“So…what is it that you actually do there?”

09 October, 2015

I have had a number of people ask me about the specifics of my job at the school (the center, the school, Education & Rehab Center, special school….we’re know by many names here).  Initially, I responded with “I haven’t a clue” because I was given some very broad guidelines and naturally, things have shifted as I’ve observed people and practices here… and put their work into the local cultural context.

This isn’t an American system and it would be unrealistic to try to set them up to that standard. But there are strengths here and opportunities to build upon them – and that is essentially what I plan to do this year. How?  Good question. I’m still figuring that out.

But I have lots of ideas.

2015-10-02 13.16.59


I was speaking with Vera, the head of non-academic training (extracurricular activities and social development…there really isn’t a good translation for her role here). Anyhow, I was talking about how it would be good to promote more life skills training (independent living skills training). Because while they get little bits of this, there isn’t an actual curriculum. And so I impressed on them the importance of starting early to learn “home and life” skills as a way to build up confidence and the ability to be more independent after graduation if a job were ever to be available to them. I have had similar conversations with other staff here and they mostly look at me with a sad pity, because there is almost nothing available to kids after graduation…and their thinking is not to set them up for failure. Vera on the other hand, understood my point about building up a foundation of skills so that when things do change here, these guys will be ready for it. She told me she had some ideas and maybe we could talk more about it later.

And then two days ago she surprised me by showing me the plan in action. (Day p’yatʹ/high five Vera!!)


She had set up food preparation classes for kids at all ages, who were spread out in various places around the school. First she showed me the girls of the 6th or 7th grade who were having a ‘cook off’ of light desserts. The youngest kids were celebrating bees and making a fruit salad with honey and yogurt. They were learning how to safely cut fruit and make equal sizes, and how to balance the different fruits for better nutrition. And then other groups cycled in, making salads and fancy little appetizers (depending on their age and skill level).



Those with greater intellectual disabilities were given ready-made cookies that they dusted with powdered sugar and dolloped with jam. Each class worked well as a group and shared and helped each other. I was so impressed with their team efforts. There was laughter and powdered sugar flying everywhere, and naturally we had to sample everything. (I set aside my germ/hygiene issues a lot here. If I didn’t I’d lose my mind).

I noticed one of the small kids in the ‘bee’ group struggling with a knife because of his contracted dominant hand and I suddenly remembered the adaptive silverware I’d thrown into my luggage…sitting on a shelf in my office. So I brought it down to the boy who found it amazing that you could bend utensils to fit the shape of your hand – no matter the shape of your hand. The other kids were looking on eagerly so after a bit I passed the fork, knife and spoon along to others and everyone gave it a ‘go’. The best part? When one of the kids without physical disabilities was struggling to use the spoon (which was curved at a 90 degree angle at that point), the boy who first used it stopped to help her. The kid who always receives help for once had a chance to give it. And he didn’t think twice about it.

And in that small moment, I felt so full of joy and pride that I nearly cried.

But, with perfect comedic timing, I was hit on the side of the face with a big blog of honey-yogurt by someone who entirely missed the fruit bowl.  And everyone laughed, including me.


That was a very good day. And I love interacting with the children but for the most part I serve an administrative function and spend my days holed up in a tiny cold office with inconsistent Wi-Fi. I am helping to develop a five year strategic plan, and am creating training programs on a range of topics for the teachers, health care staff, and (eventually) for parents.

My office

My office

I met with several people from the Ministry of Education who were visiting here this past week and they asked me if I would lead a round table discussion on best practices in education & rehabilitation for all 15 schools that serve students with disabilities in our region. There was no proper answer other than “Yes, I would be happy to do that” although I gulped audibly at the time. I seriously wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. I did ask to visit some of the other schools to see what they’re like. Someone said to me “Do you really want to go there? They are very sad places. I think you would not like it”.  I understand that most of these schools are actually orphanages and more typical of what I was expecting to find here. But that’s exactly why I need to see them. I need to understand their needs before talking about what’s possible in terms of services and supports. The other schools are not near the city of Ternopil but are scattered in small villages throughout the region (imagine a large rural county in your state). I just discovered this weekend that there is a Peace Corps volunteer in one of these orphanages in my region and I’m hoping to start by visiting her school…and then teaming up so she can help me navigate the rest.

My office is in a wing of the school with the school psychologist, speech-language therapists, and a social worker (I think that’s her role anyway!). So it is a bright area and the children are in an out all day. I’m at the end of the hall so only really see them all if I’m passing through. Naturally I try to do that as often as possible.

My office is down the dark hall...

My office is down the dark hall…

It’s a cheery part of the building and has a comfy open area that offers both therapeutic and social supports. So you’re just as likely to see staff members taking a tea break together there as you are kids hanging out in their free time.

Just chillin' with my bestie....

Just chillin’ with my bestie….

Free time!!

Free time!!

Hey...I was playing with those blocks!

Hey…I was playing with those blocks!




One of my favorite things are the ribbon canopies that hang from the ceiling in our wing. You can see them in some of the pics. Kids enjoy the tactile sensation of the soft ribbons and especially like lying on a giant bean bag under the canopy. It’s a little bit like a secret fort, right in the middle of school. And let’s face it: who hasn’t wanted a secret hideaway in their own workplace at one time or another.

The ribbon fort!!

The ribbon fort!!

