Transformative summer in Ukraine
Volunteering at a summer camp for orphaned children teaches students about living in the world and connecting with others
Grass stains, sunburns and memories to last a lifetime are what summer camps are all about. For the MacEwan University students who took a community service learning course this past summer, they are the ones coming home with the life-changing experiences.
The course wasn’t part of Shazia Dhalla’s Bachelor of Child and Youth Care program, but it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “A few of us from the program went to the information session and saw how it directly relates to what we’re learning,” she recalls. “I really believe in experiential learning because it’s important to be well-rounded and get different world views.”
Shazia was one of eight students to take part in COSL 301: Community Service Learning—Building Peaceful Communities in July and August. The unique course, a mix of in-class lectures and international community service learning, teaches MacEwan students about citizenship education.
“Students experience personal growth, learn how to live well in the world and how to connect with others,” explains Larisa Hayduk, course instructor. “We are not going there to ‘save’ anyone—we are going to learn and share.”
Before journeying to Ukraine to volunteer at a summer camp for orphaned children and youth, Shazia and her classmates (students from the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and Bachelor of Child and Youth Care programs) participated in workshops and developed lessons and activities for the children. Many of the children came from east and south Ukraine—areas affected by the Revolution of Dignity and the conflict in Crimea—so the summer camp is one of their few opportunities to play and act like kids.
“One of the most vital things is to allow kids to be kids, and a lot of that gets lost when they’re in orphanages or environments that are very structured,” says Shazia. “They don’t necessarily get to live a ‘normal’ life as most kids would be able to.”
As part of our community service learning course over the summer, we volunteered at a summer camp for orphaned children in Ukraine. A lot of the campers came from the war zone. Some haven’t had healthy, positive interactions with adults. Others haven’t been able to make connections with other kids their age. The workshops we led were geared toward developing life skills, having fun and just giving them the opportunity to be kids.
One day, we hiked the biggest mountain in Ukraine. It took us about six or seven hours to make it to the top and back, and it was so chilly, my eyelashes were freezing. I thought I was going to die, but the kids really loved it. The older kids stayed in tents, and even compared to tent camping here in Canada, it was next-level roughing it. The bathrooms may have had four walls and a door, but it was literally a hole in the ground so we were squatting over a plank of wood.
But it was a really beautiful area to be in, just to be in the middle of nowhere. The sky is clear and at night, we could see all the stars. Many of the kids (and ourselves) don’t experience that in the city.
Because of the language barrier, I thought the experience would be very surface level, but interacting with the kids and building positive energy helped us create intense bonds with them. The other students and I bawled on the last day when we were leaving. It was so sad because you’re with these kids every single day, and they had so much love to give.
I would love to go back, hopefully in the next couple of years because it was an amazing experience.
—Shazia, 4th year Bachelor of Child and Youth Care student
While in Ukraine, the students spent a few weeks studying the language and culture. They trained and prepared for the campers a week before, and the rest of their time in Ukraine was spent at the camp, putting on fun and educational workshops for the children. The students acted as big brothers and sisters to the campers.
Larisa says, “I hope that this powerful experience will inspire students to become more active citizens at home, and that they will come back wanting to give back within their own communities.”
“I wish that everyone in my program was able to go and do this because it’s super important, especially in the human services field,” says Shazia. “I would love to go back, hopefully in the next couple of years, because it was an amazing experience.”
Ukraine photos courtesy of Shazia Dhalla.
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