Ukraine PCVs Teach the Power of Belonging

Ukraine PCVs Teach the Power of Belonging.

By Michael Andrews, Returned Peace Corps Response Ukraine                                                                                                    

“We all want to have something to offer. This is how we belong. So if we want to include everyone, then we have to help everyone develop their talents and use their gifts for the good of the community.” 

-Melinda Gates

The 2019 movie “Peanut Butter Falcon” offers many endearing insights into a special person’s need to belong. The film features a young man named Zak with Down Syndrome who escapes from a nursing home to chase his seemingly impossible dream of becoming a professional wrestler. During his journey, Zak meets a petty crook who becomes his ally and wins freedom from the nursing home case worker determined to return him to the institution. When Zak triumphantly assumes his Peanut Butter Falcon stage name, he symbolically casts off the shackles of a disapproving society and finds a new way to belong to the world.

Zak’s cinematic quest is an apt metaphor for the real-world impact that Peace Corps Ukraine volunteers hope to accomplish – encouraging personal identity and animating a more inclusive society. There are 700,000 children with disabilities in Ukraine and more than 168,000 of them have special educational needs. Thanks to legislation enacted in 2017, the number of schools and settings to address those needs is increasing rapidly. Peace Corps Ukraine volunteers are part of that positive transformation.

Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteer Leader, Ashly Emerson, leads Ukraine’s Working Group for Inclusion. One of their worthy goals is collaborating with others to amplify understanding of volunteer inclusion work.

“There are a number of people working on inclusion in different sectors.” Ashly explains. “Volunteers who have specific skills (related to inclusion) do amazing jobs.”

Since swearing-in in June 2017, Christina Taylor has helped children with disabilities find joy through creative arts and training trainers while assisting other PCVs with learning ways to work with those who are differently-abled. At the center where she works in western Ukraine, she assists with special projects focused on inclusion and disabilities awareness in addition to English Clubs. Her trainings have included various topics about social services best practices, allyship, and “caretaker self-care.” Now, nearing the end of her third year of service, she is looking forward to continuing advocacy and training efforts to improve the lives of Ukrainian youth.

“A life of service takes perseverance and creativity.” Christina says. “Helping others can come in small, subtle ways, where change is evident to the few who have been served.”

Azura FairChild  teaches sign language in a school for deaf students in central Ukraine. New Ukrainian laws have mandated that regardless of hearing loss, students have a right to an education of English as a foreign language. What stops many people is a simple, yet complex question: how to teach English as a foreign language to deaf students? The answer is found in Azura’s expertise and experience as an English teacher and sign language expert.

“Every day, I am surrounded by ‘deaf culture’ and sign language, Azura says. “The first language that is used between students and teachers is Ukrainian sign language, with written Ukrainian as a second language in usage. In my classroom, two languages that are used between students are changed into four, as American Sign Language and English are added to the mix. This multilingual classroom enables my students to learn two languages simultaneously, with the added benefit of using their native languages to promote a safe, productive learning environment.”

“This kind of work is not easy,” Ashly insists. “There is a lot of history that both helps and hinders development in this area. One thing that we are learning is that partnering with mothers is a huge advantage when it comes to inclusion because they have the need and desire. These parents are very passionate.”

That passion is on display at the inclusive education center where volunteer Beth Bowman works. Parents and staff at the center organize a variety of fund raisers each year and Beth stepped in to help with ideas and sweat equity, bringing in other volunteers from her region to help.

“We held a mini 5k fundraiser to help subsidize an operation to install a cochlear implant for a 4-year-old girl,” Beth says. “The money didn’t pay for the entirety of the operation, but it helped the family get over the economic hump.”

Fundraisers for children at Beth’s post and community events also achieve the goals of raising awareness in the community and integration of differently-abled children into society. Beth works on grant projects that provide information and resources to parents and specialists who work with autistic children. This training has helped galvanize the passion of parents in taking a more active role in their children’s lives and has given the specialists new, updated methods of practice – critical aspects that strengthen Ukraine’s emerging democracy.

“An important issue that we are trying to address is that Ukraine does not know exactly what the special education process will look like. This makes it difficult to train on it,” Ashly explains. “In January and February we have a trainer from UNICEF helping us with inclusion issues at our English language in-service training. I am hopeful that we will continue to gain more clarity over time.”

Regardless of the steep climb to reach clarity about bringing meaningful change to Ukraine, progress is being made. Although 90 percent of differently-abled children still can’t access special services, more than 580 inclusive education centers have been opened in the last three years and the government is committed to mainstream inclusion efforts. Peace Corps Ukraine is increasingly involved in that momentum.

“Things are changing,” Ashly says. “Our working group is focusing on what PCVs can do to bring specific skills to inclusion especially with anti-stigmatization, similar to the work that volunteers are doing with vulnerable populations in HIV and AIDS prevention. This is a major priority because of attitudes towards differently-abled communities. We are also working with our Ukrainian partners to increase awareness of inclusion issues and build inclusive environments.”

Azura’s reflections on working with deaf students is emblematic of what Peace Corps Ukraine hopes to accomplish with all people who struggle to be understood and belong.

“There are many hardships that my students face being deaf, the largest one being a communication barrier, as Ukrainian sign language is rarely understood by members of the hearing community,” Azura says. “Although the deaf community throughout the country is slowly changing the hearing community’s perspective on deafness, it is going to be a good amount of time before deafness is not equated to being disabled. I teach my students that just because you are deaf, it doesn’t mean you are not an integral part of this world or part of Ukraine. Be proud of who you are, and be proud to be a part of the deaf community.”