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At Ukrainian Camp, Orphans Learn Painful Past Doesn't Mean Grim Future

"The goal is to get them to believe in themselves and their ability to do whatever they want to do," says camp counselor Tanya Bednarzyck.
"The goal is to get them to believe in themselves and their ability to do whatever they want to do," says camp counselor Tanya Bednarzyck.

Sitting on the porch of a log cabin in the picturesque foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, her back to the sun in an attempt to avoid the relentless heat, 33-year-old Darya Trushkina calmly recounts one of the many episodes of abuse she suffered in Ukraine's orphanage system.

She clearly remembers the pain, both physical and mental, of being tied up and beaten by her fellow housemates for the innocuous crime of achieving a good grade. Such experiences became a regular part of her formative years when, at the tender age of 9, she lost her parents and both siblings in a horrific accident.

Trushkina has now moved far beyond her calamitous past and plays an impressive leading role at Apple. Hers is one of many success stories that can be directly tied to a summer camp set in a sleepy mountain town deep in the heart of western Ukraine.

"The most important part was that they convinced us that we're not the trash of society," says Trushkina of the camp in the village of Vorokhta. "They made us realize that we can achieve anything we want."

She's referring to the Canadian-run orphan camp that she was selected to attend when she was 17 years old. While there, she had the epiphany that her life did not have to be defined by anguish. She says she owes the transformation of her life to Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj, a Canadian native who founded Help Us Help The Children (HUHTC).

Wrzesnewskyj founded HUHTC after witnessing the appalling living conditions of Ukrainian orphans during a trip to adopt her own child, and as a result the nonprofit organization's camp has hosted orphaned children from across Ukraine for three weeks each summer. Now in its 20th year, the camp has been attended by more than 450 children, some as young as 6 years old. The majority are orphans and, in a reflection of the reality of wartime Ukraine, there is an increasing number of children who have lost their fathers to the fighting.

The older kids hike to camp along a gently sloping mountain path.
The older kids hike to camp along a gently sloping mountain path.

This summer camp is just one of many programs that HUHTC runs throughout Ukraine. The most recent addition to their program is a twice-yearly retreat and rehabilitation program for the widows and families of Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their lives in battle. But for the past 20 years, it's this summer camp that has been the flagship of HUHTC.

"Honestly, the first time I came to this camp, I didn't even speak Ukrainian because I'm from the east. I was shocked to see that people like Ruslana from overseas were speaking better Ukrainian than we were," says Darya. She adds that it was hard to fathom why anyone would work so hard to give them such basic goods as underwear and jackets, because they had never received anything before.

"In the orphanage, we were just constantly told, every single day, that we're nobody and we can't achieve anything," she says. "But you come to camp and you get emotional support. You get told that you're worth it."

The camp begins in early August of each year with children split into groups, ages 6-15 and 15-19. Participants are chosen by orphanage directors based on leadership qualities and good behavior. The younger kids settle in among two camps established inside Vorokhta itself, while the older ones set off to their own purpose-built base camp overlooking the village. The latter group hikes to camp along a gently sloping mountain path that snakes below the wires of a rusty old ski lift.

Passing through the backyards of hillside Hutsul homes, as cows and chickens roam freely in the grass, they see Vorokhta slowly fade away from view. Here, on this mountaintop, is where they'll spend most of the next three weeks. Isolated from the village, they'll only have each other and the counselors to build deep connections with.

While at camp, they are introduced to activities such as archery, breakdancing, and baseball for the first time. They are also taught critical life skills and lessons through computer workshops, classes alerting them to the dangers of HIV and human trafficking, and leadership programs. Finally, the kids will have the opportunity to climb Ukraine's highest mountain, Hoverla, a trek that tests their mental and physical strength.

"The goal is to get them to believe in themselves and their ability to do whatever they want to do," says camp counselor Tanya Bednarzyck, who has traveled from Canada to attend the camp since 2009. "For a lot of these kids, camp becomes an incentive to study hard and behave well throughout the rest of their year at the orphanage because, if they do, they'll be asked back year after year."

While at camp, they are introduced to activities such as archery, breakdancing, and baseball for the very first time.
While at camp, they are introduced to activities such as archery, breakdancing, and baseball for the very first time.

Those nearing the end of their run in the orphanage system face a hard road ahead. There is a gruesome set of statistics that belies the ear-to-ear smiles worn by camp participants. Some 90 percent of Ukrainian orphans have been abused or neglected in some way while in the orphanage, according to data compiled by HUHTC, and leaving the orphanage is no guarantee of salvation.

Within a year, many of the older kids at camp can expect to be far removed from the beauty of summer in the Carpathians. By next August, according to the HUHTC's data, 60 percent of the older girls who leave the orphanage system will have already been illegally trafficked as prostitutes. Some 70 percent of the boys will be out of the orphanage system and into the Ukrainian prison system. Finally, 10 percent will be gone entirely, having chosen to take their own lives.

While many counselors, such as Bednarczyck, come from Canada year after year to participate in the camp, others are drawn from within Ukraine. Some are former camp attendees themselves, such as HUHTC Executive Director Julie Vokalyuk, while others work as volunteers at orphanages throughout Ukraine.

One volunteer, who didn't want to be named, worked at an orphanage in Donetsk when the war broke out. She says that her orphanage was initially flooded with children from orphanages in cities like Maryinka, which were under heavy fighting. The orphanage took them all in, but she says that shortly thereafter, representatives from the separatist and self-declared Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) demanded to take the kids to Russia.

"The director of the orphanage told the DPR that there was no way we would allow them to take the kids to Russia, so they threatened her to the point that she fainted," the volunteer says. "She purposefully fainted to defuse the situation, and that spooked the DPR guys enough that they left the orphanage. Once they were gone, we quickly devised a way to evacuate the children."

She says they spent the next few days making phone calls to concoct an escape plan, using code words because they feared their phones were tapped: "Small roses meant the young children and large roses indicated older kids."

Once on the train, they all sat separately, so as not to arouse suspicion, and communicated only via eye movements.

"When we finally crossed into Ukrainian-held territory, we all stood up and finally greeted each other," she says.

On the last weekend of camp, the organization surprised the kids by holding an enormous traditional Ukrainian wedding, and a concert with performances that went well into the night. Emceeing the concert was Ruslana's own daughter, Hannah, who brought one of the campers onstage to read a poem he'd written. The young, wheelchair-bound boy brought many in the crowd to tears with his vision of a peaceful Ukraine. The night wrapped up with an address from the presidential adviser on child policy, who traveled to the camp with an eye on adopting its approach as a model for Ukraine's orphanage system.

Ruslana says that Help Us Help The Children will continue to adapt to meet the needs of Ukrainian families impacted by the war.

"We've already got the rehabilitation program going for war widows, and we've run our first two sessions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder counseling for soldiers returning from the front," she says. "All I really wanted to do was start a summer camp for kids, and I didn't even know what kind of camp it would be, but now we've evolved so much from what it first was and will continue to do so."

Christian Borys is a Canadian journalist based in Ukraine

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