Pioneering Volunteerism Across Three Generations
At JDC's Volunteer Center in Kherson, Ukraine, dedicated volunteers run educational programs, fitness classes, and keep the the homebound elderly company.
October 6, 2021
For Anya Pshenichnaya, volunteering in the Jewish community of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson is a family affair.
“Each generation has something to teach us,” said the 48-year-old mother of three, who lives about 125 miles east of Odessa. “My mom taught me the importance of remembering my roots and supporting one another, and my daughter has helped me to realize how important it is to enjoy each day. When we volunteer, we all learn together.”
Pshenichnaya and her family are one of nine intergenerational volunteer families at JDC’s volunteer center in Kherson — along with scores more across Ukraine and throughout the former Soviet Union (FSU).
A dedicated volunteer for more than a decade, Pshenichnaya runs educational programming for young community members and teaches online fitness classes for homebound seniors. Her 12-year-old daughter is a member of Kherson’s Atzlaha teen club and assists with children’s events, and her 73-year-old mother uses her JDC-provided tablet to teach online “Babushka’s Recipes” cooking classes for other clients of Kherson’s JDC-supported Hesed Shmuel social welfare center.
“When my mom was my age, she never could have imagined how rich Jewish life here would become, and my own daughter’s Jewish identity is so much more multifaceted than mine was as a young girl during Soviet times,” Pshenichnaya said. “Each generation takes us one step forward, and through volunteering, it’s now my family’s turn.”
In 2020 alone, 6,900 people volunteered each month at 57 JDC volunteer centers across the FSU, and their initiatives reached more than 51,000 beneficiaries — an increase of more than 67 percent from the previous year.
Tanya Leshchenko, the volunteer coordinator at the Kherson Hesed, said Pshenichnaya’s family epitomizes what she and her team are trying to build.
“Though community members have been giving their time to help their neighbors for years, Anya came to us when there was no volunteer center as such. She became our first young Hesed volunteer and jumped into running activities for little kids. She was always ready to say yes and take on more responsibility,” Leshchenko said. “Now that we have a strong volunteer center, her family serves as an example of how we can make an impact across the generations when people give back through the Jewish community.”
During the pandemic, volunteering offered a chance for Kherson’s Jews to showcase their creativity and counteract the despair and isolation of Ukraine’s COVID-19 lockdowns, Pshenichnaya said.
“I think my family was on the vanguard of offering programs to community members online, and thanks to these initiatives, we found a silver lining during the pandemic, launching new ideas we hadn’t thought of before, ” Pshenichnaya said. “I was happy my family could make a difference for so many others, and I was proud to see my daughter help younger kids and to see my mom feel so useful.”
Leshchenko said she hopes family volunteerism in Kherson and across the FSU will continue to grow. Her team has placed a special emphasis on intergenerational stories like Pshenichnaya’s, a focus born from the realization that each age group has something unique to offer.
“The pandemic didn’t only present challenges for us — it’s been an opportunity, too. So many of our programs not only kept going but grew,” she said. “Our volunteers keep surprising me, and it makes me proud and hopeful for a strong Jewish future here.”
Pshenichnaya’s mother, Elena Onishchenko, a retired chemist, is pleasantly surprised, too — for a different reason.
“When I was young, we couldn’t discuss Jewish culture and traditions so openly, but then the Soviet Union collapsed and JDC came,” she said. “Everything’s different now, and I’m so lucky to have a role in that story.”