On the Road to Recovery: how the VidNOVA:UA exchange programme encourages young people to help rebuild Ukraine

January 19, 2024
Photo: Yurii Vinnichenko / UNDP in Ukraine

Artistic performances, guided tours, workshops, meeting people from different regions, dancing and singing – all great activities for engaging young people. But what if you could make it about rebuilding Ukraine into the bargain?

Young people in Ukraine certainly have energy, but sometimes lack motivation to use it: According to the study "Impact of War on Youth in Ukraine," 72% of young people say they are ready to contribute to rebuilding the country. However, only 1% actually transform that into action, as they often don’t know what they can do or who to ask for advice. 

So to harness this potential youth energy, in 2022, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in partnership with the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, launched the VidNOVA:UA National Programme for Youth Engagement in Ukraine's Recovery, organizing youth exchanges from different regions of Ukraine. Each exchange lasted five days, and included both physical activities and educational and cultural elements. The programme aims to promote volunteerism, engage people, and foster social cohesion. By meeting peers from different regions and visiting new communities, its participants raise their awareness about the culture and history of other parts of the country, and the power of diversity.

Photo: Vadym Domaretskyi / UNDP in Ukraine

In 2023, the programme organized 24 exchanges in 12 oblasts of Ukraine, involving 720 participants aged 18 to 35. The participants restored 24 youth centres and public spaces, which were then visited by more than 11,000 people. 

In 2024, the programme organizers plan to arrange exchanges on the same scale, and also engage communities in other regions of Ukraine.

We talked to VidNOVA:UA participants to find out how they managed to get on the exchange programme, what a typical volunteer day was like, what activities they participated in, and how their lives change after this experience. 

Here’s what they told us:

Mykola Bilyk, 31, Zaporizhzhia

I try to get as involved as I can in things that are exciting and worthwhile. I work on the radio, teach Polish, and am engaged in several Polish-Ukrainian projects; for example, we organized street quests in eight regions of Ukraine. Before that, I worked in the theatre as an actor, and in the philharmonic as a solo vocalist. I wrote music and songs and joined in public initiatives, such as Building Ukraine Together. VidNOVA:UA is similar, but this programme has a lot of cultural and educational components – it’s a well-balanced combination of work, study, leisure, communication, and so on.

Over the summer (as part of the programme), I and some girls I know did an educational and tourist quest on Mykola Leontovych, the composer of the famous (Ukrainian) song "Shchedryk." It was they who had told me about the exchange opportunity with the VidNOVA:UA programme. I was immediately interested because these female colleagues are passionate about developing their region. That inspired me; I wanted to be a part of it. So, I registered, which took about five minutes, and then I was selected.

The event was held in Tulchyn, Vinnytsia Oblast. I’m currently working at two jobs at the same time, but for this five-day adventure, I rearranged things. I’d already been to Tulchyn. I found the city to be remarkable; the famous Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych worked here, and now colourful and sincere people live here – and it boasts the incredible Potocki Palace.

There were various activities through which to get to know each other, such as city tours, creative assignments, and art events. In the open air near the Potocki Palace, we watched the movie "Shchedryk" and a performance by Kyiv’s Suzirya Theatre about the Executed Renaissance – the literary and artistic generation of the 1920s and early 1930s in Ukraine that the Soviet government exterminated. For many participants, this was the most striking event of the entire week because we gained a particular realization about the Ukrainian artists' skill levels, and the tragedy of their annihilation.

Photo: Anastasiia Vihurzhynska / UNDP in Ukraine

Professionals from various fields – bloggers, businesspeople, journalists, comedians, and others gave us training sessions. The case studies and practical advice from those who have real-life experience,  and who were not just reading out theses from theory, meant a lot. They told you things that seemed already clear about project management, but added in a lot of nuances. Afterward, I turned to a friend and suggested we do a project together. It really was a swift kick in the pants, after which I felt inspired to act according to the experience of people with a growth mind-set – people who don't give up in adverse circumstances.

Obviously, we had work to do. We worked in the Tulchyn Public Library, which is located near the Potocki Palace. We decided to renovate the old building, to turn it into a modern venue for networking, presentations, and other events. We laid laminate flooring, painted and plastered some walls, and even decorated one with Carpathian landscapes. We also worked in the yard, cutting down shrubs, making wooden sofas out of pallets, and creating a fire pit where we met at night to sing and chat. I'm thrilled now when I see on the Tulchyn library's social media pages that they host lots of events in a nice-looking, modern room that used to be scary and Soviet-looking. It's nice that this place is full of life, and full of people contributing to the development of Tulchyn and Ukraine.