There are lots of school events, too. So one minute I’ll be hiding in my office thinking about goals and objectives and proposal development…and then next I’m being dragged out to watch kids singing in traditional costume. I never really know what to expect so I just roll with whatever they throw at me (including honey-yogurt!).

I was just informed that next week there will be an Olympiad with various events for the kids. And I am expected to prepare my own toga for the event.

That’s right…a toga.  Augh…..

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A Weekend in Lviv

28 Sept, 2015

Peace Corps volunteers are awesome people. Really. They are just everyday Americans who decided to take time out of their lives to do something good in the world. And they work really hard at it – for basically the cost of living wherever they’ve been sent. Volunteers are also really supportive of one another so when I was invited to join a small group of them meeting in the city of Lviv for its annual Coffee Festival I felt like I was just asked to hang out with the cool kids. Naturally I jumped at the chance….nice people…English speakers….coffee… what’s not to love about that? They had me at ‘coffee’!

Celyse is another volunteer from my region and she was part of the original Peace Corps group that was evacuated during the start of the war here. Like many others, Celyse wanted to come back to Ukraine to finish her service and support the people here during a time of great hardship.


The awesomely awesome Celyse

Because she originally began her service as a traditional 2-year volunteer, she was given the benefit of three months of intensive language training at the start of her work. As you might imagine, I am both envious of and highly dependent on her skills when we are together. Being able to go away for a full weekend with someone like that made the trip much easier for me to navigate, and way more fun in general. She’s not only smart, she’s fun to be around. She works at a NGO/non-profit org focused on the prevention of human trafficking…how cool is that?

Our train left Ternopil at 6am. It was a third class sleeper car, coming from somewhere in the east and most of the people on the train were in fact, still sleeping. It felt a little bit like the night bus in one of the Harry Potter films, with loud snoring and stinky feet sticking out in all directions. The train was very crowded and Celyse and I weren’t able to book seats together – we were in the same train car but at opposite ends. So in the semi-darkness she helped me to find my ‘seat’, which in fact was an upper bunk. I stared blankly at her and asked how I was supposed to get up there without disturbing anyone. She suggested I step onto the bed below me being careful not to step on the person sleeping there and launch myself up as fast as possible. So I threw my bag up, vaulted over the edge and built myself a little nest.


All aboard!

About an hour later, the lights came on in the train and everyone started to get up and undress (literally) and wash up next to their bunk. Here’s a shot of the bunk across from mine. Note the roll of toilet paper… one learns very quickly to always carry some with you because there is no guarantee any will be available when it’s needed…especially in a public place. I’m convinced that’s part of the reason why women carry such large purses here.


Morning Ablutions

We arrived at 8:30am to a gray and drizzly day but didn’t let that permeate our mood one bit. Celyse had been to Lviv once before and knew the general direction we needed to go to get to our hostel.



Just Lviv It!

Just Lviv It!

Check out their website… I am in love with the chicken logo!

A few other volunteers had arrived the evening before and were already in the hostel so we nudged them up and out for a morning round of coffee. There was, after all, a coffee festival in town.

My first cup of coffee was referred to as “Lviv-style” and was presented as a small, strong cup of dark roast coffee with a slice of lemon 100415_1015_AWeekendinL5.png(sprinkled with sugar) and a shot of honey liquor. It was delicious…and the alcohol gave a nice boost to the strong coffee without punching you in the face or making you feel boozy. It’s all about the balance of flavors here.

Moving in a large group is always a challenge because you end up spending a lot of time standing in a loose circle trying to decide where to go. And by the time a decision has been made at least one person (usually two or three) has wandered off and we need to do a scouting expedition to find him/her. It’s a bit like trying to herd cats, but I was more than happy to be pulled along by others. Everything I saw was new and interesting and I used my standing around time to snap photos and people-watch and just take in the lushness of the city.


Streeet Vendor


Francis –  a young Kurt Vonnegut


Opera House


Bridal photo shoot

We found our way to a local arts & crafts bazaar where I was mesmerized by women hand-embroidering Vyshyvanka, the traditional clothing of Ukraine. Like snowflakes, no two appear the same. There are local symbols embedded in each design, and certain colors are used in different parts of the country to reflec100415_1015_AWeekendinL11.jpgt their region as well as national pride. It’s a beautiful custom and the women I saw stitching were true artisans. The shirts are somewhat expensive by local standards but given the amount of hand work that goes into each of them, I think they are well worth it. I’m sure before I leave this year I will find one that suits me.

We had lunch outside at a Georgian restaurant, tucking under the awning to wait out a rainstorm. I had never had Georgian food before so relied on others for recommendations. Celyse and I ended up sharing a traditional dish called adjaruli-khachapuri, which looked kind of like a bread shaped into a canoe, fadding-an-egg-to-an-ajarian-khachapuriilled with cheese and with an egg on top. The heat of the melted cheese cooks the egg slightly so that it’s warm and runny. To eat it you pulled a piece of bread from the outside and dipped it into the gooey insides. It was heavenly and we both agreed that next time we would each order one of our own.


Georgian lunch  Steph & Mark
Steph and Mark


Bellies full, we went off in search of the festival.

The main arena for the coffee festival was in an enclosed outdoor area with vendor booths selling both coffee and sweets. (And no, there wasn’t a Starbucks in sight). There were lots of coffee roasters there and options to try different types of beans. There were also a lot of different coffee drinks that I hadn’t seen before (coffee and orange juice with Irish Cream liquor, for example…better than it sounds).


