Chris’ Project “Z-Forum”

Ukraine is undergoing massive reforms right now. It’s really difficult to grasp how big of an undertaking it is given that they are also fighting an active conflict with Russia. This is also still a young country with a population that is still wrestling with what it means to live in a democracy. In order to take steps forward on these reforms, you need trained and educated leaders. A large part of the leadership of these reforms are individuals working in local government.

In partnership with our City Council, I introduced the project of a four-day training for 60 female government officials to train them on these reforms. It took two grants (one from the US Embassy and another from Peace Corps), a partnership with the National Democratic Institute, and a lot of leg work to make this training event happen.

Why provide this training only for women? It is not only about female representation in government (currently women make up about 20% of parliament), but it is also about the voice of women in government and in society. It doesn’t mean a whole lot to have an equal number of women and men represented in government if both aren’t equally esteemed. Historically, gender roles have been clearly defined for women, generally relegating them as home makers. The slogan of the forum was “successful women – successful country”, which is to say as the women of Ukraine go, so goes Ukraine (women make up over half the population of Ukraine, after all).

The training addressed the top issues reported by the Ukrainian government, most notably decentralization, anti-corruption, transparency, and gender-equality. The idea is that participants will take these trainings back to their communities to further educate and train individuals working in government. This training empowers the participants to successfully impliment the ongoing reforms, and provides them the opportunity to increase active participation in these reforms from their communities. The best is yet to come.

Dogs of Ukraine

Things are different in Ukraine than in American for dogs. In some ways, dogs have a better life in Ukraine, in others it’s a harder life. Street dogs (i.e. dogs with no owner or home), are all over the place. In almost every town and city we visit there are dogs on sidewalks, in the parks, and in the neighborhoods.

To some capacity, the dogs here are taken care of. Most of them are reasonably well fed, whether it’s by their own effort, or from the compassion of someone who buys them sausages, or the meat shop owner who lays out the pieces no one buys.

Most communities have some sort of organized effort of at least controlling the spread of this issue or working to eliminate the issue. During our few months of training, Chris was partnered with an NGO which worked to vaccinate and sterilize the dogs. Each dog that received this treatment was then tagged on their ear with a number. This is also now happening to a higher degree in our current community. Based on our observation, about half of the dogs in our community have received these ear clips.

It is also worth noting that while some of these dogs are technically without owners, there are some who have a sort of informal caretaker. For example, some schools will have a dog or two that hang around because the left overs from school lunches are put out for them and the kids will play with them on the school grounds.

The terms “stray dog”, “street dog”, or “homeless dog”, really don’t capture who these dogs are. Many people here do see them as a problem or a nuisance, but also many people see them companions or a kind of a character or personality of the community. No one wants to see them without a home, but until in the meantime, let’s see them for who they are.

Our Little Town

We have been living at our site now for almost 8 months. Now that we have gotten to know it, we want to share it with you. We think you can begin to get a feel for life here through these pictures, but this is certainly not comprehensive.

Our town is full of beautiful nature, amazing people, and a storied history. The longer we’re here, the more we discover.


The city council building where Chris works (i.e. Miska Rada), in the center between the windows is the seal of the town


The Gymnasia, the school where Jessica works (note the two flags, the Ukrainian flag, yellow and blue, and the nationalist flag, red and black)

Below is a collection of some of the hot spots in town, where we spend time outdoors, doing our shopping, or unwind at a restaurant or cafe.

Next are a few places that show the feel of the town, both giving some historical context, and also to show some of the European charm.

Paying respect to the past and remaining devout is a common part of life in western Ukraine. This is just a taste of the monuments and churches, these are nevertheless prominent in town.

Being in the valley of a canyon has its perks. The nature here is awesome with hiking trails, river rafting, and simply great views. It’s hard to capture the beauty of this place in one frame, but we’ll keep trying!

Chris’ Work

Work in rural Ukraine for an American volunteer is not particularly straight forward. It’s sort of like shooting from the hip. Sometimes you hit something, sometimes you don’t, and you can never really know why (Did I not play the wind? Was there even a target?). These things are particularly true for the community development program, of which I (Chris) am apart of. So what is it that I do? Well I develop communities.

If that didn’t clear it up, here’s what my actual work looks like.

