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A summer in Ukraine taught Alvinston youth how to love

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

Miranda Podolinsky spent her summer volunteering at an orphanage in Ukraine, where she formed special relationships that will last a lifetime. Handout/Postmedia Network

Miranda Podolinsky spent her summer volunteering at an orphanage in Ukraine, where she formed special relationships that will last a lifetime. Handout/Postmedia Network

Getting on a plane to Ukraine changed Miranda Podolinsky forever, and in the best way possible.

She was one of ten other students who spent their summer vacation volunteering abroad with the Beyond Borders program. Podolinsky was placed at an orphanage for women and girls with disabilities in Ternopil from May to August.

Now the Alvinston native is heading into her third year studying at the University of Waterloo, and her experience this past summer is bringing her new insight on the world, family, and what it means to love.

Podolinsky spent weekdays at the orphanage, which is home to 82 girls. Each of them have some type of disability, including invisible disabilities, like heart conditions.

“Some of the girls there don’t have parents, but most of them are there because their parents didn’t want them,” she said.

In Ukraine, the culture towards those who don’t fit the standard of ‘normal’ is completely different from Canada, and Podolinsky said it was difficult for her to grasp. Coming from a culture of more acceptance, it was heartbreaking to see such bright and enthusiastic individuals abandoned by their own family.

“It’s really hard, the only family they have is each other and the orphanage,” she said. “From what I know, a lot of people with disabilities in Canada still live with their parents…they’re a person just like we are, we don’t just ship them away.”

During her time there, she and another girl from her university planned events and outings. They had dance parties, made pizza, went bowling, made jewelry and even had a Canada Day party.

Every so often they would take the girls into the city, something that Podolinsky said wasn’t something they did very often due to safety concerns. The orphanage itself was tucked away and out of sight from the city, and many people don’t even realize it’s there.

“They’re not really allowed to leave the orphanage that often…it’s unsafe and some people are looking for them or try to take advantage because they don’t think they’re fully capable,” she said.

What struck Podolinsky most was how kind and loving the girls were, they had no problem forming a strong and trusting bond with her right away despite their hardships in life. While Podolinsky walked in thinking she would be making an impact on them, it was really the girls who impacted her. She said she learned that doing a volunteer trip like this, you’re not going to change the world, but you can change your mindset.

“They have really affected me and taught me a lot of things too,” she said. “My perspective on things has shifted so much…they have so little there but they’re so thankful for it.”

Podolinsky said she sees gratitude in the way they live every day. The girls would wake up with smiles on their faces, thankful to start the day, where in Canada, it’s not unusual to complain about having to get up and go to school.

“We complain about our education…meanwhile there’s people out there who don’t get an education,” she said. “They taught me to be grateful for the little things, that I have a family.”

She said they also taught her what it means to love, and considering they didn’t grow up with much, Podolinsky didn’t expect them to be so open to her. Leaving them after over three months wasn’t easy, but she still keeps in touch over Facebook and Skype, and she plans to visit them again after graduation.

“As soon as I walked up to the orphanage, 20 girls came running and just threw themselves into my arms…they just have so much love to give, but they weren’t given that growing up,” she said. “I found a new love in those girls, they really showed me how you can love people.”