Submitted by Erika Hornli
When people picture the Peace Corps, many see images of mud huts, working in fields and bathing in the river. While there are some countries where this is what everyday life looks like, my life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine looks quite different. I decided to join the Peace Corps while studying at Western because I wanted to teach abroad, and I wanted the chance to live in a new country and new culture. I applied and asked to be placed in Eastern Europe.
Last September, after graduating from Western, I got on a plane and headed to Ukraine, knowing nothing about the country other than that it gets really cold and there are a lot of potatoes.
After three months of language and teacher training, I arrived to my site: a town of about 15,000 in Eastern Ukraine.
There are many similarities between my town and a small town in the U.S., but there are differences too. The main difference for me is that here, everyone knows who I am. Nearly every time I walk into a shop people say, “Oh, you are the American teacher.” After seven months in country, I can speak some Russian, enough to get around at least.
While there are times when it is very difficult to live in a culture very different from that of America, I am slowly becoming part of my community here. The lady at the post office hands me the key to my post office box as soon as she sees me, and the “babushka” at the market knows exactly what eggs I buy each week. I walk around town to a chorus of “Hello, Miss Erika!” as my students see me. I teach English to students from first to ninth grade at one of the two schools in my town and spend my free time studying Russian, coordinating pen pals with American students, holding English club for my seventh and eighth graders, learning to cook Ukrainian food and working on additional projects for my school.
When I received my invitation from Peace Corps to come to Ukraine, I pictured doing literacy projects, raising money for new textbooks, doing art projects and holding after-school English clubs. I do all of these things, but what I did not expect was to work on HIV and AIDS projects. I knew that HIV was a problem in Africa, but I figured it was one I would probably not work with in Ukraine. It turns out that I was very wrong. Ukraine has the highest rate of HIV infections in Europe. This epidemic is growing faster here than anywhere else in the world. There is a huge stigma attached to being HIV-positive, so most people do not get tested, and this perpetuates the problem. In addition, there is very little access to accurate information about the spread, treatment and prevention of HIV. AIDS and HIV are major health problems in Ukraine and because of this many volunteers here work on projects involving these issues.
One of the biggest and most exciting HIV projects is a summer camp called Camp HEAL, which stands for human trafficking, education, AIDS and HIV and leadership. About 120 Ukrainian students age 16-20 years old attend this camp, where they not only learn about HIV and AIDS but also gain leadership skills and learn how to create projects in their own communities. Each of these students then goes back to his or her community and facilitates a new project to spread information about HIV and AIDS and how to prevent and treat this growing problem. While we teach these 120 students, they in turn educate hundreds more people, reaching farther than any group of volunteers ever could. Projects such as this one – that give people the skills and knowledge to create projects and continue education on their own – is what the Peace Corps is all about, and it is the reason it is still a successful organization 50 years after its beginning in 1961.
Camp HEAL, like many volunteer projects, needs funding to become a reality and to provide food and lodging for camp participants. This is why we need your help. Donations made to this camp will make a real difference to the lives of students in Ukraine.
If you are interested in helping this important project, please go to www.peacecorps.gov/donate and search for project number 343-215. The project is listed under the director’s name, “Farmer of VA.” Also, if you would like more information about this camp, please see our website http://www.campheal.webs.com/. Truly, every little bit helps to make a huge difference in the lives of Ukrainian students and their communities. Thank you.