Europe 2018: A Spell in the Ukrainian Woods

I write from a quiet cafe lounge sequestered in a back corner of the Istanbul international airport (a rare find here). It’s past midnight, and I have six hours to go before my connecting flight boards. It’s hard to imagine that in one day my environment shifted from living a simple, carefree existence in rural Ukraine as a temporary member of one of my favorite families in the world to the rushing current of travel once again en route to Scotland.

My time in Ukraine was enchanted. The event for which I returned was a four-day girls’ basketball camp event put on by aforementioned family whose matriarch, Kattya, is an industrious, energetic, God-fearing youth basketball coach in the city of Zhytomir. It involved many athletes and coaches I’d met on previous trips to Ukraine. Kattya had messaged me in the spring and asked me to consider coming to Ukraine to help coach for the event, and as the door for Edinburgh opened, I made plans to stop in Ukraine first.

The porch outside our staff dorm room, where we spent countless hours drinking coffee, playing music, visiting, and causing mischief

Returning to the same camp grounds (a rustic youth camp facility built during the soviet union) and seeing fistfuls of familiar faces further solidified some of the strongest nostalgia I have yet registered. After arriving in Kiev and spending one night in the capital with FCA friends, I rode in a glorified van that serves as an Uber-like transportation option the hour and a half to Zhytomir where I was dropped off at a McDonalds and into the waiting arms of the patriarch of the family mentioned before, Liosha, and a younger coach who I also knew from previous trips (another Liosha).

Our fearless camp staff

Upon arriving, I bedded down in a small cabin with another staff member or two and we jumped into full-fledged camp mode. The group of staff numbered perhaps 20-30 in total and consisted of a couple other youth basketball coaches from town, a four-person worship team that doubled as camp counselors for the girls, three or four young men (and a protegé in the form of a perhaps 11-year-old boy whose family lived on the grounds) that took care of audio/visual and photo/video, a few folks that cooked and maintained the place, and a few more volunteers from church.

Sharing my story during chapel

We existed in an all-hands-on-deck team, meeting together in the mornings, running on coffee, taking plenty of time to sit and chat, and spending lots of quality time with 70 Ukrainian girls between the ages of 7 and probably 15.

(Pause to enjoy a cover of “Fast Car” that just played in the restaurant in which I’m sitting)

I love any chance to be a part of any organized event, especially a camp. I enjoy taking mental notes about what works and doesn’t, how different cultures approach work and preparation and communication and programming, how to wow people and how to disquiet them. I won’t give you the laundry list — the takeaway from this particular event is that when a group strives to rely on God’s strength and influence, they will get the chance to see Him work no matter what hindrances/personality differences/problems/errors/illnesses/etc. beset them. It was great.

Our chapel setup, where we had worship and speakers with the girls twice a day

We had no Wi–fi connection at camp, which made it an insulated haven from the obligation of worrying about arrangements for a couple sweet days. Girls arrived on Sunday morning and left on Thursday morning, and during that time we existed in our few-acre bubble of camping and basketball. On Thursday, a few of us ventured back into town and I was able to get online at a coffee shop. Much to my chagrin, the multiple hopeful housing arrangements I had instigated via message or email before I left hadn’t panned out into anything. I bought a ticket to Edinburgh for a few days later (today) and stayed with my Ukrainian family through the weekend. We were now essentially alone and enjoyed free reign of the campground while we helped with bits and pieces of its winterization. For a few days we ate, drank, cleaned, cooked over a campfire, ventured into town to walk around Zhytomir, and generally had a ball.

The single basketball court we borrow from the campground next door because we don’t have one (yet)

This morning, Mom, adopted sister Yuliana, and I woke up before 5 to do a little jogging. Then we showered, ate breakfast, drank coffee and tea, and, leaving Mom at camp to assume normal Mom duties for her four elementary-aged children, hurried into Zhytomir with Dad to catch a ride into Kiev. Yuliana, another friend Nastya, and I ventured into Kiev for a few hours before I parted ways to head for the airport. It was a hard string of goodbye’s.
And now I venture on to see how things will iron out in Edinburgh. I hope to get the opportunity to sit down and talk with decision-makers from the academic and basketball sides of things as well as explore housing options from the ground this coming week. I have no idea what will happen or how things will pan out. But I’m certainly interested to see.
Until next,
-LS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *