It’s been 12 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the lives of Ukrainians have been forever altered. Tens of thousands have lost their lives, and millions have fled the violence. Despite the unimaginable circumstances, YMCAs in Ukraine have shown tremendous resiliency. Of the 24 YMCAs in Ukraine, 20 continue to operate, and their programmes reached more than 120,000 people last year.
As we reach and surpass the grim milestone of one year of war, we share the stories of the YMCAs in Ukraine, the people who keep them operating, and why continued support is needed now more than ever.
Without a permanent location, YMCA Lviv in Ukraine moves from place to place, prioritizing safety above all.
“We need to be able to use generators for power and we need to have access to good shelters so we can hide when rockets are coming”, said YMCA Lviv CEO Olexandra Sorokopud.
In Lviv and throughout Ukraine, people struggle with shortages of electricity, water, internet and food. On a day in early February when Olexandra was outside the city and checking in on her team, air raid sirens had forced them to take cover twice that day.
Russia invaded the country on 24 February 2022, and Ukrainians have endured 365 days – and counting – of war.
Lives have been lost; families have been separated. Electrical grids and power plants have been destroyed. According to YMCA Ukraine data, Russian shelling has damaged more than 700 objects of critical infrastructure (bridges, airports, etc.) and more than 50 per cent of energy infrastructure.
Working through difficult days and an unknown future, the staff, volunteers and communities of the YMCAs in Ukraine have proved to be profoundly resilient. Despite constant shelling, YMCA Zaporizhzhia, closest to the front line, continues to work – and even develop new projects. The YMCAs continue to hold programmes and workshops; youth clubs still meet, and life moves on.
Today, 20 of 24 YMCAs continue operations in Ukraine, and many volunteers who remained quickly became experienced leaders. YMCA Ukraine General Secretary Viktor Serbulov said those leaders include 18-year-old volunteers Panchuk Pavlo and Nataliia Samoliuk of YMCA Zdolbuniv, who are now trainers at the local and national levels. Additionally, Nataliia and Anastasiia Droniak, also 18, are now National Board members.
“At the start of the invasion, we found ourselves in a difficult situation. We had to attract new volunteers, and the leaders who remained faced more pressure”, Viktor said. “We have brought new people to the YMCA community, and we hope in the future, with such excellent examples, they too will become experienced leaders”.
YMCA Ukraine today
While YMCAs in Ukraine continue to provide traditional programming where possible, activities over the past year reflect the reality of daily life.
YMCA Ukraine developed a mine safety education and prevention board game called “Watch Your Steps”. In addition, local YMCAs sew uniforms and clothes for soldiers, make military nets, and provide evacuation and relocation for people escaping hostile areas and war zones.
Five youth centres – Karpaty, Nyzhnie Selyshche, Lviv, Kremenchuk, Zaporizhzhia – converted into temporary shelters for internally displaced people. Last year, they hosted more than 36,000 people. In addition, there are currently five large- and eight medium-sized youth centres, and Viktor said the development of those and the creation of new centres remains a priority.
YMCA Boyarka has frequently held workshops to make trench candles for soldiers on the frontline. For example, volunteers made and packed 136 trench candles during a recent February workshop.
YMCA Lviv provides tactical emergency medicine courses, as demonstrated in the lifelike video (that is truly difficult to look at).
Said Olexandra, “We need to know what to do when the ambulance isn’t able to arrive. And no one knows if he or she will be recruited tomorrow, so this could save a life”.
She added, “We had to reshape, create or change all our programs in a month to be able to exist, help and be relevant to what is needed here and now”.
Despite the challenges, YMCA Ukraine held a family camp in Verkhovyna, further from the frontline this summer. And some local YMCAs were also able to hold camp. YMCA Ukraine reached more than 120,000 last year with programmes and activities.
During the war, many Ukrainians have suffered from moderate and temporary stress and mental trauma, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said Viktor.
“That’s why it’s extremely important to provide Ukrainians with mental support”, he said. “Almost all programmes of YMCA Ukraine at the national level and those of local YMCAs are focused on psychosocial support. In addition, in each youth centre, professional psychologists provide support in groups or individually”.
Just a few examples of how YMCAs are focusing on mental health:
- Locally, YMCA Kremenchuk implemented the Resilienсe online project to increase stress resistance and take care of mental health. It consisted of a Listening Hour, a support group, a teen club and a yoga session.
- YMCA Boyarka completed its annual project, “Happiness”. From the final meeting, attendees left with this message: “We can take responsibility for our happiness and create it from simple things”.
- YMCA Volyn celebrated the year in a video filled with love and laughter.
- At YMCA Lviv, singing proves to be a healing balm for staff and volunteers. “Sometimes it can be difficult to talk”, said Olexandra. “Singing and dancing can provide a kind of relief, and it helps”.
The YMCA has four hubs – Vinnytsia region, YMCA of the Kirovograd region-KR, YMCA Lviv, and YMCA Volyn – for receiving and distributing humanitarian aid. To date: About 50 tons of humanitarian aid have been received, and about 10,000 people received aid.
From the early days of the war, YMCA Europe has coordinated support for both the YMCAs in Ukraine and those who fled the violence and moved elsewhere in Europe. This overnight event for Ukrainian children and their families in Warsaw, Poland, is just one example. Olexandra of YMCA Lviv said the YMCA/YWCA in Aarhus and the YMCAs in Calgary, Canada, and Detroit, USA, have provided assistance with staff and rent.
And click here for an interactive map of the support YMCA Europe had galvanised among YMCAs in the first six months.
Global support from YMCAs and organisations have provided essential aid, programmes, training and more. For example:
Hubs: YMCA hubs operate in Ukraine, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia. They are addressing an immediate need for digital competencies, employability-skills building, legal advice, mental health support and youth work, serving beneficiaries from communities affected by the war. This project is a YMCA Europe initiative supported by Accenture Foundation.
Digital centres in Moldova: The Educational Digital Center in the Republic of Moldova is one of the most significant projects implemented in YMCAs worldwide, valued at €5.5 million. With HP’s support and the YMCA Moldova team, the digital centres will benefit more than 300,000 people, including young people, Ukrainian refugees, and individuals from marginalised communities.
Providing essential items: In a connection facilitated by YMCA Ukraine board member Marta Huretska, Unlocking Communities and Volyn YMCA have collaborated since April 2022. As a result, they have reached more than 100,000 people by providing water filters and other essential items; the value of the items was more than $1 million. Another shipment of equal value is set to arrive soon.
Participation in international programmes: Last year, Ukrainians took part in the Roots for Peace programme in Armenia, in Mid-America Camp Conference in the United States, in a Christmas market in Germany, in Youth Unify in Austria and many more.
“YMCA Ukraine volunteers gained valuable experience abroad and brought positive changes to their local YMCAs”, said Viktor.
As the war grinds on, the support for Ukraine remains as critical as it did last year, said Olexandra.
“We are thankful for the support we receive, it’s essential to our survival”, said Olexandra. “We work 24/7, and it will be like that next year too. And we are not robots. Now more than ever, we need support from the YMCA community”.
Concluded Oksana Yaremenko, President of YMCA Ukraine, “To our international partners and friends, we are very grateful for your solidarity and extraordinary support. With your help, we will overcome all challenges and hardships of war. We hope and believe in the best for 2023!”