We each tried a variety of coffees and wandered into an attached building to watch the barista contests that were held on a stage inside. These people take their coffee making skills very seriously but also seemed to have a lot of fun ‘one upping’ their competition with a few crazy moves thrown in. We mostly just milled around and enjoyed the atmosphere, while over-caffeinating ourselves throughout the afternoon.
Group Shot
We counterbalanced the excess of coffee with more wandering about and eventually more food. There is also a new microbrewery in Lviv, which is the first of its kind here. And as it turns out, the brew master is from Portland Oregon so there was some familiarity with the urban industrial style of the place. And it seems to be going over big in Lviv, based on the crowd there. I’ve never been much of a beer drinker, but since that’s the custom here I have adjusted my palate to make room, and find that I actually enjoy most of the beers I’ve tried. We lingered there awhile and enjoyed sharing stories…and trying different types of beer.

And of course that’s pretty much where the age difference between myself and most of the other volunteers became apparent – at least to me. After two beers, I was feeling pretty much ‘done’ for the night, but for the rest of the group, that was just the warm-up. So I sucked it up and we headed out to a few costume themed bars (they have a lot of them in Lviv) -and explored a greater array of liquor combinations.  Mostly I just listened to the incredible experiences each person had to share and thought about paths not taken when I was their age.

I hung in there as long as I could manage and then left with a few others to go back to the hostel – while the rest of them enjoyed a rare opportunity to hang out with their friends for longer. PC Volunteers work hard and don’t often have the luxury of a gathering like this so when they do get together they try to make the most of it. Once winter hits, travel will become more difficult for everyone, but especially those living in rural villages. So I was lucky to have arrived just as one of these events took place.

We returned on the train Sunday evening and my heart was full.

I feel like my network expanded exponentially between the volunteers and their Ukrainian friends, and friends of friends. One week earlier my world was only a city block wide and now there’s entire community that I can lean on when I need to. And that has made all the difference. Here’s my favorite pic of the weekend, just a bunch of Peace Corps volunteers  enjoying walking in the rain on their way to nowhere in particular. It sort of sums the whole relaxing weekend.Resevoir Volunteers

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Be It Ever So Humble….

28 Sept., 2015

I thought you might be interested in seeing more of my apartment. You know, besides my bathtub and washing machine.  First, let me describe my area. I live within the city of Ternopil, but in a bedroom community about half an hour from the city center (by bus). I live in a Soviet-era apartment block – as many people in this region do. And I am surrounded by scores of these buildings, which sometimes makes it tricky to navigate since they all look so similar. But I’m slowly finding my way…mostly using graffiti as my landmarks.

My street address is Kyivs’ka St 8/46, Ternopil and I encourage you to look it up on Google Maps. Here’s a quick overhead look.

map of area

See all those rows and squiggly lines? Each of those is a 12 story square brick building. Each one uglier than the next. My apartment is found through the second doorway of my complex. It looks like this:

front entrance

It doesn’t exactly scream homey, does it? Too bad I didn’t capture the big dog that sleeps in the dirt behind the bench, or the smell of rotting garbage. But you can imagine for yourself.  Inside the locked doorway  there are stairs. The first thing you notice is how dark it is. If you’re coming to the building during the daytime or early evening, you will see a shaft of light between the first and second floor.  If you come home at night, you’re in total, eerie darkness. I see light fixtures on each floor and have asked about them.  Apparently the lightbulbs are stolen from them as soon as they’re put in so nobody bothers anymore. (I took these photos midday when the sun was at its brightest).

The second thing you notice is the smell. It’s an odd, yet distinct, combination of kasha and urine. It kind of hits you in the back of your sinuses as you reach the first floor landing.

first floor

Note the floor number drawn on with a red Sharpie.


Here’s my mailbox, on the second floor. Don’t ever send me something here. I would never, ever get it.

mail box

I have the luxury of a small elevator in my building but I only use it if I’m carrying lots of heavy items and the stairs are too hard to navigate. The elevator is dark and creepy and would be right at home in a low-budget slasher film.

093015_2145_BeItEverSoH6.png  093015_2145_BeItEverSoH7.jpg


I live on the third floor…. In a very dark corner. It’s usually so dark in fact that I have to use a flashlight to find the keyhole.


On a positive, note, it’s quite secure. In fact, I have two locked doors!


Doubly safe!

Once inside my apartment, it’s actually warm and well-lit. I am extremely lucky in that I have my own apartment and it is quite spacious, especially by Ukrainian standards. The décor looks nothing like the outside. There is an entry way covered in a wallpaper of pink roses, complete with smoked-glass sliding doors that cover my coat closet and living room when extended.



Notice the little altar for my hubby statue?

smoke and glass

Through the smoked looking glass

I have a separate living room, with a balcony. But before you say ‘ooooh…balcony!’ you should know it’s a squat cement space designed to hang your laundry to dry. American balconies serve a different purpose.

living room

L-shaped sofa can sleep two semi-comfortably, in case you’re wondering.


No, the TV does not get English channels. But I try to watch the news in Ukrainian. Some days I even (sort of) understand it.


My not-so lovely but very functional balcony.

The Bedroom is pretty nondescript. A bed, a table, a chair and a closet. The cord snaking its way down the floor is actually my internet connection. So naturally I spend a lot of attached to the end of it.


