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The Transformative Power of Volunteering: How Ukraine’s Youth Is Making a Difference

Editor’s Note:

This article is a part of the Holos Project, a four-way partnership (ENGin, The Los Angeles Times Insider, Published Points of View, The Outspoken) established to empower the voices of Ukrainian students across the world through one-on-one journalism mentorship. This article was written by Kalynchuk Anna from Ukraine with the mentorship of Jaimie Chun from the United States. “Holos” is the Ukrainian word for “Voice”. 

“My first acquaintance with war happened when I was six,” Kate Lysenko said.

In 2014, Russia made its first attempt to invade Ukraine by occupying neighboring territories, such as Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

Back then, six-year-old Kate Lysenko woke up from the explosions —  it was the first time she had to flee from war. 

But on the morning of 2022, she experienced a strong feeling of deja vu.

“A day before, I set the alarm, but as it turned out, I didn’t need it; instead, I woke up from a horrific sound outdoors,” Lysenko said. 

With the full-scale invasion, the target of the terrorist state became the residential buildings, causing dozens of lives to be destroyed and thousands of people to be left homeless.

“When we heard an explosion near our house, we recognized that if we continue staying here, we will no longer be alive,” Lysenko recalls the time when her family decided to move. “It was a journey without a final destination. We didn’t know where we were going, but our lives were more valuable.”

Lysenko settled in a city in the Western part of Ukraine, far away from the border with Russia. Before long, she found herself devoting her efforts into local volunteering organizations.

“I couldn’t wait for change; instead, I became the change,” Lysenko said.

Lysenko and her team launch their camp, which is dedicated to helping internally displaced people.

Alongside various other projects, such as creating a camp for internally displaced Ukrainians, one of Lysenko’s first arranged events has also been dedicated to Ukrainian history. 

“For decades, Russia has been equating Ukrainian history with its own one — imposing its language, traditions, and beliefs on Ukraine. Therefore, at the event, we brought up the awareness about the identity of Ukrainian history and aimed to show why we should be proud of it.”

Following the Ukraine-Russian war, many Ukrainians like Lysenko channeled their energy into giving back and contributing to the community as volunteers. In fact, the volunteer movement has risen steeply since the beginning of the war — from 5% in 2021 to 33% today, according to the Alliance magazine.

Sixteen-year-old Maksym Tikhonov is one of those 33% as he chose to pursue meaningful volunteer experiences after being forced to leave his home — the occupied city of Kherson. Upon arriving in Germany, Tikhonov found himself being exceedingly lonely, which led him to search for a way he could socialize in a new community.

“I experienced having lots of spare time in a new country, which prompted me to the decision of becoming a volunteer,” Tikhonov said. “After a while, I joined the ‘PAL – UA’ foundation.”

The ‘PAL – UA’ organization’s primary goal is to provide medical transportation for ill and injured people from the frontline territories in Ukraine. Tikhonov’s first focus was on developing evacuation plans. Today, he serves as the main coordinator of medical evacuations within the organization.

“When my colleagues found out that I’m only sixteen, they laughed [being unable to believe],” Tiknonov said. “In response, I showed them my passport, but sometimes even that was useless to convince them.”

Maksym Tikhonov admits that he is dedicated to the work 24/7. Throughout the entire time of Tikhonov’s work, he helped 6,000 people to evacuate from Ukraine. At the same time, he continues studying in a German school and proceeds with an online Ukrainian one.

“It is difficult to combine studies with work, but I make the priorities between what is more important to me — to do the homework or to save the life,” Tikhonov said. 

Similar to Lysenko and Tikhonov, high schooler Veronika Sheldagaieva has been committing herself to volunteer work since the outset of the war. However, the similarities end there, as she has spent seven months living under the Russian occupation of her hometown Kherson.

“Considering the financial limitations faced by many Ukrainians in accessing tutoring services, I have come up with the idea for the ‘Tangle of Skills’ initiative,” said Sheldagaeva.

Veronika Sheldagaieva established a non-profit project that connects students requiring educational aid with volunteer tutors. Throughout the project, about 580 students have received assistance, with fresh requests pouring in daily. However, amid the occupation, at the inception of the “Tangle of Skills,” Sheldagaieva encountered some challenges. 

“I spent an hour trying to get to a place with the internet to find out that the meeting with my team was canceled,” Sheldagaieva said.

Despite the struggles, Sheldagaieva and her peers have persisted in nurturing their patriotic determination and a sense of national pride through volunteer work, aiming to create a more significant difference.

“We all drive the same goal — when there is unity, there is always victory,” Lysenko said.

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