Our schedule was hectic, but I wouldn't have cut anything out even if you’d asked me to. It was really exhausting living every day to the fullest. We stayed in the only hotel in Tulchyn, with several people per room. We planned our daily routine in detail: we woke up early, did some exercises, then had breakfast, and afterward, we had our activities and work. But it was so easy for me to work that maybe I undervalued my input somehow. When 20 people are building one wall, it's quick and even fun. It's like everybody's making a contribution. This really demonstrates how much cohesion makes things easier, and how easy it is to make changes together.

Photo: Anastasiia Vihurzhynska / UNDP in Ukraine

People from all over Ukraine participated in the exchange: Odesa, Zakarpattia, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Kyiv, Vinnytsia, Cherkasy, Kaniv, and Zaporizhzhia. They were young people in the European sense – up to 35 years old. Our group had a woman from Kaniv, who is 35, and students as young as 18. Everyone’s different: some were studying, some were working, some have started a business, and some have founded a public organization. But they’re united by a desire to bring change to the country – not to wait passively for something from the government, but to take action. I also emphasize their openness because, for many participants, a crucial factor is meeting incredible people and being interested in life. When people like this meet, a lot of energy is created to move and develop.

Most of all, I remember the evenings when we gathered around the campfire. There was a lot of pride about what we’d achieved during the day, (and there was) unity, humour, light-heartedness, and sharing of experiences. One evening, we went to a hill overlooking the city of Tulchyn, which lies in lowlands. We dubbed this trip "Las Vegas" because it was just like in an American movie. We stopped on the hill, looked at the city from above, talked, and shared our impressions.

The most powerful experiences and genuine support came from getting to know people who have realized their potential and want to be drivers of change. A lot of these people have faced disappointment or depression, and it’s as if, having experienced these states, they’ve converted them into strength. For me, it was valuable to learn that there are people like this in every corner of Ukraine, who are doing something meaningful where they are. I got inspiration to achieve my own goals, but with the feeling that I wasn’t alone. It's fantastic that there are people for whom "1+1 equals 11," as we say.

All the participants came up with in-jokes. For example, the catchphrase of this programme was "sea buckthorn." When someone was in need of love, attention, and comfort, they could say "sea buckthorn," and there would be a massive group-hug, i.e., all the others would cling to this person just like sea buckthorn berries cling to the branch. Then we created a joint chat room called "VidNOVA:UA Family," I can see how warm it is. Many people became friends, and this community is still active. We’re already planning future joint projects, or getting inspired by each other. 

Zoia Zaporozhets, 20, Kyiv

I'm from Poltava, (but) I’ve lived in Kyiv for four years. I'm studying architecture and working as a communications manager and graphic designer at the All-Ukrainian Youth Centre. At the same time, I’m also the chairperson of the student council in my department, so I constantly organize various events for young people. For example, recently, before exam week, we arranged a retreat with another department. Students participated in a master class with invited speakers, held discussions, and watched the documentary “Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom” about the Revolution of Dignity. So, I really like what VidNOVA:UA does, because it is both social activism and youth engagement.

The All-Ukrainian Youth Centre is taking part in the implementation of the VidNOVA:UA programme. That's why I often work on reports describing the outcomes of exchanges. I’m the kind of person who wants to experience something in different roles. For example, I used to be among the organizers of a beauty contest, and one day I decided to participate. The same thing happened to me with VidNOVA:UA: I learned about the programme and was eager to take part. So, I filled out an application and was selected for the Ulaniv, Vinnytsia Oblast programme.

The first challenge you face is that you’ve got to get to the place by yourself. This is an excellent logistical exercise: you plan a route yourself, work out how to get there, and schedule the time. As I was assigned to Ulaniv, I was a little disappointed. I read about the place and realized that it was a small village, and it seemed to me that creating a programme as exciting as the ones in cities would be difficult. However, I’m not prejudiced against villages, because I regularly visited my grandmother in the country.

Photo: Zoia Zaporozhets / UNDP in Ukraine

But in the end, the reality exceeded expectations a thousandfold. On the first day, when we gathered around the campfire and reflected as a team, I admitted I’d had a 180-degree turn in how I felt. In particular, this was because of the incredible people you get to meet for the first time – you experience support and kindness, and you relax, and open up.

The goal of the programme is to restore youth centres in the regions. We rebuilt the premises where the library used to be, which was then a Nova Poshta branch – it was a complicated job. But we were assisted by professional builders who did the essential preparatory work, while we painted and plastered. At one point we were given a drill and told how to remove a part of a wall. We were enthusiastic about this job, filmed a video, and even made up a little dance. Participants in other programmes then started a trend in drill dancing accompanied by the (Rolling Stones) song "Satisfaction." They rehearsed and learned their moves, and then posted their videos. This was one of the most memorable moments.