You’ve seen enough of my bathroom, but here’s a ‘happy ending’ shot of both rooms, now that the pipes are in order.

separate water closetbath

The bathroom floor is heated!

The kitchen is my favorite space….mostly because of the cheery wallpaper depicting a hilly scene in which I imagine Julie Andrews appearing, singing “The Hills are Alive….” It has possibly been re-enacted in her absence as well (but I admit nothing on the record).  I love the little red stove, despite the fact that the oven doesn’t work.  The amenities are simple, but I have all that I need.

kitchen 1kitchen 2kitchen 3

kitchen 4

Even a full sized fridge!

From this side of the apartment building I have a lovely view of the trees along the main road. Half a block down there are little shops and vendors lining the streets but on this end it’s relatively quiet.

kitchen 4

The view from above



So there you have it. Home sweet home. There’s plenty of space for visitors and you’re more than welcome to come. Just saying….



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A Gathering at the Watering Hole(s)…

24 Sept, 2015

Because sometimes the banal is more interesting than the primary content of my life, I thought I would give an update to my last post -from my new pal Ivan Stepanovich (John is the American version of Ivan…but I’m trying to use as many ‘proper’ names as possible).

Tuesday evening he left and things seemed fine. Wednesday I braved another bath and things were not fine. Each leak had returned and brought a new friend, doubling their level of squirting enthusiasm. Although it was not yet 8am, I woke up my Peace Corps manager Natasha, who was still in town and explained the situation and told her that I was on my way to school to find Ivan Stepanovich and drag him back to my home for help. I took photos to give him a heads up, but had no way of getting them to him other than to show him my phone. By the time I got to the school, Natasha had already spoken with the Director, Iryna and stressed the need for urgency, while also displaying her frustration at this ongoing problem. Both of these women are very strong willed and demand authority and in my current position here, I had to meekly sit on the sidelines and let them duke it out. Meek is not a position that suits me, but even I know when to let the big dogs fight on their own. Words were exchanged in rapid-fire staccato and loudly – in all directions. Without understanding more than a word here or there, I knew that I was going to be the center of attention for every one and anyone who could help to solve this problem. And just to be very clear that things were going to be monitored closely by the Peace Corps, Natasha has refused to let them work in my apartment unless I am present. I had meetings already scheduled for the day so poor Ivan Stepanovich had to cool his jets at school until later afternoon…and stay until the job was done. Pipes were replaced, a new faucet was installed, water was mopped up repeatedly… In the end, he declared it a success. The little bathroom countertop doesn’t fit the new pipe configuration and will have to be dealt with later when there is access to a circular saw, but aesthetics aside, all seemed to be well. I took a cautious shower this morning and had no trouble.

Note to self: don’t attempt to do a happy dance standing in 6 inches of water when you know you’re having a very clumsy day.

I was all smiles and ‘thank you-s’ this morning when I appeared at work and learned that at last I was going to get my washing machine installed today. Yay! Washing jeans in a tiny bucket is not a pleasant task. So I did a few quick things at work while they loaded the washer into a van and then joined three mechanically-minded men for a run over to my apartment. And that would have been the easy part except that they are repairing the tiny road to my apartment complex this week and everything is torn up (and blocked off). There was no other viable way into the complex. So… after briefly discussing (and then rejecting) the possibility of driving on the lawn, they parked at the next housing complex and decided to hoof it.

I assumed they would have a little dolly to move the heavy machine with, but it seems here they have their own methods. The wrapped a rug around the bottom of the washer, and each grasping a section of the rug, lifted the mighty beast out of the van and down the broken path all the way to my apartment complex. Then they had to haul it up to the third floor (which thankfully fit inside the tiny elevator) so only one flight of stairs had to be managed. The men couldn’t fit with the machine, so they had to send it on its own, race up the stairs and then haul it out before the doors closed again. There was nothing I could do to help so I just stood nearby, laughing until tears ran down my face, snapping photos the entire time. They were mildly amused by this.

Four hours later, we are all sitting in my apartment, waiting for caulk to dry. Three and a half hours ago, when they installed the washing machine for some reason it wasn’t working as it should. The machine is an older one, and they needed to alter the settings a bit, but didn’t have a manual. Ivan Stepanovich thought Google could come to our rescue. Of course the machine is German and the website is, too… and between the lot of us we couldn’t understand the language enough to make sense of it. The closest translations to Ukrainian were Russian and Hungarian – but neither were great on the site. It took some work, but we finally got the serial number of the machine to match up with the product search engine on the company’s website…. Only to discover that the machine was so old that they didn’t make the manual available online anymore. Disappointed but resilient, these band of brothers dug in and kept trying things until they got the machine to work.

Which they did.

And then the pipes backed up, causing a mini geyser to erupt in my bathtub.

One of them laughed and (I’m fairly certain) said “Look, you have a bidet!”

(I feel like I might be dreaming, and I’ve landed in someone’s sitcom)

In the ensuing hours, the men have taken turns running back to the school and the hardware stall of the open market for parts, while at least one has stood sentry to ensure there is not another flood. Ivan Stepanovich explained that they would have to snake the drain behind the tub which appeared clogged. And when they did that the old pipes disengaged from each other, leaving a sizeable gap behind my tub for more water to fall.

I stopped looking at that point. There was plunging and mopping and cursing and laughter, but I don’t want to know the details…. And I definitely don’t want to know what they pulled out of the pipe that made them all explaime “Oyyyyy!” I do know that they have cleaned and re-attached and caulked and prayed with all the force they can muster. Once the calk dries they will check it all again.

