“Would you be willing to speak on a panel about your service in Ukraine?”
When RPCV/W asked me this question last month, it was music to my ears. As many RPCV’s (and current volunteers!) can attest, talking about your Peace Corps service is a joy, but we often run out of fresh ears to hear our stories.
I was one of 250 volunteers who were evacuated in February, so it was an honor to represent our larger group and discuss the topic, “Virtual Peace Corps Ukraine,” at the Ukrainian Embassy on November 6th. The four of us who served on the panel – Clarissa Hughes, Evan Hughes, Patrick Kelley, and myself – each had a unique story to tell about how we stay in touch with our Ukrainian communities via technology.
I spoke about my work as a project manager with Eastern Rinok. Eastern Rinok is an economic development project that teaches Ukrainian artists and entrepreneurs how to sell their handmade goods online via the Etsy website. Technology has always been at the center of our project: our artists and trainers are spread out around Ukraine, and we rely on email, Facebook, and our website to keep in touch. Most artists have never met each other, and many have not even met us! Of course, our artists also rely on technology to sell their amazing products.
Technology is not only the foundation of our project, but also its future. We are working to develop an online training program that can be delivered via Skype. We also hope to train artists who have been internally displaced and are now refugees.
We are inspired by how technology has made a real impact on our artists and has served as a builder of relationships. During the past six months, Eastern Rinok trainer and artist Olena has donated 10% of her sales to a school in her local community. One of her Australian customers saw her effort and added a $75 donation to their purchase, which equaled 1,000 hryvnia (Ukrainian currency). This money helped Olena purchase a much-needed chalkboard for the school. Artist Galina coached our newest artist, Lyudmila, via email, even though they live in different oblasts (states) and have never met.
Technology also helped the embassy event itself! Our former Country Director, Doug Teschner, joined us via Skype to chat about how technology has helped volunteers stay virtually connected post-evacuation. He is now the CD for Guinea, so he has experienced two evacuations in one year and can truly attest to the impact of technology after volunteers unexpectedly leave.
We were also joined via Skype by Sveta Malenfant, co-founder, artist, and trainer for Eastern Rinok. She gave us the Ukrainian perspective on using technology to stay in touch. Without her contributions, Eastern Rinok would not be the success it is today, and I wouldn’t have been at the event.
There were also many other speakers: the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States, Olexander Motsyk, provided a warm welcome. RPCVw President Mariko Schmitz opened the event and Cultural Events Director Elizabeth Trenga moderated our panel. Peace Corps Regional Director for EMA Keri Lowry gave an introduction and Megan Boudin, Deputy Director for Ukraine, Moldova, and Belarus at the Department of State closed the event. We also heard from the Peace Corps Director of Innovation, Patrick Choquette, about the fantastic ways that Peace Corps is using technology to connect with Ukraine and fight Ebola.
Technology will continue to play an important role in the work of Peace Corps volunteers around the world. It was a pleasure to share my story, listen to the experiences of my fellow Ukrainian RPCV’s, and hear from a variety of guests.