GoCamps initiative invites English-speaking volunteers to inspire Donbas kids

Taking part in GoCamp. Photo from the private archive of Terry Currie. 

Ukraine

Have you ever wondered what the best thing you can do for Ukraine is? Hundreds of men and women from different countries of the world found their answer. They decided to devote a few weeks of their life teaching English to Ukrainian kids. For that, they joined the initiative GoCamp. But it turned that teaching English was just a part of the program. Both kids and volunteer teachers gained something more during the participation in the project – real friendship.

The program, called GoCamp, was launched by the Global Office NGO. The camps have been organized in all Ukrainian oblasts except the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas. During the four years, 144,000 children and 800 volunteers from 67 countries took part in it.

Camps in eastern Ukraine are a special part of the program. In general, the kids all over Ukraine are not that different: they have the same school program, the same lifestyle. Still, there is one thing which makes the kids from Donbas special. Those living near the frontline often find themselves blocked from the outside world — the de-facto war made changes to the routes as well. Connections between Donbas and the rest of Ukraine, which were in no way easy before the war, became even more complicated.

This year, 20 camps of the GoCamp program will take place in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Volunteers are called to become more than English teachers for the kids who in their everyday life have no chance to interact with foreigners. They are called to help children to become open-minded and to believe in their bright future.

“You will become real mentors and inspire thousands of children,” say the organizers.

However, GoCamp often becomes a life-turning event not just for the kids.

Terry Currie from the US is an experienced volunteer of the program. He says a revelation made him join. He still remembers the words he heard in his spirit when he was visiting the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra, a major monastery in the capital of Ukraine. It said that if God places children near you, make them smile. Just after, Currie and his friends saw the call for the program.

A warm welcome. Photo from the private archive of Terry Currie.

Terry started his GoCamp volunteering in western Ukraine but eventually got to Donbas as well, being asked to switch with another volunteer in Popasna, a town in Luhansk oblast which saw warfare in 2014-2015 and was briefly occupied by Russian-separatist forces.

Being retired from the military, Terry was not afraid of coming to a town not far from the frontline. But his close ones once were. The organizers of the GoEast Camps warn about the military conflict in eastern Ukraine, but stress that safety is a priority, so only secure areas which are not located at the frontline are selected.

Robert Richter from the US who participated in camps in three schools of Mariupol and also in Toretsk (both in Donetsk Oblast) confirms: there is nothing to be afraid of. But he warns about the emotional and touching experiences one might have.

“Witnessing firsthand the physical evidence of the damage, carnage, and wreckage is a harrowing experience. Listening to the eyewitness accounts of the survivors makes me cry, still induces nightmares and such experiences are indelibly etched into my heart and soul,” says Robert.

Photo from the private archive of Robert Richter

Photo from private archive Robert Richter

Both Terry and Robert were welcomed by the local communities in a very warm way. Robert remembers one of the most emotional episodes of his trips to Ukraine. The tradition of GoCamp is to welcome the volunteers with songs. When two years ago he was volunteering in Mariupol, where the memories of active warfare were fresh, the kids chose the song “Forever Young.”

“I asked why they choose this song. They answered that the war stole their childhood, but they want to be forever young.”

This memory still causes tears on Robert’s face. He still remembers every minute of the camp time. ,

During the camps, volunteers work in a team with local teachers who coordinate the activities. Terry says that in his turn he set the goal to help the kids to become confident in English and in communication in general.

“With them, I am just a big kid who speaks English,” says Terry.

Being a big kid. Photo from the private archive of Terry Currie

He noticed that the shyest children usually were the best in English. He tried to devote more time to them, to make them relax, to feel more confident, and to speak more.

Other volunteers witnessed the same thing — lots of children are just too shy to speak.

“Probably this mood is left over from the Soviet Union. They are afraid to make mistakes. I love mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the more progress you make,” says Robert.

Talking about progress, Robert confirms that the best way to measure it is to see how encouraged the kids are to learn English after the camp. He still keeps in touch with them and with the teachers and other adults whom he used to work with in Ukraine. Robert was told how inspired the kids were after the camp which served as a push for them.

The men are also happy to observe the kids grow older.

“Last year I was invited to a graduation ceremony in a Mariupol school I used to work with. Also just a few minutes ago I had a phone conversation with a kid who now became a student.”

Robert has already arrived in Ukraine and started his participation in this year’s GoCamps. And Terry just can’t wait to go back to Ukraine.

“I have a good life here, a house, a dog, but I am very looking forward to the camps this year.”

Both Terry and Robert encourage other volunteers to join and to have an experience they will never forget.

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