One of the most fascinating tasks was to draw something on the wall. Since I’d worked as a designer, and most of the participants didn't know how to draw, I took charge of the process. Together, we chose an image – a three-line inscription in English covering the entire wall – and marked it out with masking tape. Then I showed them how to paint it. The participants enjoyed this job because it was such creative work – a new experience. During the usual daily reflection exchange, one of them thanked me for teaching them to paint. 

Photo: Zoia Zaporozhets / UNDP in Ukraine

I also learned something new; for example, I memorized a lot of activities suitable for young people. I've even used the Clock exercise, where you have to make an appointment with a person every hour (in real-time, for a minute) and chat about a topic the moderator names. For example, "What movie character would you like to be?" It's interesting, because you devise a strategy to fill all the hours, as well as express your opinion quickly and clearly in one minute.

Another vivid experience was learning how to cook "Ulaniv-style" potatoes. Before the full-scale invasion, the locals hosted two festivals dedicated to their signature dish. We had a workshop on how to cook it perfectly. The potatoes have to be roasted over a fire, with a special sauce. It looks like (the popular Ukrainian dish) village-style potatoes, but tastes much better.

We spent only four hours a day at the site, but we were given the white hard hats we wore as souvenirs. Moreover, there were meetings, workshops, and other activities every day. For example, one of the programme coordinators, Anastasia, sings in a choir, so we sang songs together with these beautiful women. There was an emotional evening with an accordion, music, and dancing that remains in my heart. We also had an excursion to a neighbouring village – they wanted to take us there on horseback, but it didn't work out. Despite all this, I didn't feel tired, and at the end of the day, I still had the energy to work.

And sometimes, after a busy day, I would look at the stars outside. I love that in villages you can see the sky. And when I looked up at the starry heavens like that, it was like going back to my childhood with my grandmother. I felt at home.

Illustration: UNDP in Ukraine

Yulia Tymoshenko, 21, Zinkiv, Poltava Oblast

Since childhood, I have been fond of choreography, sports and ballroom dancing, acrobatics, and gymnastics. I graduated from Poltava National Pedagogical University this year, but still don't work in my field. I came across an advertisement on Facebook for the VidNOVA:UA programme and thought: "Cool, I want to go there too!" I applied and was accepted. I wanted to contribute to rebuilding Ukraine, maybe with only a small input, but at least to be part of it. Helping people rebuild youth centres means a lot to me. In addition, I wanted to meet awesome Ukrainians and have unforgettable experiences – with the benefits of professional growth at the same time. And that's what it turned out to be.

I spent unforgettable five days in Pyriatyn, in Poltava Oblast. I want to return, so I'm looking forward to next year and hope to be accepted again for another round. I can't describe those feelings in words, I was really having the time of my life.

We were rebuilding a youth centre, but there were also some cultural events. On the first day, we introduced ourselves, explaining who we were, what we were passionate about, and why we’d decided to participate in the project. It was mainly an engaging, interactive setting. There were 20 young people from different parts of Ukraine, and ten locals. We were sharing a table and communicating, and throughout the programme, we became one friendly family – a VidNOVA:UA family.

Photo: Anastasiia Tkachenko / UNDP in Ukraine

We spent only 3-4 hours a day at the construction site. First of all, we were asked if anyone was allergic to anything and whether anyone had any relevant experience. For example, if someone knew how to draw, they were given the respective tasks, and some guys already knew how to build. We were divided into groups and assigned mentors who helped us with everything they could. There were no difficulties whatsoever, and there was nothing like construction workers rolling their eyes and being unhappy to clarify anything – on the contrary, they explained everything down to the smallest detail. In addition, we were people who wanted to do something valuable, so we all worked as a team.

The performance "Born to Be Free" by the Suzirya Theatre was stunning. I was excited about it because I’d already heard a lot of positive feedback. Everyone seemed to cry during the performance, and I’m sure it's must-see for young Ukrainians. I went to the Suzirya Theatre in Kyiv to see it again.

It was terrific to be at the largest wooden bridge in Ukraine at dawn. I also had another extraordinary experience. There is an old cartoon titled "Once Upon a Time There Lived a Dog." Guests at the wedding were singing the song "Oh There on the Mountain" at the big table. We heard this song live from the same performers! It gave us goose bumps.

Every evening, we shared our daily reflections, and not once did we feel that something had been unpleasant or unnecessary. The organizers did a great job, and there were no problems. Since then, I’m always encouraging everyone I know to apply for this programme, because you’ll never regret this experience – it's unforgettable. So, on my recommendation, three people have already gone to Dnipro on an exchange, and they were very grateful. A friend of mine said that they were reborn there.

