He’s only six and has just arrived in Winnipeg from Ukraine, but Sviatsolav Nakonechnyi proudly made his first Canadian vehicle using a cardboard packing box and construction-paper wheels.
“I’m making a car, a huge car,” he proclaimed in Ukrainian to a group of visitors touring the nursery room at St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church Monday, where 20 five- and six-year-olds were building their own cardboard vehicles as part of an English language and life skills summer program.
Down the hall, a group of seven- and eight-year-olds learned about road signs through a bingo game, while elsewhere in the building tweens and teens played games or learned how to marble paper.
Now in its second week, the day camp for about 70 school-aged Ukrainian newcomers — dubbed U-WIN — is a collaboration between the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Winnipeg and N.E.E.D.S. Inc, a non-profit organization that supports immigrant and refugee children and youth.
“It’s trying to be a positive spin on you, Ukrainian, Winnipeg, win, and opportunity,” explained camp logistics co-ordinator Susan Zuk about the name of the eight-week program, which operates out of the East Kildonan-area church this month and will move to R.F. Morrison School in August.
Born out of a call to Ukrainian Catholic churches by Metropolitan Archbishop Lawrence Huculak to support Ukrainian families in Winnipeg displaced by the Russian invasion of their country, the idea to hold a summer day camp for children ages 5 to 15 quickly gathered momentum and supporters well beyond the archeparchy, said Rev. Mark Gnutel of St. Anne Ukrainian Catholic Church.
“The N.E.E.D.S. partnership is crucial to making this happen,” said Gnutel, whose parish donated space and volunteer time.
“As a church, we wanted to help, but we didn’t know how.”
About two-thirds of the camp’s $140,000 budget has been raised from churches, community groups, foundations and other Ukrainian organizations. More donations are anticipated, said Huculak, who visited the summer camp on Tuesday sporting a hat in yellow and blue, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
“The need is there, the desire to help is there, the finances are out there,” said Huculak, adding the archeparchy issues tax receipts for donations toward the summer camp expenses.
“It’s a matter of co-ordinating it together.”
The budget covers salaries for nine staff members, buses to transport children to and from camp, program supplies and field trips, said Zuk.
With the church and archeparchy supplying the infrastructure, the staff at N.E.E.D.S. offer their expertise in orientating newcomers to Canadian life, said director of operations Kirby Borgardt.
“Without partnering to do this, neither of us would have the capacity to do this on our own,” she said.
The campers spend half of each day developing English language skills and orientation to Winnipeg provided by N.E.E.D.S. staff, and the other half participating in games, crafts and outdoor activities led by U-WIN staff.
For a pair of 15-year-olds who attend the program, the day camp has led to making new friends and understanding more about Canadian culture and geography. The teenagers are gaining volunteer experience by assisting younger children on field trips or outings to the local park or splash pad.
“It’s pretty fun and I like it,” said Dima Oliinyk, who will enter Grade 10 in the fall.
“I was planning on coming here (to Canada) after graduation to study at university,” added Oleksii Petruchek, who arrived in Winnipeg in late April along with his parents and two brothers.
“(We have) no family, no friends (here), we are the first.”
Many of the staff are also Ukrainian newcomers, grateful to add Canadian work experience to their resumes, explained camp director and senior counsellor Lesia Yaroshenko, a resident of Kyiv who arrived in Winnipeg two months ago.
“It was a great idea to mix Ukrainian and Canadian counsellors,” said the journalist and communications specialist, whose husband, a cameraman, is now in the Ukrainian army.
“We feel the same things the kids feel, and the Canadian team does not feel this, (which) is good news.”
Although it’s only the second week in, Zuk cautiously calls the camp a success, judging by the enthusiasm and energy of the campers, the support of Winnipeggers and the continued requests for them to take more children. Unfortunately, the program is at capacity, she said.
“We’re going to affect about 100 kids’ lives by the end of this, and almost 70 families,” Zuk said of the impact for Ukrainians recently arrived in Winnipeg.
“We can see some of the struggles (the children) are having and some of the fun and relief they’re having.”
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.