In Ukraine, Creating a Groundswell of Volunteerism

June 10, 2015


Five years ago, Alona Druzhynina didn’t know she was Jewish. Now, she’s working for JDC in Ukraine, working to get clothes, food, and other necessary supplies to elderly Jews caught in the conflict zone in the eastern part of the country.

And her newest initiative, Community, is bringing together hundreds of volunteers in 15 cities across Ukraine for a series of initiatives benefiting at-risk children, vulnerable elderly, and more.

Here’s what she shared about her accomplishments and goals.

Q: How did you get connected to Judaism?
A: I wasn’t aware of my Jewish roots until my mother told me about them five years ago. That’s when I started to learn Hebrew and changed my job. I was working for an NGO as a project manager. My background is in social work, so my life is connected to doing good. When I opened a headhunter’s website four years ago and saw a position at JDC, I applied, and I was hired. It is through JDC that I have had most of my first Jewish experiences.

Q: You’re a graduate of JDC’s Metsuda program for emerging Ukrainian Jewish leaders. What was that experience like?
A: I applied to Metsuda because I wanted to get involved and meet more people from the Jewish community. With my background in social work, I knew how to do mapping and I knew how to build a social services project, but I didn’t know a lot about the Jewish community’s needs. It was important for me to learn how to do all of that in a Jewish context. And networking is also very important, meeting people my age with similar interests. There’s a real chance to build something huge here in Ukraine. It’s great when people with similar values get together because it creates community inside a community. Metsuda is that success story. After the graduation, we’re still not only in touch with each other but we have an alumni program with participants all over Ukraine.

Q: How did the volunteer network develop?
A: There was a need for a network like this. We call it Volunteer Community, or Community, for short — like a community where everyone is responsible for one another and where good things happen. In different cities in Ukraine, many volunteer initiatives have started to appear. Young people are starting to feel that their Jewish values can make important social change. They’ve started to take responsibility. We understood that there was a need for this to be coordinated in the right way, and so we started this project, together with Hillel International, and with support from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation. We already have several hundred volunteers engaged in 15 cities. These volunteer teams are coordinated by Hillel students or by graduates of JDC’s leadership programs. They all are very highly motivated, very full of energy, young people who really inspire me.

Q: What are some examples of the volunteer initiatives Community is undertaking?
A: In each city, projects can either be unique or echo an initiative in another city. We have a beautiful project we’ve implemented in Kharkov called "Dreams Don’t Get Old." The idea of the project is to collect the dreams of elderly Hesed clients and to make them happen. The dreams are really beautiful. For example, one elderly lady, herself a refugee from the war zone, dreamed of performing as a singer on the big stage in front of a crowd. "OK," said the Kharkov volunteer coordinator. And what they did was arrange a performance on Ukraine’s version of “The X Factor.” For this, she had to travel from Kharkov to Kiev. The night before her performance, the Kharkov coordinator said, “I have some doubts. Can she sing?” But it was wonderful. Everything went great.

Q: That’s wonderful. What’s going on in other cities?
A: In Nikolaev, they noticed a lot of elderly Hesed social welfare center clients cannot clean their apartments because of their physical limitations. So they’ve arranged cleaning groups to go from apartment to apartment. We’re also starting day camps for IDP (internally displaced persons) children, where all the content is provided by volunteers. These camps are not only for entertainment but also for children to get a respite from their harrowing experience. And while our volunteers are busy with the kids, their parents can look for a job, arrange their new apartment, things like that. In Poltava, we’ve created a resource center for refugees, operated by volunteers and gathering all the information about resources available in the community — everything from JDC social services to the location of the supermarket with the cheapest prices.

Q: What are your goals for the volunteer network?
A: I want the community to become self-sufficient and sustainable. It’s not always about whether you can donate money; everyone can always do something. We have great young adults in the community. They’re creative, they’re full of energy, they want to give back — sometimes you just need to provide them with opportunities. For example, in Kiev, we’re starting a project taking elderly refugees new to Kiev on a bus tour of the city. These aren’t city tours in terms of sightseeing. Babushkas need to be shown the location of the bazaar, the market, the pharmacy, the hospital. It’s practical stuff. What sort of skills do you need to give this tour? You just need to live in Kiev. Everyone has something to give. The challenge here is to unlock the potential in every person and make them passionate about giving back.

Q: What do you wish people around the world understood about the crisis in Ukraine?
A: There is no ceasefire. The conflict is continuing. We are collecting food and clothes on an ongoing basis to send to the people who’ve remained in the conflict area. There’s a constant need. There is a humanitarian crisis, and for many people, JDC is the only helping hand they have. Community, especially today in Ukraine, means a lot. It’s something you can rely on, it’s something you can draw support from — but it can’t be that you only take, you have to understand that you are a link in that chain and without your link, nothing will continue. You, with your deeds, with your values, with your attitude, with your input, can guarantee the continuity of the community.

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