Kyiv, 15 June 1998 (RFE/RL) -- For Lena Dremchenko it was her childhood summer ritual. For just a small fee, she enjoyed three weeks on the Black Sea in a pioneer camp owned by her father's factory. The pioneers were the highly politicized, Soviet-era version of the scouting movement, and Lena's days were filled with morning exercises, games, and sporting competitions, all seasoned with a touch of propaganda that aimed to nurture her loyalty to the Motherland.
Like most children, her time at the pioneer camp was viewed simply as a right -- the right to rest and to improve one's health during the summer vacation and have it paid for by the state. But the summer days Dremchenko knew are over, and what was once viewed as a right is merely a privilege enjoyed by the few who can afford it.
Pioneer camps have long stopped their activities and most are now too dilapidated to use. Those that were salvaged, however, were converted into private camps that require up to $1,000 for a three-week stay. Few families in Ukraine can afford to send their children away, and are left to search for other ways to keep their kids busy during the Summer.
"There are options ... but they only exist for parents who have money," parent Valentina Kukhtik tells RFE/RL. "At least we had a choice when I was a child. But now, sending a child to a camp isn't even discussed." However, most parents can rely on grandparents or other relatives to take their children off their hands for at least part, if not all, of the Summer.
One mother says, "The first thing on parents' minds when thinking about their child's vacation is getting them away from Kyiv and to a place where there's fresh air and it is ecologically cleaner. Some kids will go to one grandmother for a month, another grandmother the next month and then to the seaside with one parent when they have their time off."
But, as Ukraine's economic situation worsens, people are forced to work longer to make ends meet, leaving thousands of the country's kids with no adult supervision throughout most of the day. Social workers in Kyiv estimate that up to 150,000 children will be left to wander the streets of Ukraine's capital this Summer.
"Parents don't have time anymore because they are concentrating on making money," said Irina Kryzhanovska, director of social services for the Leningradskaya district in Kyiv.
Mother Dremchenko's two sons, 12-year-old Dima and 14-year-old Zhenya, hang out with her while she works her fruit stand near Lva Tolstoho metro station. "They'll sit with me for an hour and then go wander around for a few hours and come back," she said. "I have no choice. I need to work," she says.
For those children having to stay in the city this Summer, some parents have the option of sending them to local sports clubs or day camps at schools. The activities, supported by the Ministry of Education, are free of charge and include various physical training schemes, trips to parks or the beach, and an occasional tour outside Kyiv. "It helps take kids off the streets," said Andrey Bykov, a coach at a sports club in the Pechersk region.
However, such clubs and camps are on the decline. Once part of every school in Soviet times, only a select few, whose cash-strapped regional governments can afford to help subsidize them, are functioning today. According to the most recent United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reports, Kyiv had 95 institutions or clubs that provided recreational activities for children in 1990, but only 36 in 1996. "Up until two years ago, the state provided extracurricular activities, but now parents need to pay for most of them because the government doesn't have the money," Alla Solovyova, head of UNICEF in Ukraine, tells RFE/RL.
A further problem, say social workers, is that most of Kyiv's residential areas lack proper parks or playgrounds for children. They also say that with the deterioration of the Soviet system, community life has also begun to fade. "There use to be a special committee of parents in each apartment complex who would organize activities for the neighborhood children. And, parents would go out in the courtyard and make their children play with the others. That doesn't happen anymore," said Kryzhanovska.
"The overall social activity of children has dropped," added her colleague, Anna Nastich, director of social services in the Darnitsa region. "Kids are no longer as physically active. They need more people to push them."
"It is UNICEF's policy to provide young children with activities," Solovyova said. "Every child has a right to recreation. And we want to help grant them this right."