While I don’t really have a work schedule, I do adhere to one so that there is some consistency. The only things set in stone during the week are english clubs. I do one for the city council, and then a community one that Jessica and I do together where anyone is welcome. Everything else is pretty fluid.

One of my ongoing projects has been working with the director of tourism for our town. One of the things that many Ukrainian organizations need more assistance with and exposure to is data collection and analysis. So for tourism, we just rolled out a digital tourist survey that travelers can take on their phones using a QR code that we are putting in hotels and restaurants, we then also have a tourist booklet map on the horizon (funded by local business sponsorships). While I think it’s really cool that we’re starting to collect this data and offer something new to tourists, what’s even cooler is that my counterpart, the director of tourism, was able to get local businesses to agree to work with us.

Many Ukrainian business owners are very skeptical. Historically, largely due to the fact that Ukraine is an ex-Soviet nation, the people don’t have a very good relationship with government entities. My counterpart would call these businesses and they would be hesitant to accept a meeting, nevertheless she made it happen. Everytime she made it happen. The business owners would ask what we want from them, but we were there to offer them something.

In the coming months, we also hope to be working on a project called “Z-Forum: Democratic & Economic Reforms Training” for female government officials. The background on this is that we have a female mayor who is very passionate about gender equality. So the goal is to equip and empower women in government for the current realities of the Ukrainian state. Right now is a defining moment in Ukraine’s history, and women need a voice in helping to define it.

Speaking of our mayor, ever since the weather got nice, we’ve had picnics with her and her family every Sunday. Sometimes we’re in the forest cooking veal, other times we’re cooking chicken wings and sausages on the riverside. Don’t mind if I do.


On the way to the picnic


Riverside chicken wings and sausages

Ukrainian Holidays

The best part about the end of the holiday season in Ukraine is that there’s actually still more holidays. Not only does the Ukrainian holiday season start when the American holiday season ends, but it’s one holiday after another to start every calendar year. Here’s a quick rundown:

January 1st: New Year (aka New New Year)
January 7th: Holy Evening
January 8th: Ukrainian Christmas
January 14th: Orthodox New Year (aka Old New Year)
January 18th: Second Holy Evening
January 19th: Day of Christ’s Baptism
January 22nd: Ukrainian Unity Day

Most holidays are about one thing primarily, which is food. It is for the most part tradiational Ukrainian food with some modern twists like “shashlik” on New Years (basically meat grilled over an open flame) and five different kinds of cake (our favorite is our host mom’s Napoleon cake). Families gather for traditional and hours-long meals. For Ukrainian Christmas, there are 12 traditional dishes, without meat, some of which are only made for Christmas.

Outside of food, there’s a few other traditions. Most notably, for the the Day of Christ’s Baptism, there is the tradition that people will dunk themselves in a river or lake. Keep in mind this is in January, so it’s pretty cold. It’s something along the lines of “Polar Plunge” in the US. We did not partake.

That wraps up the holiday season, but there are still holidays to come. Easter is a big deal here, and we have only heard rumors of hours of upon hours of the Easter celebration. We’ll keep you posted on that.

In the middle of all of this though, we also made time for a holiday party with some fellow volunteers. We enjoyed some American style food made by our own hands. We had a small hotel to ourselves, which was good because we got to speak English uninhibited and Americans are evidently more loud than Ukrainians.


Some of the appetizers for the volunteer holiday party.

After all of this we had the chance to unwind at a small ski/snow tubing resort. The great thing is that you don’t need to speak the same language in order to have fun sliding down a hill of snow and ice.


Chris snow tubing with one of our host brothers

Winter and the (American) Holiday Season

We have been at our site for 2 months now, and have entered our last month of living with a host family. During this time, we’ve experienced three American holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years as Volunteers. Ukrainian Christmas and Orthodox New Years will be in a few days.

It has been a lot of fun to share American things with our host family. We made a Thanksgiving meal with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, pumpkin pie, (and chicken, instead of turkey).

We’ve been introducing them to a variety of other American desserts: brownies, gingerbread cookies, monkey bread, chocolate chip cookies. Brownies and chocolate chip cookies have been subsequently requested when friends of our host-family come over for dinner. Big hit! The gingerbread cookies were a full afternoon affair: the boys in our host family are 12, 8, and 4, and got a huge kick out of cutting the shapes and decorating.