The exchange was the best experience of my life. It's not just about building and rebuilding on a large scale, but also about rebuilding yourself. When I returned home, I thought: "Wow, I want to do something in my community too." This programme is about inspiring you to change your own environment, city, and country. For example, there’s no youth centre where I live. And as the youth council's deputy chairperson, I’m now doing my best to ensure we get one. It's hard to explain in our community, but I won't give up; I will achieve my goal.

Photo: Anastasiia Vihurzhynska / UNDP in Ukraine

Five days is not enough. On the last night, everyone cried, as we didn't want to leave. Even though we are all different, every participant came with one goal in mind that united us. We even transformed each other.

For me, VidNOVA:UA is a Band-Aid for internal wounds. I’m immensely grateful to every project organizer for all their hard work.

Maksym Tolochyn, 19, village of Ivankiv, Kyiv Oblast

I’ve been studying administration and management at the Kyiv Pedagogical Specialized College for five years. I now live in Kyiv, where I also work. I like to gain new opportunities, meet people, and travel. So, when my dance teacher sent me a link to VidNOVA:UA, I applied and was accepted to the Tulchyn, Vinnytsia Oblast programme.

I decided to join because I was lost in my everyday routine, and wanted new experiences. This project was about rebuilding, so I wanted to help my country, see a new place, and meet people at the same time. Everything worked out even better than I’d expected. I imagined we’d spend most of the time on the construction site, but we had an intense programme. We built, learned, created, and met people.

Photo: Anastasiia Vihurzhynska / UNDP in Ukraine

The real asset of VidNOVA:UA is its people. The programme participants supported each other all the time. We also got to know the host community, who showed us their Tulchyn. I knew that the butter I love was produced there. It turned out that there were a lot of enthusiastic people in the town, including several programme organizers. That's how I learned about one of Ukraine's most prominent architectural monuments, the Potocki Palace. I also learned that the famous song "Shchedryk" was written in Tulchyn. It struck me that people in this city live harmoniously and amicably, like in a village. Members of a small community trust each other, and cooperate. We also tasted the local traditional dish "Tymaniv kasha," which is made of millet with fried bacon, cabbage, and milk.

In the morning, we did exercises to energize ourselves for the day. The breakfast at the hotel was so nutritious that it was as if the organizers knew how intense our day would be. On our way to the site, we sang. We were rebuilding a local youth centre. We did much less than the professional builders who did the most difficult tasks, such as preparing the walls for us to paint. Still, I used a drill and a sander machine for the first time. I already have some experience now, in case I need to renovate something else. 

I enjoyed our campfire gatherings so much! Although the participants were 18 to 35, we didn’t notice this generation gap; on the contrary, we were on the same page and listened to each other. There were people from Kyiv, with whom we’re almost neighbours! Ukrainians from Zakarpattia and Luhansk oblasts understood each other perfectly and worked as one. That’s worth a lot.

We did a lot of things as part of the programme. We met some celebrity guests who shared exciting life stories and their experiences. I remember Oleksandr Terenchuk from the TV series “Once Upon a Time in Poltava” – he was both humorous and sincere. We also had media training – for example, some people from Suspilne.Vinnytsia talked about the work of journalists and how to bring up important topics. We watched a performance by the Suzirya Theatre, learned how to sculpt in clay and draw, and painted T-shirts. We visited local entrepreneurs who told us how they started their businesses and survived the war. We felt like stars on those days.

Photo: Anastasiia Vihurzhynska / UNDP in Ukraine

It was all very inspiring. After all, if we don't help, who will? Someone has to do it. So, if we hand these tasks over to the next generation, what will happen to the country and us in the meantime? I’ve chosen to grow and thus develop the country. The sooner we start doing this, the sooner Ukraine will get back on its feet.

We have very proactive young people, a lot of whom are ready to work wherever possible. The VidNOVA:UA programme offers an excellent opportunity to do so! It attracts young people from other cities, and it changes something in their outlook. For example, I just want to travel around Ukraine even more, to get to know more, and discover more.

When I returned from Tulchyn, the exchange programme was going on in my native Ivankiv. So, my friends also took part and experienced it themselves. I’ve realized I want to take everything life gives me, and I should never ignore opportunities. Even in times of war, you shouldn't give up. Stand up, and help others. 

The VidNOVA:UA programme is implemented by the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Ukraine, the All-Ukrainian Youth Centre, and the Centre for Political Studies and Analysis (EIDOS), within the framework of the UNDP projects "Civil Society and Youth Support" and "Promotion of Human Security in Ukraine Through Responding to The Multidimensional Crisis Caused by The War,"  with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and the Government of Japan.

Author: Tetiana Kapustynska