Texas Rotarians let kids be kids at camp for Ukrainian refugees

A child viewed from above assembles a wood block as part of a puzzle of several wood pieces
A child works on a craft project during the four-day recreational camp at Peaceable Kingdom in Killeen, Texas. Photo by Oliver Smith, Rotary Club of Northwest Austin.

By Shannon Coleman, governor of District 5870 Central Texas, USA

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the United Nations estimates that more than 14 million people are thought to have fled their homes. We began hearing about some of these families through our Ukrainian community here is Central and South-Central Texas. Children are entering our school systems with only the clothes on their backs. Many of the families have experienced violence, war, a shortage of food, water or shelter, personal injury, and disease.

Wanting to help, Rotarians in our district applied for a Disaster Response Grant from The Rotary Foundation to work with Peaceable Kingdom by Variety, a children’s retreat/camp in Killeen, for a three-night, four-day recreational experience over the Labor Day weekend. We imagined a space where the Ukrainian families could connect with their community, step away from the reminders of war, and take a much-needed deep breath. We wanted to give the children a place to explore, laugh and just be kids.

Working with the Ukrainian community in our area, we identified 47 children ranging in age from 5-13. Twenty-six parents also attended. The $20,000 grant provided for overnight lodging and meals, facility costs, and on-site medical professionals. We had 55 Rotary members give more than 350 volunteer hours, while 20 members of our Ukrainian community volunteered their time. All volunteers were required to complete a criminal background check and a child sexual abuse prevention training.

Variety Peaceable Kingdom was the perfect location to promote healing and empower through nature and adventure. Campers enjoyed campfires while making s’mores for the first time, swimming in the pool, taking archery lessons, and completing confidence building courses including a 40-foot rock wall and zip line.

The final day’s carnival allowed the children to eat all the snow cones, cotton candy, and popcorn they wanted while playing games, having their faces painted, and spending therapeutic time in the petting zoo.

  • Shannon and a child look through a stack of wood blocks
  • A child navigates a net of ropes
  • A woman helps a child make a hand stamp with yellow ink
  • Several mothers and their children atop a viewing platform

The many activities helped the children find comfort with others who speak the same language and who could understand their trauma.

We were surprised at how beneficial the camp was not only for the children but also for the adults. Bonds were developed between Ukrainian campers, parents, and volunteers – creating and enhancing a support network they could use to move forward and thrive in their new community.

We found that these parents were able to connect with other parents and the Ukrainian volunteers in a way they hadn’t prior to the camp. One parent commented how she had thought this would be a benefit for the children and found that it was an even bigger blessing for the adults.

I was told by one parent that “without internet/ social media reminders of the war, we were able to leave the war behind for a few days and connect with others.”

A mother and son who had arrived in the United States only one month before from Bucha after her husband’s death, were sitting at our table the first night at dinner. They were noticeably forlorn, isolated, and didn’t understand English. Midway through the camp, she told a Ukrainian volunteer, “It’s the first time I’ve seen my son smile since the war started.”

Another mother told us: “Thank you for letting my son be a child for a few days.”

And yet another, “It’s the first time I can remember my son play, (he had) lost a light in him.”

Our district imagined creating a space to help kids be kids and help them to imagine a better future. Based on feedback, I believe we accomplished that. Ultimately, we were the ones who were changed.

View the listing on Rotary Showcase for links to partnering Rotary clubs and news coverage of the project.

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