For New Years, we joined our family and the neighbor family for dinner, and rang in the New Year with good food, fun people, and champagne.

On the table are very normal Ukrainian dishes: the purple mound is шуба (shuba), “herring in a fur coat”, layers of herring, potatoes, mayonnaise, and beets. Cheese, pickles, sausage, shredded and marinated carrots, very popular. Behind the sausage is oливье, essentially potato salad, with diced potatoes, onion, peas, sausage, carrots, eggs, pickles, dill, and mayonnaise. In the back corner is a big plate of mandarins, which everyone loves and are also very common at celebratory meals this time of year in this part of Ukraine.

Things also happen here that don’t revolve around food. There was caroling at City Council:

And at the school there was a big concert on the last day of term:

New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: 11th grade students
New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: Dancing around the New Year Tree
New Years’ Concert on the last day of term: 5th graders

For us Americans, the holiday season is over. For Ukrainians, its just getting rolling. Once Ukrainian New Years passes next week, we’ll update with a full description of Ukrainian holidays: St. Nicholas Day, Ukrainian Christmas, Orthodox New Years.

Our New Home

We have arrived. After beginning our Peace Corps journey 11 months ago with the application and arriving in Ukraine 3 months ago for training, we have finally made it to our home for the next 2 years and are now Peace Corp Volunteers.

What this means is that we now begin working with our respective organizations to share our knowledge, skills, and abilities and work to help build up the community we live in. Jessica will work with the teachers and students at one of the local schools, teaching 5th, 7th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grades, while Chris will work with the city council and the Mayor’s office.


Here is a little bit about our new site. We are in the Ternopil oblast (different from Chernobil, no worries), which is in western Ukraine and is in the Trans-Carpathian area. What that means is that it’s less flat than our Illinois home. In fact, we live in the valley of the Dniester River Canyon with the river surrounding our town on three sides like a peninsula. It makes for a great view both in the town and from above on the canyon ridge.

One of the great benefits to living in the valley of a canyon is something called a micro-climate. Basically, it’s often about 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer here than in the surrounding areas. This will be great for the long Ukrainian winters, but will make for some steamy summers.

The town is very scenic, and it also has an interesting history. Up until WWII, the town was actually Polish, in fact it was a border town between Poland and Austria-Hungary. The Dniester river was the boundary between the two countries (and today is the boundary between the Ternopil and Chernivtsi oblasts) with a bridge that spans the river.

There are some remnants of the Polish in our town, including an interesting stone building which was previously the passport checkpoint, and now is used as a municipal building, including the tourism office. While some of that Polish infrastructure still stands, much of it was destroyed during WWII and by the USSR. It used to be a resort town with thriving tourism on the beaches, hotels, and cafes. While much of that infrastructure is gone, the potential still remains.


What Do You Do Before Leaving for Two Years?

Step 1: Spend lots of time contemplating life in Ukraine and the massive undertaking that this all feels like.

Step 2: Quit your jobs.

Step 3: Get rid of most of your stuff. Pack everything else into totes and a couple suitcases.

Step 4: Spend time with family and friends.

(You don’t even really have to save any money for stuff like this!)

We did all of that and went through a whirl-wind packing/moving weekend. On Thursday, July 18 we spent the day packing our suitcases for service (more on that later). On Friday we packed the entire apartment with help from our wonderful sister-in-law. The next day Chris’ brother helped load/unload 14 totes, a desk, and a bed into a U-Haul to store at their parents’ (thanks!) and then we loaded it again with stuff to donate to a local charity.

Monday the 23rd – Thursday the 26th we got to spend time in St. Louis with Jason, Vanessa, their kids, and Kathryn (Chris’ brother and his family, and Chris’ mom). It was such a blast to get that time with them, exploring St. Louis.

Print 2

We’re spending time at Chris’ parents’ home until August 4th, then flying to Raleigh. We’ll spend a week with Jess’ family then Chris will fly to D.C. for staging on the 11th, and Jess will spend another week with them until flying to D.C. for staging as well.

As we do all of this, it is a whirlwind. Sometimes it’s difficult to be present where we are with the impending travel and adventure ahead of us, but it is nice to have a break from the researching, planning, packing, and then repacking. It is good practice for the next couple years, though!