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

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.


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