Summer in Ukraine v2.1: Camp HEAL

Continuing along with this summer of awesome…

After the trip to Turkey with my family I had my first Ukrainian youth camp experience. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I had seen pictures from last summer of other volunteer’s experiences – I’ll be honest, I was jealous. However, one thing that I noticed was camps here are very different from ones in America. How? First, all Peace Corps camps are done in English. Second, “HEAL” stands for Human Trafficking, Education, AIDS, and Leadership. All of this is discussed with kids 14-19 – I mean, that’s some heavy stuff.

The camp started on July 4th, so needless to say…we had to start things off properly…

Photo credits for this blog to Chris Merto and Matt Brady

Robbie is ready…
Yes…these are perfectly legal here…just make sure you’re 20M away…big boom
Kevin…taking one for the team

While the focus was educational, there was also plenty of fun and competition. Sometimes it would be a review of topics discussed (active learning never hurts anyone), other times it would incorporate teamwork and leadership skills (we managed to sneak that in). In all, there were about 90 students who attended from all over Ukraine as well as 16 counselors and teachers. The Green Seaweed consisted of 15 students 14-15 years old…and they were awesome! Aside from their language skills being impressive, the fact they came together as a team from dead last after the first two days (by a lot) to finish third (behind teams of 17-18, 18-19 year olds) was pretty impressive. We had a lot of fun together…trust me, they are smiling.

The Wet Green Crazy Seaweeds

The location couldn’t have been more perfect, in my opinion. We spent our time at a sanitorium in the coastal town of Sergeevka, where my friend fellow volunteer, Jamie, lives. It is located right on the Black Sea and normally maintains a population of about 4,000 people and it showed. Just about every other person we came across knows who Jamie is – a far cry from the 800,000 who live in my city that don’t randomly come up to me and say hi.

Classes were set up so that all teams received the same information, just on a rotation. It worked out great. Three lessons a day, three different groups of teams. Those of us who were not teaching (I was not at this particular camp), either helped set up for team-building/leadership activities or went to the lessons with the campers. The teachers did a fantastic job preparing a series of lessons about the biology, transmission and stages of HIV/AIDS, leadership, volunteerism, fundraising and human trafficking.

It was interesting to see how involved the students were in these lessons. Guest speakers came as well: one told his story of HIV infection and what his life has been like since and two representatives for a human trafficking organization in Odessa. In addition, we also discussed homosexuality and same-sex relationships. For many of them, this was the first time they were hearing this type of information…and to see them engage the way they did was amazing. I think it’s safe to say, minds = blown.

One aspect of HEAL, highlighted by the Human Trafficking lessons, called for the students to design posters for a mini-project: “527 Campaign“. This is the number in Ukraine that people can dial and reach the Ukrainian National Human Trafficking Prevention hotline sponsored by the International Organization for Migrants (IOM). This is another huge issue in this region of the world and it often goes unreported. However, if someone thinks they have been trafficked, thinks they know someone who has been trafficked, or simply wants to check the legitimacy of a potential “work/travel opportunity,” they can dial 5-2-7 in Ukraine. The students made the posters in whichever language they preferred (half of the students were native Ukrainian speakers and half native Russian…with some Bulgarian speakers too) in order to effectively advertise and engage in conversations with other Ukrainians.

Once the posters were completed, the whole camp went to the beach and the students completed their 527 awareness campaign by walking up and down the coast and handing out IOM pamphlets and speaking with any number of patrons. Together, they spoke to just about everyone who would listen on the beach. Again, it was great to see the students realize that they could really make a difference in people’s lives by just opening them up to new ideas and sharing new information. One group had a mother run after them asking for more information because her daughter was about to leave for university in another city. The kids were fearless and had some very positive interactions with beach-goers…being in the sun and on the water didn’t exactly hinder their spirits either.

“Want to be safe? Call 527”
“A person isn’t a good”
“We are against human trafficking! Call 527 Hotline! Be aware!”
“Don’t be a human trafficking victim!”

After learning about the stages of HIV infection, there was a team challenge: Who could create the best 45 minute lesson plan to teach younger students? All teams had to draw upon their knowledge from the lessons and work together to come up with activities, visuals, and then present this to the camp. Impressive doesn’t begin to describe the level of creativity the students possess. Our team focused on bringing myths, transmission, and best practices to young children using posters and comics. Clearly…they had the best visual aids!

