We spent the last week of February at our COS Conference in the Ukrainian mountains. The purpose of the “Close of Service” Conference is to prepare Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) for ending their time in Peace Corps. For two full days, we had sessions in which we reflected on our time here in Ukraine—how we’ve succeeded and left an influence on our sites, and how we ourselves have been impacted by our time here. We discussed how to say goodbye to our co-workers, community members, Ukrainian friends, and fellow PCVs. We talked about readjusting to American life upon return and methods for dealing with reverse culture shock. And, of course, there was plenty of time dedicated to the tons of paperwork and benefits that come with a government job.
In addition to attending such sessions, most of which I found helpful, we spent a lot of time just hanging out with our friends from Group 36—the group of volunteers that met in Philadelphia on March 30, 2009, arrived in Ukraine on April Fool’s Day, went through 11 weeks of training together, and were sworn in as official volunteers on June 18. We began as a group of 55, came to the COS Conference with 49, and then said goodbye to one tough volunteer who had to leave early for medical tests in the States. There’s just something special about this group of people who embarked upon this great adventure together. Although I can’t say I’m friends with them all, and some I hadn’t even seen since swearing-in, I did enjoy getting together with everyone again. Many great friendships have been made in the last 2 years, and there’s a really nice, fun atmosphere among everyone.
First, Alex and I got to spend a few days with a smaller group of PCVs who live in the western part of the country. We rarely, if ever, get to see these folks, so it was really great to spend some quality time with them. We toured a new city (Uzhgorod), went through an outdoor museum, played games, watched movies, and generally just hung out. There are lots of wonderful PCVs who we just can’t see often because we live too far away and don’t have enough time to travel, so we were thankful for this opportunity. Then after the conference, Alex went to Kyiv for a meeting, and I spent a day in Lviv before taking the long train back home. We both got to spend a little more time talking and chilling with some of our closest friends.
The conference itself provided good time to catch up with folks. We had three delicious meals a day, two tea/coffee breaks, comfy sitting rooms, and a bar complete with dance floor. One evening, some PCVs organized karaoke, which was, of course, tons of fun. Song selections ranged from Disney musicals (Part of Your World) to pop (multiple Lady Gaga songs) to oldies (American Pie). When it wasn’t our turn in the spotlight, we all enjoyed singing along from the back of the room. Another evening, we watched our COS slideshow. With the help of some others, I organized and presented photos and videos that our group-mates had submitted to represent their time in Ukraine. I really enjoyed looking at everyone’s photos and putting the slideshow together, and it was very well received! Some other PCVs organized superlatives for everyone, and so the slideshow concluded with an individual photo of each volunteer plus her/his superlatives. Alex and I won “cutest couple,” and I was deemed “most likely to stage the first bra burning in Ukraine!”
We entered the conference with great expectations of a fun time seeing all our group-mates again, and the week definitely lived up to the hype. Additionally, we came to celebrate the two years of our PC service. Quite a few PCVs end their service early, sometimes for reasons out of their control, and so there’s a huge sense of accomplishment in making it through the two years of difficult training, work, and life in a far-away country. We feel like we can leave Ukraine and do almost anything with all the flexibility, patience, persistence, life-skills, and cultural sensitivity that we’ve learned here. So, the week was a great chance to celebrate together.
We left the conference, though, much more reflective. Although it was a time to be happy for surviving these two tough years, it was also a time to think about the work we’ve done here and the lives we’ve touched. We came to Ukraine two years ago with great ideas and dreams to make a difference. I think it’s fair to say that the whole experience turned out differently than anyone expected, and so we must now figure out what we have done and how we have succeeded. And, on the other hand, we need to consider what Ukraine has done to us—how our lives and selves have changed from this crazy experience. We will return to the US different people than when we left, and we must figure out how to translate that to American life, as well as how to communicate it to our American family and friends who won’t know the ins and outs of everything we’ve gone through.
When I think of leaving Ukraine, I’m filled with a mixture of emotions. Of course, I’m extremely excited to see my family and friends again and go back to a more comfortable life. And, obviously, I’m sad to leave Sofievka and the amazing little community we’ve formed here with our Ukrainian friends. However, there’s an even more powerful emotion that took hold last week when I suddenly realized that this is REAL—we really are finally concluding our PC service. You see, I’ve been dreaming for a long time about living in a foreign country; I first looked into PC just after graduating from college. As a couple, Alex and I have known ever since our South American adventure that we wanted to spend some real time in another country—not just traveling, but living and learning a different language, culture, and traditions. We’ve been actively involved with PC for almost four years, including the time spent researching the program and applying. It is truly amazing to realize this goal and have seen it through, and I’m incredibly thankful that we were able to do so. However, when I check something this huge off my life’s “to-do” list, there’s suddenly a big hole left behind. For lack of a better way to describe it, I feel kind of like I am grieving over the death of a dream. A dream that was realized, but a dream that, none-the-less, is no more. I know that hole will be filled with more dreams for the future, and our to-do lists will grow: find fulfilling work, get a master’s degree, have some kids, etc. Please don’t get me wrong—I’m super excited about the future and all the possibilities open to us, but at this current point during this huge transition, this is the feeling that overpowers the others.
Emma and I want to let you know that the Our Sofievka: Parks, Playgrounds, and Peace project is in progress and moving along nicely. We learned in early January that – thanks to many generous donations – we were fully funded. Peace Corps processed all the paperwork for us, and we were able to withdraw money at the end of the month. Our local carpenter and his crew had already begun work on the playgrounds, thanks to the community contribution procured by Sofievka’s mayor, Petro Yuriovich. We’ve since paid two more installments towards their work, with one more payment due upon installation of the structures.
We’ve been holding meetings every other week or so with our community partners and the mayor to track our progress. For the last meeting we went to the carpenter’s workshop where we finally saw some concrete (well, wooden) results!
The first thing we saw were the completed sections of picket fencing. These cute little fences will surround the playgrounds, keeping stray dogs out and stray kids in.
Perhaps more impressive was one of the covered sandboxes, which was almost finished. As you can see from the photo, it’s very sturdy-looking. It’s also bigger than I imagined – you’ll be able to pitch a tent under that thing and pretend you’re camping on the beach!
The actual playground structures aren’t there yet, but they had already built the step ladders for them. We also got to see one of the trash cans.
Overall, progress looks good! We’re very excited to see things starting to come together. Our next step is to begin organizing volunteers for the work ahead. It’s still too cold to work on the playground sites, but we can start painting fences at the workshop as soon as we get some materials.