I’m not holding my breath.

But if I have to, I’m turning that bidet into a clothes-washing opportunity.


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A Quick Lesson on Ukrainian Plumbing

22 Sept, 2015

On Sunday, I indulged myself by sleeping in late, making an extra-strong pot of coffee and then taking a leisurely bath. As my mind was drifting and I was enjoying actual hot water on my skin, I was pulled from my reverie by an odd whooshing sound. To my horror, I saw water seeping out from under my bathroom sink. Then I heard a distinctive gurgle and the seep was replaced with a flood. Augh! I frantically started feeling around for the pipes under the sink only to discover a major one was unattached. I know this because the end that should have been under the floor was waving wildly in my hand, spewing icky bath water in wild abandon.

In a moment that could only be imagined on an old I Love Lucy episode, I put my hand over the opening of the pipe, only to have another weak spot open and water to rush out in a new direction. I somehow managed to shove the water-gushing end of the pipe back into my floor…all the while my still-soapy body was slipping and twisting in the rising tide. I hadn’t yet even purchased a mop so I tried my best to scoop up the water with my dustpan. But of course the only place to put the scooped-up water was back into the bathtub…which caused the pipe to pop out and the water to release itself back onto my floor.

There are just some things a Ph.D. doesn’t prepare you for.

It being Sunday, and me only having one person I can call locally who would understand me, I decided to limit my water usage for the day and monitor the situation until I could get help on Monday. As it happened, my Regional Manager (my direct Peace Corp supervisor) was coming to visit from Kiev and I knew this ‘no nonsense’ woman would come to my rescue. In the meantime I braved the local market and somehow managed to purchase a mop, a bucket and some sponges. Something this basic is not as easy for me as you might think, given that this is my local store (and no one speaks English…and they expect you to haggle for the price):

Also, I was looking for an American-style mop and what they generally use here is a wooden stick with a flat end that you wrap with whatever rags you have at home and push around on the floor. What I ended up with was something in-between.

Monday however was a national holiday and many people were off work, including the school handyman. So I agreed that I could wait another day for service. They were also planning to install a small washing machine for me on Tuesday (and hang a clothes drying rack on the balcony – no one uses an electric dryer here) so could do it all at once. But Tuesday morning I was feeling really grungy and thought a very quick wash-up would be okay if I was careful with the water. It was not okay. In fact, there seemed to be even more water gushing out of more places, even though I used hardly any water. I think most of it was coming from the apartment above me (and I’m fairly certain that I passed a lot of it on the one below me). I guess that’s one way to get to know your neighbors!

The ever helpful John Stepanovich arrived on Tuesday morning with helpers and they set to work dismantling my bathroom cabinetry so they could caulk and replace things that function like a pyloric valve in the stomach.

Several hours later and with mild cursing in Ukrainian, these guys were able to put the pieces back together. Using Google translate (and toggling between English and Cyrillic keyboards), they were able to convey the following:

  1. Pipes are not great but they are okay for now. Tiny repair for now but big problems underneath the tub. But what can you do?
  2. There is no easy way to set up a clothesline on your balcony because walls are old concrete and will crumble when we push on it. Maybe for now you put clothes on electric heater or maybe flap your arms like a bird. (I’m hoping they were joking about that last one…but I can’t be certain).
  3. I will come back later with your landlord to put in washing machine. Later means …(shrug).
  4. This spirit bottle (aka hand sanitizer) is super! Can I buy in Ukraine?

Despite the frustrations and the potential for more flooding in the future, I know that I am lucky. I have my own bathroom, and fresh running water, and a toilet that flushes. Other volunteers here are not so fortunate. Every comfort level is relative, and someone always has it worse.

My bathroom (there’s a separate ‘water closet’ next to it)

The “Squat” toilet of another nearby volunteer


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First Week Highlights: Part II (The Pupils)

They don’t call them students here, they call them pupils. And they are pretty darned wonderful. There are 110 kids at the school, ranging in age from 5-17. The very youngest are in kindergarten, which here is a combination of the US pre-school and kindergarten. The oldest are in ’12th forms’, which is our equivalent of senior year (12th grade). The classes are small – I haven’t seen more than 8 in any since classroom at one time. They do occasionally combine classrooms for some activities, but generally it’s the same grade-based divisions we have at home. The school is specifically designed for students with physical disabilities (those with sensory disabilities attend school elsewhere). However, there are many students with multiple disabilities which primarily seem to impact development and (to some extent) cognition. From what I could gather initially though, most seem to have strong intellectual skills and in the United States would be fully included in a regular classroom.

The pupils follow a general education curriculum and I’m pleased to see that they aren’t babied in any way. The teachers at the school all try to maintain high standards and push the kids (in a positive way) to meet them. For example, it was a nice day out and so the 5th form class (I think), went outside for their math lesson. They were learning how to calculate the angle of the sun using a stick and a protractor.

I kept thinking of the show “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”

My answer would be a definitive No.

All of the pupils, except for those who are nonverbal (or really, really little) are learning English. It’s part of a new national curriculum in Ukraine. They see English as the primary language used in the West and recognize that it offers greater opportunities for Ukrainian youth to interact more globally. So I was pleasantly surprised as I visited each classroom to hear the students shyly saying “Good Morning Katie” in English…and then giggle wildly when I said “Good Morning” back to them.

