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

Tuesday, December 21

Snap-Shots From Konotop

To take a good snap-shot requires the right equipment at the right time in the right place. I offer you two snap-shots from Konotop that prove the wisdom of being present in the moment.

Fridays mean Art Day at Hearts of Love Center. Just about every Friday I do some sort of Art Project with the children. It’s become popular to draw or paint with the American.

On some Fridays, I’ve seen as many as 18 kids in space for maybe 10. I do get a little tense and overwhelmed, but with the help of Annya, I keep my cool. She says with a smile, “Normalna. It’s normal.”

Last week, I made a huge Christmas tree by taping together blocks of paper and using my watercolors to paint the branches. Then the children drew ornaments to decorate. All levels and ages contributed. Some of the ornaments are decorated ala scribbles while others are carefully drawn. One medicated boy surprises me. Instead of the usual scribbles, he draws a design for the first time. I say in my best Russian, “Good job…Good Job.”

I always insist that the children put their names on the art. I think by claiming it as their own, a little piece of self-esteem is added to their lives. Often they will take the art to other adults at the Center and bask in the approval.

I am putting away supplies and getting ready to go home, when a little girl bursts into the room. “Chi, Chi, Chi,” she insists. I make my way down the hall to another room where she and a friend are setting the table with china cups and plates – no Styrofoam here.

Then I learn it’s the little girl’s Birthday. She is a 8 years old. Her mother has brought in a small cake for a small celebration. It’s a special treat.

As we settle into our places at the table, we are invited to share a Birthday wish. This is a wonderful Ukrainian ritual. People talk intimately about a person’s character and offer wishes for a good life. Each wish can go on for several minutes. I love the way Ukrainians are not embarrassed to express kindness.

I look at the little girl. She is wearing a red dress. Red is considered most beautiful for Ukrainian women. And this little girl is beautiful in her own special way.
What I notice most is her demeanor. She glows with Bambi eyes wide open. The gentle words of praise accumulate like dozens of presents – but only more valuable. I am touched when her older brother speaks in admiring terms of love. We all should be so blessed.

I place my hand on my heart and take a mental snap-shot.

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Whether it's Santa or St. Nicholas, there's magic in the idea that a stranger will come to give gifts. Sometimes it’s expected and other times it happens as a surprise.

At Hearts of Love, the hallways are strung with tinselly garlands. We are having a lot of fun getting ready for our St. Nicholas party. Just when I think all has been done, Yelena finds another box of tinsel. More is better. I tease her that she's decorating this center like a mother with a gang of kids.

My watercolor tree is decorated. The children have covered it with their own creations. I am proud of them. Festive bags have been bought and filled with candies. We are expecting about 35 children.

The party unfolds as expected. A play is performed by an acting troupe from our House of Culture (a Soviet institution that continues).

The story pits a fox and wolf against two little hares with a big old bear as referee. There are chase scenes, deceptions, fisticuffs and more. But in the end all are friends. Ukrainians like animal stories and judging the reaction from the children, they love this one.

Finally St. Nicholas comes. Instead of red and jolly, he is dressed in a light blue cloak and a monk's hat. He gives a little blessing and then distributes bags of goodies.
A large gingerbread man has been added – compliments of our new Mayor. The children are delighted. A few games are played and then the party ends. Thank you, St. Nicholas.

I am putting on my coat when I learn that the Vice Mayor of Konotop has dropped by and wants to meet me. With the election of last fall, governmental leaders have changed and the new Mayor is reaching out.

After introductions, the Vice Mayor gets right down to business. "How does this organization compare to ones in America," he asks? “Wow,” I think. “How am I going to respond to such a question?”

I have learned during my time here that Ukrainians will sometimes ask the comparison question as a way to determine if we are with them and find them acceptable. I quickly re-frame the question into a litany of what Hearts of Love is doing well - like transforming a crumbling building into a center of life and activity, a place where children who might be ignored are considered special.

I talk about the challenge of funding and the need for local support. I offer the idea of a "United Way" approach. He leans forward. He’s interested and asks, “Will you come and meet with the Mayor?”

I’m totally surprised. What an unexpected opportunity!

Then he turns to Yelena and says, “I think we should make a professional video so that the people of Konotop can learn about your work here. “ It’s another unexpected surprise. The meeting ends with exchanges of emails and wishes for a Happy New Year.

Later as I am getting ready to leave, Yelena turns to me, “You told us to widen our circle of friends…You know, we listened….See what’s happening.”

I put on my jacket, smile and take another mental snap-shot.

Saturday, December 18


Once we were allies. Then we became Cold War enemies. And now we can be friends again.

The story starts with an invitation to speak at School # 5. I have been getting quite a few speaking invites and never know exactly what to expect.

We walk into the assembly hall. It’s packed with students and most look to be from the upper grades. They’re dressed well - no jeans and sweat shirts here. Boys wear dress pants, suit jackets and ties. Girls are in skirts or dresses and many with bows in their hair. For a moment I think it’s 1958 and I am back at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School in Philadelphia.

Today is Ukrainian Army Day. Officially it’s a day to remember the 1991 establishment of the Ukrainian military, but unofficially it’s more about veterans and especially veterans of the Great War (WW II). The director of the School wants to combine honoring veterans’ service with the idea of volunteering and community service. I now know why Yelena, Vika and I are here.

We are escorted to the front of the hall and take our seats behind three older men. They are a living legacy from the Great War. Their chests are festooned with ribbons and medals. I see the profile of Lenin and madallions with the hammer and sickle on many.

To an American, it looks strange to see so many military medals on an ordinary civillian suit jacket. But then as an American, I have never known such a pervasive and devastating war on my home soil. What memories they must hold on their chests.

The program unfolds in typical Ukrainian style. Two students read from a scripted program to welcome and introduce each segment. They do a great job. After introductions, a young woman sings a hauntingly beautiful patriotic song.

Then we are shown a slide presentation. It’s visually haunting as well. I see a slide of army boys crouched at a window looking out at war-torn buildings. Then I glance at the windows in this hall and shiver. The window style is the same. The photo could have been taken from a place just like here. And maybe, it was.

The Veterans take turns addressing the students. I kept thinking that they were not much older than the oldest student here when they went to war. I notice a young boy across the aisle from me. He is on the edge of his seat absorbing every word. Judging from the intense silence in the room, everyone is doing the same. The speaker begins to weep.

I wish I knew what he was saying, but I later find out he was speaking in Ukrainian and I only know a little Russian. So I sit absorbing emotion and offering empathy.

Yelena speaks next and her warm charm provides an excellent transition. Her pictures of a broken down building being transformed into a lively Center for disabled children tells a powerful story of volunteer drive and the positive difference a few people can make. She speaks from the heart just as the Veterans had done, but she speaks about living and loving and hope.

My turn comes next. I start with JFK’s famous phrase – “Ask not what your Country can do for you, but what you can do for your Country.” I talk about the Peace Corps. I tell the students that right now more than 8,500 Americans are serving in 77 countries around the world. They share skills, like I do here in Konotop. They make new friends and kindle cross-cultural understanding.

I end my short talk by applying JFK’s words to Ukraine. “Ask not what Ukraine can do for you, but what you can do for Ukraine… for Konotop…for your city. “ The applause is loud and sustained.

As I take my seat Yelena smile. Each of the Veterans turns around to shake my hand. As the third one does so, he pulls me closer and before I know what is happening, he firmly plants a kiss on my hand. This military man with a chest full of medals and memories has tears in his eyes.