By Anna Barcley Knight
When Cyndee asked me to join the team going to Shpola Orphanage to teach at English Language Week, I have to admit I didn’t feel the same kind of excitement I usually have leading up to trips to Ukraine. Maybe it was the thought of being away from my life in the states during Spring Break, or maybe it was the idea of staying at the orphanage for a whole WEEK without the possibility of a shower and comfortable bed, or maybe it was a bit of dread for what I expected to be a tiresome week only to be met with a stressful week at work on my return to Atlanta. Whatever the reason, my heart was not in a very humble place as I boarded the plane to Kiev. Thankfully, God showed himself to be much bigger and wiser than any of my selfish thoughts and worries.
Our team of American and Ukrainian teachers headed out to the town of Shpola on Monday with bags packed, lessons partially planned (our printer ran out of ink the night before), and a lot of questions about what the week would hold. Cyndee had a wonderful schedule planned, of course, but as usual when working in other cultures, the question lingered if anything would go as planned. When we arrived at the orphanage, my heart began to feel at ease when some of the children I recognized ran up to our team. They were so excited to have us there!
We started off the week with an Opening Assembly and welcomed in English Language Week. In a thoughtful and symbolic gesture, Cyndee and the Director of Education at the orphanage exchanged American and Ukrainian flags. We would learn as much (or more) from the Ukrainians that week, as they would learn from us. Next, we held a Girl Scout Tea Party for girls in Classes 4 and 5. At this Tea Party, two Americans on the team, Holly and Paige, shared their experiences of being girl scouts in the USA and, much to everyone’s enjoyment, even brought cookies for all to try! This sweet time ended with the girls of Class 4 and 5 taking a “pledge” to become honorary Ukrainian Girl Scouts while promising to serve each other as sisters.
The week continued on Tuesday morning with our first lessons. We broke up into five teaching teams and each team taught two lessons a day. The lessons included English topics such as animals & pets, family members, body parts, feelings, clothes, daily routines, sports & activities, technology and more. Since we were taking over two class periods during their school day, the regular teachers at the orphanage stayed in the room during these lessons. Some of our team members were a little apprehensive about having the teacher in the classroom during our lessons, but it ended up being a joy to have these teachers assist and even participate in the classes. Many teachers came up to us later with gratitude and excited questions about our different teaching styles. Some even said they want to adopt some of our teaching strategies!
After lessons each day, we held several “Master Classes”. These included cooking, baseball (and man, those kids can hit!), Legos, Prom preparation and more. The afternoons were my favorite part of the week because we were able to interact with the kids in a more relaxed and fun setting. On Wednesday, the school took our team on an excursion in place of our master classes, as a gift to us. We were taken to the home and museum dedicated to Taras Shevchenko, a famous Ukrainian poet and writer. As we learned more about Shevchenko’s life and works, I saw the respect and reverence Ukrainians felt toward this man who meant so much to their country’s history. I was honored to experience so much of their history.
On Thursday, we thanked all 110 orphanage staff members with a Staff Appreciation Day. Cyndee had brought polo shirts for all of the men who work at Shpola, and for the women each received a small gift bag of lotion & soaps. We started the day with a gathering for all staff, which included coffee and cookies along with the presents. Cyndee gave a speech thanking the staff for their service to the children and issued a challenge to learn something new each day. It was a sweet time for adults to visit, ask questions and feel appreciated for their hard work.
Our week culminated with a concert on Friday. Each class had prepared a simple song in English to perform at the concert. Whereas I thought these songs would be the extent of the concert, I quickly realized I was mistaken. We entered the concert hall on Friday to see the children and teachers buzzing around wearing beautiful costumes, fixing hairdos, and preparing for what seemed to be an elaborate affair. Our team was asked to sit and then we watched as these children performed song after beautiful song for us. Choreographed dances, beautiful songs, and stunning traditional Ukrainian clothes galore! It was a perfect surprise ending to a week which had pleasantly surprised me, as well.
Although I expected the week to be tiring and a bit uncomfortable, it turned out to be fun, exciting and even restful as I enjoyed hours spent hugging and playing with these sweet children. My heart was not prepared for the amount of love and peace I experienced throughout the week at the orphanage. I left feeling sad to leave the kids, but also incredibly thankful that God knew exactly what I needed during this Spring Break: five days packed full of teaching, learning, and being overwhelmed by His love.
P.S. You can also serve on a team in Ukraine! There are 6 opportunities throughout the year to go to be on a team at Shpola Orphanage or at Kompas Park. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and the office will contact you!
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Danny and I had the opportunity to go back to Kompas Park Youth Camp in Ukraine this summer, and it was an encouraging week for many reasons. Both of us have volunteered at camp multiple times over the years (this was Danny’s 12th year!), and we praise God that He’s allowed us to be a part of this ministry over the years. There is something truly relaxing and peacefully familiar about driving through Khreschatyk Village into Kompas Park.
As we reflected on this year’s Youth Camp, we both felt encouraged by how we saw God at work - through the volunteer leaders, campers, staff, and activities. This isn’t to say there weren’t challenging moments, as well. Lack of sleep, a lot of vigorous activities (especially for Danny), and the ever-present language barrier led to moments of frustration and the increased recognition that our bodies are getting older and less resilient every year! However, we left camp feeling encouraged and spiritually revitalized.
I was thrilled to return to Ukraine again this summer to serve at Hope Now’s Kid’s Camp. I wanted a break from my normal routine and to be with my Ukrainian friends again. I desired to be in a different culture and to see the children I’ve gotten to know over the years. I was excited about the normalcy of going to Ukraine again in the summer. But I wasn’t necessarily ready for conviction…
So often I fail at loving people the way Christ calls me to. I am quickly thrown off by my own selfish desires, focusing on my own agenda rather than the needs and wants of others. Truthfully, as Christ followers, we should be constantly in a state of loving others. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to dislike people who are different from us rather than love them. But Jesus told us to literally love our enemies (which is way easier in theory than in practice, but yet I am called to do this). He modeled what real love looks like; He is love. If I’m honest, I fail every day at loving people like Jesus did.
Today, this simple verb is treated with a degree of tension that is often quite palpable. We live in an age of self-identification where knowledge of your personal story and self-awareness are perceived as strong character traits. Modern themes about being your own self, saving for retirement and looking after Number 1 resonate throughout social media as though our ancestors never really knew what was important.
Hidden within the disturbing meme is the emerging truth of who we are becoming as humans while the fabric of society wears thin.