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What constitutes a youth summer camp in Ukraine? Five PCVs, two showers, one electric burner, and 28 Ukrainian girls. Mice, mosquitoes, bed bugs and filthy dorm rooms. A week before the camp began, we had to cancel the camping component because our equipment fell through and rearrange responsibilities because two volunteers unexpectedly left the country. Upon discovery of the single working burner, the first camp meal (spaghetti dinner) was a complete disaster. That night, the five exhausted volunteers (some had traveled two days with their campers to reach the site) felt certain they were never going to make it through the week. But as is so often the case, tossing out the best laid plans and adapting to the reality on the ground can lead you to an outcome better than any you could have hoped for.
Peace Corps Ukraine's 2nd annual Camp GLOW was held July 17-22, 2005 in Kolomiya, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. Five female PCVs brought 28 Ukrainian girls ages 14-17 from 7 different oblasts for a weeklong camp with the aim of addressing gender issues in Ukraine using the Camp GLOW format which has been adapted in over 20 Peace Corps countries since 1995. We taught sessions on issues affecting women in Ukraine including leadership, human trafficking, body image and eating disorders, HIV/AIDS awareness, and domestic violence. But it wasn't all heavy classroom work. We held morning yoga, had a scavenger hunt, ate shashlik (Ukrainian BBQ) and s'mores (with ingredients imported via a PCV’s suitcase), made friendship bracelets, tie-dyed t-shirts, and the highlight of it all, climbed Ukraine's tallest point, Mt. Hoverla. We had tried to find a female guide to take our large group up the mountain but were told we could not take a group of 28 girls up the mountain without men. We volunteers were frustrated by this, but the girls hardly took notice, and practically ran the final 100 meters up the mountain shouting "We are the BEST!" (in English) as all five PCVs and the male guide looked up in awe and envy of their energy.
The responses to the camp were truly amazing. The girls thanked us for discussing such taboo topics, and embraced the mission of Camp GLOW with excitement. Unedited quotes taken from the written evaluations included: "Now I more shur in myself and I know that I could be without man, even in dangerous situations. I could do everything myself!" ; "Till I wasn't in camp I think, that I am so little, no strong, and I nothing can't change. In camp I understood that I am strong, smart and if I want something change I do this."
Towards the end of the week the staff at the dorm approached one of the PCVs to ask about the camp. The staff had noticed a tangible change in the girls as their newfound confidence and empowerment was obvious. The volunteer explained the theme of the camp and showed them the posters the campers had made detailing the lessons of each of the sessions. The dorm staff literally applauded with exclamations of molodtse! (well done!).
On the final night, we were wiped out. The volunteers were wrapping up the last bit of work and looking forward to being able to relax when we heard a knock on the door. Grudgingly, I got up to answer it. Two of the campers were standing there, “Come quick!” they gasped. Fearing the worst, we ran down the hallway to find all the girls gathered around a cake with candles singing “Happy Birthday.” I remember asking out loud, “Who’s birthday is it?” while waiting for the crucial moment in the song to reveal the identity of the birthday girl. When it came, they sang, “Happy Birthday Camp GLOW.” It was then that we noticed the number “2” in candles. They were celebrating the completion of the 2nd annual Camp GLOW Ukraine. It was clear they had felt they were a part of something special, something they hoped would continue for years to come. These girls were GLOWing.
Five years later I am still in touch with a few of the campers. They are bright young women working hard in pursuit of their dreams of becoming a surgeon, a lawyer, and a professor. Someday soon they will be leaders in Ukraine, and it makes me smile to think that just maybe Camp GLOW 2005 has had a little something to do with their success.
(Author’s Note: This story is adapted from an article co-written with fellow volunteer Chris Smith for NuShcho?! - the PCV-Ukraine volunteer newsletter.)