Fifteen years ago I was living and working as a Peace Corps Volunteer, assigned to a small village in western Ukraine. At the time I saw it as an adventure—an opportunity to travel the world and save others from a life of despair. Isn’t that what the Peace Corps is all about? Saving people from themselves?
I was a young 23, and oh so naive. Little did I know this incredible country would teach me far more about life than I could ever teach them. What began as a mission to help others, quietly and unknowingly became a journey of self-discovery as I began to question my own life’s choices.
No Turning Back
Landing in Kyiv, I felt sick to my stomach. Following a brief moment of panic, an unexpected surge of strength pushed me forward as I considered what might become of my life if I were to throw in the towel on day one. I felt like a coward at the time but now, looking back, I see how much courage it took to stay. I’m not sure I would be so brave now.
My first few days were rough. Living with a host family meant nightly charades, as we tried desperately to learn about one another. But those awkward moments would come to be one of my favorite memories, as they so often ended in fits of laughter. Slowly but surely my language improved and we began to share more meaningful stories about our lives. We were no longer strangers and an unbreakable bond was forged.
When training came to an end I was sent to work in a new community. I was devastated. Unlike so many of my fellow volunteers, I had fallen in love with my new family. But I was there to do a job and it was time to move on. Little did I know, the best was yet to come.
Kids are the common ground
As a Youth Development Volunteer, it was my “job” to teach Ukrainian children how to live a more meaningful life in an increasingly global community. I had no kids of my own, and for all intents and purposes, I was still a kid myself. I knew nothing of these people or their culture; not to mention I had little life experience at the ripe, old age of 23.
All I know is that I loved every moment of being with those kids. Just as I would begin to feel the weight of our cultural differences, a child would remind me that beyond those moments of frustration there is always common ground. You see, kids are the same around the world—seeking acceptance and love, eager to share their greatest dreams and worst fears, counting on us to keep them safe. Kids are the common ground.
I look back on that experience now and see the many mistakes I made during my time in Ukraine. I worried too much about doing my job, and took little time to cultivate a real life there. Instead of getting to know my community, I was laser-focused on “fixing” my community. I failed to listen to their wants and needs. Instead, I pursued what I thought was best, based on my narrow American views. I did it all wrong.
Hindsight is 20/20. As an adult I see how I could have been a better volunteer, but none of that matters now. My time in Ukraine may not have been what I expected, but it certainly changed me in the best possible way. It steered me towards a life abundant in love and gratitude, family and friends. These values are all deeply rooted in Ukrainian life, and it’s what brought me back there after fifteen years away.
Dunaivtsi has changed a lot in that time, but people are the same—always asking if I’m warm enough, if I’m hungry or tired, if I’m catching a cold. At first glance they can appear distant, but one attempt to engage in casual conversation in my broken Ukrainian and the thaw is almost immediate. A warm smile reminds me they are unaccustomed to seeing my kind in their small town, but it’s clear by the goodbye hug that I have made a new friend.
This is Ukraine. They are not broken people who need fixing, just as we are not broken. They love just as passionately as we do, and they want what is best for their children as we do. There is common ground—lots of it—and we can use it to learn from one another and become better as people.
This is the power of travel, but that power only comes when you are willing to be at your most vulnerable—giving up all perceptions of how you think the world should be while remaining open to the beautiful truth of what it really is.
Can you see it?