In Ukraine, summer camps provide kids a ‘childhood during war’

Resilience Europe

In Ukraine, summer camps provide kids a ‘childhood during war’

| View caption Hide caption

Children are remarkably resilient. They are also vulnerable. However hard a society may try to shelter its children, the reality of a war such as Ukraine’s invades lives. For kids who have experienced loss, these summer camps are a corrective.

Nikita likes to remember all the good things his father taught him, but sometimes he gets sad when he thinks about what he’ll miss out on. “My father really liked to fish,” he says, “and he always told me that someday he’d teach me to be a good fisherman.”

Learning to confront and deal with emotions like sadness and loss is one reason Nikita is attending a special summer camp. For two weeks he is living with other children affected by the war – kids displaced from their homes by the fighting, others whose soldier-parents are off on the front lines, and still others who, like him, have already lost a father or mother.

“We know our kids are dealing with a lot, this has been a difficult year for everybody in Ukraine. But for children, the impact of this war can be especially hard,” says Tetiana Myalkovska, camp director and manager of the Warm Palms regional project that oversees the camp, located at a retreat center for Polish Catholic priests in the Volyn region of northwestern Ukraine.

View caption Hide caption

Giving Nikita a big hug and a peck on the head, she adds, “It’s important for these kids to have fun and be kids while they are here, but we also want to help them learn to face the difficulties they are going through.”

The Warm Palms camp is one of a new crop of initiatives across Ukraine this summer to help kids cope with the war’s impact – and to allow them to enjoy the months off from school as much as kids anywhere.

Last summer, just a few months into the war, uprooted families were still scrambling for safer living conditions in or out of the country, and schools and educators were more focused on ensuring that the coming school year could open in September as normally and safely as possible.

Providing services over the summer months to help children cope with the impacts of war was not a top priority.

But a year later, the reality is setting in of a long slog ahead for Ukraine, millions of displaced families are getting to know new communities, and officials are estimating there are thousands of children like Nikita who have lost at least one parent in the fighting. In response, a variety of children’s welfare groups and individuals have turned to making summer a fun and healing time.

“It’s really important for kids to have childhood during war,” says Inga Kordynovska, who practices family law in Odesa and who decided last winter that summer would bring with it a great need for new kinds of children’s services. She set out to do what she could to fill a sliver of that need.

The result is the Sandbox Kids day camp in one of Odesa’s most cherished green spaces.

View caption Hide caption

The Green Theater in Shevchenko Park has been closed for years – first because of the pandemic, then as a result of the war and concerns that any regular gatherings of large numbers of people could be targets of Russian missiles.

But Ms. Kordynovska saw the sprawling theater, with its extensive tree cover, stages once used for experimental theatrical productions, and open areas designed for picnics and food trucks, as the perfect setting for an urban summer day camp. And as the managing partner of her law firm, she had the city and corporate connections to make Sandbox Kids a reality.

Now, every day, Sandbox Kids operates for eight hours, with morning and afternoon four-hour sessions. Priority is given to the children of parents on the front lines, the children of volunteers for military service, and then to the internally displaced. Parents are asked to contribute to the cost of running the camp if they can, but no one is turned away.

On a recent camp day, a couple dozen kids are on hand, some at an arts and crafts table, some dancing to a TikTok video, others learning the rules of a field game.

“Many of the kids don’t want to talk much about the feelings they are dealing with, but sometimes it can be expressed in their artwork,” says Ms. Kordynovska, who has an art therapist and a child psychologist on staff.

“Some kids are traumatized by what they’ve experienced, some are depressed, and some are just plain angry,” she says. “That anger especially can be expressed with bad behavior, so we find ways to address that.”

One particularly wrenching case was that of a boy from the Luhansk region, where heavy fighting had destroyed his school and shattered his family.

View caption Hide caption

“When he started coming to the camp, he wouldn’t speak to anyone; he just wanted to sit by himself in our internet zone,” Ms. Kordynovska says. “What gave us hope, though, was that he kept coming, day after day.”

The camp staff worked with the boy, letting him know everyone cared about him and wanted to help him have some fun. “Pretty soon he was using a word here or there with the other children; then he started speaking with all of us,” she says. Beaming, she adds, “By the end of the [session] we couldn’t get him to stop talking!”

A key feature of Sandbox Kids camp is its emphasis on Ukrainian language and culture.

“In Odesa, and especially in areas closest to Russia, we are confronting 200 years of efforts to cancel Ukrainian culture, to replace Ukrainian with the Russian language,” Ms. Kordynovska says. “All the children have heard that Ukraine is not a nation, that Russian is our true language,” she adds. “We want to battle these ideas with books and activities that instead say, ‘It’s really cool to be part of Ukrainian culture!’”

Like dancing to TikTok videos of popular Ukrainian songs.

Some of Ukraine’s summer camps are able to operate at least in part with foreign charitable or humanitarian funding. The Warm Palms camp gets some assistance from a church group in Pittsburgh. The Dissent Pins social action website based in Pennsylvania is helping to fund efforts to get a summer camp up and running in the Kyiv area.

View caption Hide caption

Ms. Kordynovska in Odesa says that while she appreciates the assistance foreigners have provided to some summer camps, she is sticking to her vision of Sandbox Kids – which she hopes to expand beyond Odesa – as a project by Ukrainians for Ukrainians.

“Everyone I’ve contacted for some form of help with this project, their answer has always been ‘Yes!’” – whether permission from one of Odesa’s largest corporations to use the Green Theater, donations of supplies, or professionals helping out, she says. “I want the camp to be an expression of Ukraine as a nation of ‘Yes!’”

Back at the Warm Palms camp, Ms. Myalkovska and her staff of coaches, therapists, teenage junior camp counselors, and beloved Father Jan – the director of the priests’ retreat – are preparing for a new challenge: For one of the August sessions, the camp expects to receive a number of Ukrainian children who were abducted by Russia from occupied areas of the country. Ukrainian authorities estimate that a few hundred out of perhaps thousands of abducted children have returned home.

Yet while these children might have particular needs, Ms. Myalkovska says she’s confident the range of cases the camp has served has prepared it to embrace this new group.

She notes for example that a number of this summer’s campers have been from Bakhmut, the southeastern city virtually destroyed in months of intense battle before Russian troops finally claimed it.

View caption Hide caption

One of those kids is 13-year-old Yesenia Zabashta, who was displaced from her home in Bakhmut a year ago.

Yesenia likes to paint, loves animals, and favors pretty dresses. But she takes out her anger at the world by bullying other girls – in one case so mercilessly that the girl chose to leave camp early.

Still, Warm Palms has not given up on Yesenia, a reflection of Ms. Myalkovska’s conviction that all of Ukraine’s children traumatized by the war can be helped and loved to exit whatever darkness besets them.

And Yesenia says the camp is helping her understand and stifle a trait she wants to banish.

“We’re working on the bullying,” she says, a tear rolling down her cheek. “And now I have good friends among the girls in my room.”

Reporting for this story was supported by Oleksandr Naselenko.


Share This Post

Post Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.