Green Team presentation. Posters (L-R): Cartoon displaying that one unprotected sexual encounter can cause HIV infection. Poster displaying how Intravenous Drug Users (IDUs) are at a higher risk than non-users. Finally, a poster for a HIV transmission myth exercise. Lesson plan was awesome! They did a great job

As I already mentioned, it was not all classroom-based. There was time for outdoor activities, morning exercises, a talent show, discos and of course…the beloved beach time. I can’t believe that I worked my first summer camp at 30. Now I get it: I understand why people do this. Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t care where you live, our youth are our future. They are extremely intelligent and have lots of ideas…it is important that we find a way to nurture that creativity. Many times, we simply do not know what we are capable of until we are challenged to do something. I am very thankful for the opportunity to help promote civic activism among the youth of our world. Now even more pictures…

Counselor dance
Green Team: Water balloon teamwork challenge…clearly focused
I mean…this is only natural
A little three-legged race action
Team building Web
10×10 puzzle
Purple team Sherpa’s walk
Post Sherpa’s walk…we won the day’s challenges BTW

I could continue to write ad nauseam about Camp HEAL. In speaking with my parents Sunday night, I kept focusing on how meaningful I found this summer to be. Opportunities to interact with the next generation of Ukrainian leaders is not something that I get to do on a daily basis. It was great to do so for a few days and to see them develop first-hand. Who knows what the students will accomplish in the future, I just hope that we were able to have some sort of positive impact. I’m lucky I was a part of it all and hopefully will be able to create and share in similar projects down the road.

I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story. Again, as I stated in my previous entry, I’m lucky. Period. Special thanks to the Ukrainians who continue to make this experience what it is!

He can do them with his eyes closed. “All you have to do is memorize the algorithm”…he’s 14
Robbie helping out with yoga (note the JMU pants)
Playground workout. This is extremely common here. I now understand why so many world-class gymnasts come from this part of the world.
Kevin and his coke snorkel…just incase the waves came too high
So proud…
Veronika and Lena
Chris, me, Jamie
Peel Bananas song
Kym and Country Director, Doug Teschner, doing “Baby Shark”
What visit to the beach isn’t complete without one of these
Yes…we taught them Soulja Boy…it was awesome
Alex entertaining himself during preparations for the condom fashion show
Black Sea
Try not to be blinded by the whiteness of my skin
Airband…we literally did this to no sound
Later, Sergeevka…it’s been real
Six teams plus all-camp photos

There is a 25 minute slide show to music that I am unable to post to YouTube due to these things called “Copyrights” due to the music tracks selected. I have the file though and can share it with whomever would like. It is a large file and is about 25 minutes long. I’m happy to share it, just shoot me a message if you’d like to view it.


As always,

#GSR…23 years in a row!


22 thoughts on “Summer in Ukraine v2.1: Camp HEAL

    1. Thanks man! There were too many pictures to choose from to be honest. Have a 25 minute slide show I wanted to post but couldn’t get it on YouTube because of copyright issues with some of the songs. Have the file if you’re ever interested…easy file share on skype or something. Hope you’re travels are going well so far!

    1. Thanks, Kelly! This whole summer is definitely one I won’t forget for many reasons…just glad I could be a part of them. Really happy you liked the post, appreciate you checking it out

  1. Dude, I agree that it was one of the best camps ever. I’m glad I met you!
    Awesome post btw.
    Waiting for our party in Kharkiv

  2. I’ve always admired your positive attitude, Pete. You’re authentic and genuine, two qualities that are harder and harder to come by these days. Pumped you enjoyed the camp and got to send some time in Sergeevka. Hoping our paths cross a few more times before this shindig is over. We are lucky indeed.

    1. Thanks a lot, Stu. I really appreciate that and it means a lot coming from you. Liked your area a lot, would love to take a trip down to your spot too. Should try to make it a point to cross paths soon. Keep it up with your posts too, love reading them.

  3. This is absolutely amazing. I hope that I am half as lucky as you are with my summer camp experiences in Ukraine. I can’t wait to head over and be able to experience these adventures myself!

    1. Thanks, McKenzie! Appreciate it and thanks for checking out the blog. Take advantage of the opportunities while here, it really is a great country with a lot of cool things to do. Some things might take some getting used to and might not change, but that is part of what makes this place unique. Enjoy the last few weeks/days at home with your family…you’ll be here before you know it.

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