Katie? Yeah, about that. Ukrainian and English are both difficult languages to learn and they are very different from each other. First, there’s the alphabet. We share some letters but they aren’t usually pronounced the same (For example, our letter “P” in Ukrainian is pronounced like “R” in English and the letter “B” in English is a “V” in Ukrainian). Also, letter combinations are different. There is no “th” sound in Ukrainian…. And the “thl” combo in my name is as hard for them as the “djy” is for me. So they all decided that they would call me Kate or Katie instead (and occasionally Katya). I don’t mind – as long as I know what to respond to, I’m flexible.

The children have been very welcoming in general and I’m working hard to establish a comfort level so that they can just be themselves when I’m around. It’s hard for me to observe them when they’re on their best behavior. So I’ve been playing little games with them in the hallways between classes and waving at them all the time. And even when I say ‘goodbye’ to them in Ukrainian, they will respond in English. They especially like to do this when their parents come to pick them up from school… I can see how proud they are of their skills. My colleague Zinna told me on Friday that verdict from the kids is that I’m fun. She said ‘You know how I learned this? The children go home and talk about you to their parents, and the parents tell me EVERYTHING.” I laughed and said “Surely not everything” and without batting an eye she said “They say you make silly faces at them when the other teachers aren’t looking and you pretend to chase them in the hallways”. Busted!

The kids can’t say more than the basic “Hello, my name is ____ and I am from Ternopil” in English….which is about my level of Ukrainian right now. But kids always find a way to communicate. For example, this boy Sasha clearly has ADHD and has a hard time focusing on his school work. He also seems to have some sort of language processing issue going on. So his teacher gets him to focus on school work for 10-15 min at a time and then he’s allowed to spend a few minutes making dinosaurs out of clay. Any they’re pretty good! When I visited his class, he immediately dragged me over to his sculpting table and started explaining the differences between each one – pantomiming when I didn’t understand. It didn’t seem to slow him down one bit that we couldn’t speak a common language. Not one bit.

Kids always find a way.

The kindergarten class was hilarious – the little kids are really just learning to socialize and the poor teacher had her hands full. When I walked in, those who could ambulate on their own immediately ran up to me and wrapped their arms around my legs in a hug. Even those in wheelchairs were pushing to get close enough to touch me. When they all wrapped themselves around me at once, I felt like I was being licked by kittens….only stickier.

The older students are bright and motivated and most really do seem to want to learn. They are studying physics and chemistry and math and world history… and of course they are typical teenagers at times as well. We were touring the dorm rooms and I asked if the children were learning independent living skills like how to make their own beds and use an alarm clock to get up, etc. And the lovely Vera said “Oh yes, the young ones are very proud of their work. But the older ones….” And then she sighed and picked up an apple core from one of the beds.

I am still trying to sort out what options the pupils will have once they leave this school. They seem to have many talents but I also know the social attitude here is very negative around disability and for the most part, they wouldn’t be given an opportunity to attend a university or get a job. It is a sensitive subject and since it was just my first week, I didn’t want to push the issue too much. But just look at this artwork for example. This sculpture is about one meter in height and is made completely out of matchsticks. It’s just amazing work and particularly so when you see the guy who made it. He’s in his final year of school and is talented in so many different ways – academically, artistically, linguistically…. I really hope he’s able to put those skills to good use. He loves architecture and can draw nearly anything he sees. And sometimes he draws buildings only he can see in his mind. They are absolutely stunning.

Is it really possible that he might sit at home after graduation and do nothing with his life?

I’m not naïve enough to think that I’m going to change the attitude of an entire country overnight, but I really want this one boy to have a chance.

Okay, I want the ALL to have a chance.


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First Week Highlights: Part 1 (The Staff)

18 Sept 2015

Rather than a ridiculously lengthy post, I’m going to break down the highlights of my first week into a few segments…. So much was going on that it could take me two weeks to explain it all J

First, let me explain the structure of administration: Iryna Kokol’ is the Director and she really does run the show. She oversees all aspects of the school and is a strong leader. Her passion and determination are impressive and when she speaks, people act. I think her personality is a good fit for this position. Underneath her are two other Managers: Zinna is the head of Curriculum and Instruction – that’s not her exact title but the closest I can come to explaining it. She oversees the teachers and general educational curricula. Vera is the head of Social Development and Extracurricular Activities – again, I’m loosely translating the role. She oversees psychosocial development and independent living skills and arts….everything that isn’t strict classroom instruction. Vera is my official ‘counterpart’ or peer, but in truth they share this role nicely. All of the administrators have been at the center for more than 10 years and it would be hard to say who is more passionate or generous. They are all wonderful, kind hearted people and I feel at home among them, despite the lack of a common language.

From Left to Right: Alla, Zinna & Vera

The person I spend the most time with right now is Mary (whose real name is Marika, but has Americanized it for my benefit. They seem to like to do that here). She is a teacher of English and the only person at the school who actually speaks English fluently. There are still gaps, but we have no trouble getting our messages across. The school had assured the Peace Corps that there were 10 staff members who spoke English, and it turns out that it’s not exactly true. Why would they do that, you ask? Because they desperately wanted a Peace Corps volunteer and they knew that’s what the agency wanted to hear. So, it is what it is. Not ideal, but I guess that will just motivate me to learn Ukrainian as fast as possible. Mary is a full time teacher and mother of two young children and like most working moms, she is super busy. Adding one more job to her plate is just part of her life, in her opinion – and she’s happy to do it. She is so very generous with her time but I am mindful of the added work of translation and we’ll need to work out some system that allows here to do her ‘regular’ job while helping me with communication.


