The Genesis of RYLA in Ukraine – A Beautiful Partnership
By RPCV Andy Lenec
There is an old saying, “Man plans, God laughs.” Well, God was not laughing the entire time that the inaugural RYLA Conference that came off this year in Ukraine was being planned, but God’s plans included lessons in humility that I had overlooked when putting together the roadmap for my vision of an international youth conference as a part of my United States Peace Corps service there.
A bit of back story. I had been a Rotarian for over 25 years before deciding to apply for the Peace Corps. What can I say, some people retire in curious ways. My parents had been political refugees from Ukraine and since I spoke the language and was familiar with the culture, I had high hopes of being accepted and assigned to serve in Youth Development in Ukraine. As I said, man plans… I was accepted and assigned to Ukraine, but as an NGO Advisor in the Community Development Division, and ultimately seconded as a volunteer to several organizations in the small city of Truskavets in western Ukraine, among them a small but enthusiastic Rotary Club!
This was by design of course, based on my prior experience and the Peace Corps’ current needs, but regardless, my passion for working with youth would not be denied. Actually, it was a pretty easy sell. Who can deny that helping youth – any youth, anywhere, anytime – is not a worthy investment in our future? What began as weekly English Clubs run at the local library (one of my partner organizations) and a local ‘gymnasia’ (an advanced high school), and enthusiastically endorsed by RC Truskavets, morphed into the dream of hosting an annual International Youth Conference.
This is excerpted from one of my original correspondences, floating the idea to potential participants and sponsors:
“The First Annual Truskavets International Youth Conference will take place in August 4 – 11, 2018, with the goal of promoting harmonious international cooperation between the future leaders of the United States and Ukraine, and potentially several other European countries as well. With the knowledge that young leaders learn best from each other, especially in international settings, we will take young leaders ages 16-19 through a seven day journey of learning, working and socializing together, and experientially practicing and perfecting skill sets such as leadership, volunteerism, communication, conflict resolution and team building.”
That was the plan, but the lessons in humility and patience had not yet been served. Once we all realized that the small club in Truskavets simply didn’t have the capacity to take this project on by itself, I began to seek out other Rotary Clubs with which to partner, and my dream quickly morphed yet again into the idea of turning this conference into the reintroduction of RYLA in Ukraine.
And that’s when the real magic (read: cooperation and collaboration) began. During countless phone calls and meetings with the truly stellar leadership of District 2232, including then DG Serhii Zavadsky and DGE Mykola Stebljanko, with the eight Rotary Clubs in Lviv, and especially RC Lviv International, as well as with the benefit of some absolutely invaluable assistance and encouragement from US Rotarians, and especially P4P co-founder Steve Werner, we began to build the team and promote the dream, with more and more people at least listening to us as we took our story on the road and into cyberspace.
I must express my appreciation for the support I received from PC Ukraine staff, including then Country Director Denny Robertson, his replacement right at the end of my time there, Michael Ketover, my Regional Manager Oksana Shabas, and the truly exceptional staff at PCHQ in Kyiv. No one threw anything but encouragement and wise counsel at me during the arduous process of making connections and gathering support for the project. As you will see, a project of this magnitude simply could not be accomplished without the highest possible levels of support from both RI and the US Peace Corps, and ultimately we were able to secure that support from RI General Secretary John Hewko and Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen, who both electronically forwarded messages of welcome to the first group of participants this past summer.
There is of course so much more to this story, but I come back to my opening line, “Man plans…”. Much to my dismay and disappointment, but perhaps not to the detriment of the project, I took ill and was medically separated from PC a little over a year into my service. It was literally, “Pack your bags, you’re going home,” and I had a week to prepare for an arduous journey home and a long and even more arduous recuperation, but that’s really not germane to this story. Here’s what is.
By this point in my story, or the unfolding of my dream, we had moved a lot of people and created a momentum. This was NOT an easy process for many reasons, not the least of which was the state of chaos so many sectors of the country were experiencing as a result of the systematic pillaging of this beautiful country by past regimes, and the difficulty of transforming from a corrupt, centrally planned economy to a truly free market. There was a lot of inertia to overcome, a lot of people to convince that this project was not only worthy and possible, but necessary and destined to take place.
One of the phrases we often tossed around was ‘failure is not an option’, and it certainly wasn’t for the real hero of this story, current Peace Corps Ukraine volunteer Shannon Carter, who took over the leadership of this project upon my departure from Ukraine. I was fortunate to participate in weekly Skype conference calls from my home in Colorado, and I was floored by how much energy and enthusiasm Shannon put into this project.
Shannon also assembled a great team of her fellow PCVs to plan and staff the inaugural RYLA conference, which took place in Lviv, Ukraine this past July to the delight and benefit of the 23 participants from three countries, plus the many Rotarians from several countries who also attended and supported Shannon and her team.
The story gets even better, though, as Shannon is not only already underway planning RYLA Ukraine 2020, but has also convinced the powers that be in Rotary International and the Peace Corps that this relationship should be formalized, with the creation of a PC Response Volunteer position to assist in this process. From my personal perspective, my dream was rescued from potential disaster and given not only new life, but it seems it now has legs as well.
This is only the first part of the story, and since I wasn’t there to witness it, I’m not the writer to describe the actual event. Nevertheless, I can speak to the phenomenal success of the partnership that was sought, nurtured and ultimately blossomed between the Peace Corps and Rotary in Ukraine, and to the patience and persistence required to bring a good project home. I hope this can serve as a model for other such partnerships, and Shannon Carter a model for an extraordinary young woman who also happens to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and perhaps some day a Rotarian as well.