

Monday, March 8

International Day for Women

Today is the International Day for Women. At Hearts of Love, we celebrated a few days early with a special event. I am not sure it would be considered politically correct by those who keep score on such things. Still the young girls, who participated, and their families were so proud and happy.

The International Day for Women harkens back to Soviet times. It got tied to socialist politics and rights for women workers in the early 20th century. Maybe that is why it never really got much noticed in America. The UN adopted it in the 1970s and promotes a different theme each year. This year the focus is on ending violence against women.

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Since the break-up of the Soviet Republic, it has lost some of its socialist stridency especially in countries like Ukraine. Woman’s Day has evolved into a combination of Valentines and Mother Day. It’s a time to honor women and recognize their contributions.

Unknown to me, a plan to commemorate Women’s Day was being discussed at Hearts of Love.

That’s the way it works here. I use to think that Ukrainian people did not plan. I was wrong. They just use a different kind of planning. Instead of flip charts and formal meetings or proposals and board of director decisions, a project is formed during informal discussions. Slowly, a consensus emerges, volunteers step forward and the project is underway.

”What are you doing,” I ask seeing two young women working on the office computer? “It’s for the International Day of Women. We’re making a beauty pageant for our children.”

“What,” I say? The two ideas collide in my head as I nod and feign a smile. I think they notice my lack of enthusiasm and tell me more about the project. I am being brought into the discussion.

The idea began with our December St. Nicholas party. As part of our outreach to the community, contact was made with Miss Konotop and her court of beauties. They came to the party coiffured and dressed in evening gowns, sashes and crowns. Our young girls were giggly with excitement. Everyone wanted their picture taken with Miss Konotop.

Could we replicate something like Miss Konotop for the children at Hearts of Love? The plain truth is that our children don’t get a chance to be recognized as beauties. Some are retarded or autistic. Others have internal disabilities like heart conditions or epilepsy. And still others manage with palsay and other physical disabilities. Hearts of Love has brought together a wide range of special need children.

It is hard on them and their families. I am told that during Soviet times, physical strength and perfection were applauded. Just take a look at the prowess chiseled into Soviet monuments. Disabilities represented failure. These kinds of children were hidden and a source of shame.

But times are a changing….why not a beauty pageant for our children? I warm to the idea.

The big day arrives. Fifteen girls participate and about 75 parents and friends ring the stage.
The music starts and the young girls walk down four steps and across the floor. They strike a pose and move on with poise and dignity. I look around and everyone is so proud.

Then I notice a little commotion on the side. One young girl has been crying. Nerves, I think. But then, I discover that one of her legs is deformed and she cannot walk without crutches.

On this day, she does not want to be seen with crutches. I identify since I spent several years on crutches when I was about her age.

She is beautiful in her evening gown, but apparently embarrassed to tears. Yelena kneels and talks to her. Then two men lift up the chair she is sitting on and carry her to a place beside the others. Everyone applauds and applauds. Another girl gives her a hug. She gives a tentative smile.

The beauty pageant continues with self introductions and talent performances and the making of love cards for mothers and grandmothers.
They all do such a splendid job.

At the end, everyone is awarded a title and a sash. The little girl confined in the chair becomes Miss Spring. I learn that she has been enduring a series of operations so that maybe one day she will walk just like the others. Let’s hope….

What a wonderful way to celebrate the International Day for Women. It makes me proud to be here.

Tuesday, March 2

Start With The End In Mind

“Start with the end in mind.” My friend, Jim, taught me this snappy aphorism while I was still working with AARP. Sometimes when I got bogged down, I would remember his words. But it wasn’t until I came to Ukraine that I realized its uncanny power.

Just a year ago, I was in the final month of preparations for the Peace Corps. I said goodbye to friends at the Lafayette Urban Ministry to return to Maine and hopefully sell my house. My days were spent sorting through my stuff and selling or giving away most of it. Daily visits to the Good Will got me on the first name basis. "Hello, again?"

People asked me, “Now what exactly will you be doing in the Peace Corps?” I mumble something about helping and cross culture awareness. I sounded like talking points from the Peace Corps web site. To be honest, I was not exactly sure of what I was getting into and not sure what I would be doing.

Of course that’s part of the attraction. On the one hand it is scary to see your stuff compacted into a 9x12 locker and then embark half a world away into the unknown. But then, it is so exciting to not know what will happen next. To have an adventure at my age….Wow!

Somewhere in the back of my mind an idea was forming. Maybe, with my life time of experience in the non-profit world, I could kind of consult or teach leaders of Ukraine’s emerging NGOs. I had no idea how this might happen, but it became my “end in mind.”

I sold my house, said goodbye to friends and family and before I knew it I was in Ukraine. Cyrillic alphabet letters that I had tried to memorize in America now surrounded me. It was a little scary, but so exciting.

Ten weeks of training and some language development transformed those strange looking letters into words. I could speak Russian…at least, a little. I scored intermediate-low in our end of training test, but I think they were being generous.

Most of the time when Ukrainians spoke to me, I was in the dark. I got real good at saying, “So sorry, I am just learning Russian and I do not understand.”

How would I ever be able to consult or teach?

Our country director had given us some advice. She said, “Just show up every day and accept every invitation you get…. Something good will happen.” And I added, “Start with that end in mind.”

Summer and fall in Konotop filled up with meeting new people. One contact would open another and another. I started Leadership English. During my twice a week classes, I got to know leaders in local government and the NGO world. With my fledgling Russian and a help of a translator, I was learning that I could teach.

Then Yelena at the Hearts of Love Center asked me, “We need help with fund raising plans. Do you think you could help us figure out what to do.?” I jumped at the opportunity and Konotop’s first charity auction was the result. We raised 3000 grievnah ($375) and became known to 11 business owners in the community.

Several weeks later, our auction was copied by the well-to-do of Konotop and Hearts of Love benefited. At a local café, they auctioned off fancy drinks with some going for as much as 800 grievnah. The organizer was a woman who got the idea from our auction.

I felt like something good was happening.

After these successes, word spread. Yelena raised the possibility of teaching a few seminars. Many people were asking her if I might be able to help their organizations too. “Don’t you think a series of seminars would be a good idea?” she asked.

We held an informational meeting and 30 people showed up. Of course, there was a lot of curiosity. Like often happens, I was probably the first American that most in the room had ever met. I wished my ability to speak Russian was better so that we could freely communicate.

Instead, I spoke through a translator and outlined the kind of seminars that I had in mind. The seminars would be participatory with worksheets, discussions and projects. We would cover the basics of getting started with mission statements, goals and objectives. We would address the need for team building, leadership skills and funding plans. I asked people to prioritize their needs.

After the meeting, I was delighted to see many people hanging around. They were energized. It was a good sign.

Last week, I waited for my first seminar to begin. I was not sure how many people to expect. I was hoping for 6 or 7. Typically, Ukrainians do not commit until the last moment and they keep you guessing because they almost always show up 15 minutes late.

But I had no real worries. The room was set up for 12 and as people showed up, we had to pull in a couple of extra chairs. The room was full.

For 3 ½ hours we created mission statements, brain maps, SWOT analysis and goals. People worked hard and were very attentive. It was a good session.

As we winded down, I asked everyone to share one thing they might use from the seminar. Many were excited by new organizational tools and the chance to put their mission into words.

One woman wrote, “I came with a dream and no idea how to accomplish it. Now I have tools to make my dream come true.” I later found out that she wants to create a home for Pensioners who have no family.

“Start with the end in mind.” Powerful.