There is one other person here who speaks some English – Alla. You can see her photo above with Zinna and Vera. Alla is an interesting person. I would guess she is in her early 20s and grew up in an orphanage as her parents abandoned her when she was young (yes, because of her disabilities). I don’t actually know what her disabilities are but I am guessing there is some sort of syndrome underlying both physical and developmental impairments. There is a mild intellectual disability but she manages on her own as best as possible. About 10 years ago she went to Fargo North Dakota for some specialized surgeries and stayed for several years. During that time she picked up quite a bit of English – not fluent but certainly enough to communicate her needs. Alla explained that when she returned to Ukraine, she was living in a group home and then got her own small room in an apartment building (like a small studio apt without cooking facilities). Someone helped her to get a job at TOCER where she works sort of like a personal aide…mostly helping to transport students around the building and assisting those who need help at lunch time. Alla told me that many cruel things have happened to her in the past and for a while she only wanted to die to end her terrible life. But then she found God and became active in an Evangelical church and has since changed her attitude about things. She is lonely and vulnerable but also so very sweet and eager to please others. And I am struggling with this because she has attached herself to me in a way that makes me uncomfortable. (I know….I know….you all saw that coming, right? OF COURSE someone like this would find me! I am a magnet for it). I am okay with setting necessary boundaries and we have already had several conversations about this (because she waits outside my door to walk me to school every day, holding my hand at lot and she runs from her job duties to whisper ‘I miss you already’ in my ear when she sees me in the halls at school). She is very vulnerable and I want to be sensitive about any sense of rejection. The difficult part is that because she is the only other person who sort of speaks English here, she is sometimes called upon to translate when Mary isn’t available. And she is so eager to help. I am grateful and cautious at the same time. Alas, I’ll find my way with it. Just one more step in the road.

I haven’t had a lot of interactions with the other teachers yet although they have all been very willing to let me sit in on their classes and observe. It is a typical mix of teaching styles and topics.

The other aspect of the Center for Education and Rehabilitation is of course the “Rehabilitation” side. And I think this school does an amazing job of supporting the children with the resources available. There is speech therapy and physical therapy, a psychologist and a social worker, and a nurse and doctor on staff. The physician is a neurologist who has a son of her own with a disability and feels passionately about working with this population. They understand the team-based approach to rehab and seem to consult with each other regularly to ensure they’re always working toward a common goal. The neurologist (perhaps because she was first a parent advocate) has developed her own case management forms, which include asking the parents to describe in some detail their own dreams and goals for their child. Some parents really seem to like this collaborative approach while others think it’s the school’s issue to deal with. I imagine you find the same mix everywhere, although it’s heartbreaking to hear a parent open say they have no interest in their son or daughter’s welfare. And they do say that L

They take a very holistic approach to physical rehab here – and I’ll talk more about that in a separate post. There’s just so much to share!

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Settling In

12 Sept, 2015

I was met at the train station in Ternopil by Iryna Kokol’, the Director of the school and Mary, an English teacher who serves as my translator, and John Stepanovich, who is the driver (and a jack of all trades). As is the custom, the women dressed in very nice clothes to greet me, which in this case included tight, shiny clothes and five inch heels (and three inch fingernails!). They are incredibly beautiful and I tried hard not to laugh as I watched them struggle to manage a suitcase between them, stepping carefully over the broken concrete and dirt that serves as the sidewalk. In an act defying the laws of gravity, we somehow managed to get all four of us plus my enormous mound of luggage into the tiny car. I was delivered to my apartment where they took me step by step through all the features (“Here is how you light the cooktop…okay, now you try”….”Show us how you lock your door and how to check the little hole for strangers”). Once the basics were covered, we walked together to the Center where I will be working. It’s very close (less than 10 min) but there are many, many tall apartment complexes in the area and the paths are confusing. So, I say it is 7 minutes as the crow flies, but 25 when Kathleen tries J


Ternopil Oblast (Regional) Center on Education and Rehabilitation – TOCER for short, sits in a former elementary school building and it looks like an ordinary school. Maybe not an American school, but nonetheless you would recognize it as a school as soon as you walked in. From all I had read, I was expecting a bleak environment with few resources or compassion. I could not have been more wrong. First, this is not an orphanage but a school and nearly all of the children live with their families at home. Those who live nearby sleep at home and attend school during the day. Those who live further away sleep in the dorms at school during the week and then go home on the weekends. It is similar to how state schools for children who are deaf or blind run in the US. The building itself is bright and cheery. Because it was the weekend, there were only a few children there – kicking around a ball and looking shy. I’ll meet the whole school on Monday.

We had a nice lunch together at school, and then they walked me back to my apartment and (at my request) I was given Sunday off to unpack and settle in.

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Drinking from a Firehose

8 Sept – 11 Sept, 2015

Our orientation training was crammed into three and a half very VERY full days. As one of the other volunteers said, it was like trying to drink from a firehose. Whatever got in, got in…and the rest landed all around us.

