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Balaklyia, Ukraine: Spring Break 08
The skeletons of an amusement park left over from Russian occupation call children out of boredom into danger. Lovers and families, square, grey oldsters shuffling toward eternity and spring fevered youngsters with a lifetime of pent-up energy, all are equally drawn to the hilltop location, a river lapping far below at the feet of an impossibly steep, crumbling but still used stairway that descends from the park's center. Today, there is a change in the look of the park. The railings of the stairway are bright blue and yellow. The stairs themselves are clean of broken concrete, wet leaves and winter's dirt. For 15 feet out either side, there is no sign of the mounds of trash that blighted this area two days before. People audibly gasp at the difference; in their conversation we can make out "Americans."
That's us, but we cannot take credit for the change here. All it took was offering the opportunity to high school students, at first almost contemptible of the idea of "working for free", but soon slogging into the rain soaked hillside to remove a literal mountain of debris. Students who scoffed at us were the first arrivals, filling bags with determination, sweeping down the steps with twig brooms, painting the bright colors of their national flag over the rust of neglect the seemed to hold the railing together.
In private, we all laughed at our success in involving the students, but wondered if it would last. An email from our Peace Corp volunteer host was reason for celebration. When he went up to the park the day after we left Balakliya, there were some of the students, including the most influential, busy at the remaining tasks, recruiting other students who happened to wander by.
Jump starting the Balaklyia Service Club was not our only work. We began preparing a public campground in the forest for summer visitors and visited classes at the local high school, conversing with junior and senior English language students. We had opportunity to visit the museum dedicated to Ukrainian involvement in the Afghan War, shop at the local bazaar and attend a baptismal service in an Orthodox church. And we learned what it was like to be the first and maybe only Americans many of these people would ever know. Balaklyia is not a tourist spot. It is home to 42,000 people trying to make their way out of generations of hostile occupation into a 21st century that hardly recognizes their food, their way of doing things, their long dormant culture. We were warmed by their smiles; we were amused by the jokes we didn't even understand; we were filled with their exotic foods. We felt their heartbeat, and it will forever beat, however silently over the years, with our own.