Holy cow was it intense! Every minute was packed with information about culture and politics and the historical context of Ukraine…language training and medical clearances and safety & security (headed by a former KGB agent, whom you absolutely know would die trying to protect you, if necessary). Our medical training focused mostly on warnings about the number of stray dogs with rabies, being hit by a car, alcohol abuse, and the dangers of eating wild mushrooms. It was summed up in four short, cautionary statements:

  • Don’t Get Bit
  • Don’t get Hit
  • Don’t get Lit
  • Don’t eat Sh*t

Hmmmm…..seems fair enough.

And there was paperwork galore, and having to set up a bank account here and work visas, etc. We were utterly exhausted and wanting more all in the same breath. I think we averaged 4 hours of sleep at most each night and the time flew so quickly there. In addition, the head of Youth Development Programs for the Peace Corp had somehow finagled a meeting with for myself and him with someone of importance in the Ministry of Education – focusing of course on Special Education. He is the most amazing guy and I feel like I’ve known him for ages.

Thank goodness my luggage arrived in the nick of time! I peeled off my four day old travel clothes, donned a business dress and heels and off we went. Me being…well, me…I boldly invited this woman to visit our center in Ternopil and also suggested we begin a pilot project to highlight all the good things already in place, share best practices, collect data, show evidence of continuing need and (naturally) develop a report for the Ministry of Education showing that more money is needed for services. Formalities done, we dashed back to the Peace Corp Headquarters so that I could continue with my training (grant writing, program monitoring & evaluation, and how to write government reports for Congress). And as tired as we were, we went out in the evenings to explore Kiev, since we won’t likely be back there anytime soon. It’s part of the restricted zone here at the moment. Here are a few important things I learned from our explorations: it is culturally polite to accept a shot of vodka…but you have to say ‘no’ to any more if you plan to study a foreign language the next day. Also, you should never, ever, ever eat sausage in a place where you can’t read the ingredients and they serve horsemeat on the menu. ‘Nuff said. (Clearly the “don’t eat sh*t” rule hadn’t sunk in yet).

Friday came far too quickly and we were formally sworn in as Peace Corp Volunteers, taking the same oath as the President of the United States. Typically there are 80 or 100 volunteers doing this at once, but since the evacuation last year, they have been bringing people back very slowly and so our tiny group of three benefited from the attention of all that staff that normally more spread out to share the love. (Note: If you aren’t clear about what actually happened during the Annexation of Crimea by Russia, you can read about it here).

But our celebrations were short lived as one by one we departed by train to our assigned posts. First was Hayley, who is going to teach English in a secondary (high) school in Mohiliv-Podilsky which is near the border of Moldova; then Laura left (on an overnight Pullman train) to go teach English at a university in Chernivtsi, further southwest, and closer to Hungary. I left early the next morning for my post in Ternopil – a five hour train ride from Kiev (and the nearest of the three of us).

I slept the entire ride there.

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Departures and Arrivals

06-07 September, 2015

I left Madison, WI midday on Sept 6th and flew to Kiev via Atlanta and Amsterdam. I was to meet up with two other Peace Corps Response volunteers in Amsterdam and journey together the last leg of the trip. The travel itself was fine, except that there were delays on every flight, which culminated in a rather hilarious sprint through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam laden with overstuffed hand luggage which were slung around me in various bundles. I had exactly 10 minutes to get to the opposite end of this very large international hub and I felt rather like a character in a video game, dodging all manner of people and objects in my efforts to reach my intended gate. Breathless, I arrived in the nick of time (as did another Peace Corp volunteer, late from a completely different flight). As I took my seat the gentleman next to me said in a loud southern drawl “What the f*ck is taking so long? I need a margarita”. Grimacing inwardly, I realized that I had come all this way only to be seated next to a parody of the ugly American. He was on his way to meet a Ukrainian girl he hooked up with in Dallas earlier that year…. I believe he referred to it as a very expensive “booty call”. Nice. He insisted on talking and I patiently explained the difference between the Peace Corps and Greenpeace three times. He works on an oil rig for Halliburton and has no love of “dolphin huggers”. There was a woman in full burka sitting behind us and the guy kept squirming because all the ‘commies’ made him uncomfortable. Sigh. So many misconceptions I wouldn’t know where to begin. I knew that I would have to learn tolerance for differences while on this mission; I just didn’t expected it from another American. Lessons come in the most unexpected ways, don’t they?

We arrived in Kiev around 1pm and zipped through immigration without a problem. I guess that Peace Corps sticker on my passport really did help! We waited for ages at the baggage carousel for our luggage….long after it was obvious that our bags were not there. The two of us who had tight connections had arrived while our worldly possessions were still somewhere in Amsterdam. And we were not alone…there were perhaps 20 people in the same situation. It took nearly an hour for us to work our way to the front of the line at customer service to file a claim. At last we made it out to the arrivals lounge, where we were met with squeals and hugs from Peace Corps staff, as well as cameras and reporters from Voice of America. Apparently, it is good news that American volunteers are coming back to Ukraine again. What a warm welcome!

We were given time to unpack but alas without luggage that was unnecessary. After a bit of administrative paperwork, we were met by the Country Director (the top person in Ukrainian Peace Corps) and taken to dinner at a Crimean Tartar restaurant. And there I learned my first new Ukrainian word.

Smachnyy. Delicious.

Afterwards, there was time to walk around the city with the other two volunteers and we bonded while getting lost and finding our way around the unfamiliar territory. I tell you, nothing develops the solidarity of women like when they are looking for a clean public bathroom with toilet paper. And along the way we saw some really beautiful churches and monuments.

Tomorrow the real work begins.

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