Summer Journeys: Bringing Joy to Ukrainian Children

With the end of the school year rapidly approaching, Tafties are solidifying plans for their time away from campus. For many Taft students, summer plans include opportunities to continue living the school motto, "Not to be served, but to serve." And while some apply for Taft travel grants, and engage with established programs across the globe, others find their own way to make a difference—including Luca Gatti '24 who dedicated time last summer to supporting the people of Ukraine.

"I really felt for the people of Ukraine when I saw what I perceived to be the inhumane targeting of civilian cities," says Luca. "I really hated what was happening and thought it a great injustice. When my father began organizing our summer plans last spring, he proposed doing some community service and I immediately told him I wanted to do something to help the Ukrainian people."

Luca and his dad contacted friends living abroad, who led them to BrodyLand, a Hungarian hospitality group whose community center, The Workshop, had assisted Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war. By June of last year, they had served more than 15,000 meals to Ukrainian refugees, and were preparing for their next venture: establishing a summer camp for Ukrainian children ages 6 to 16 on a farm 40 miles from Budapest. Luca and his family committed to supporting the program.

"In just three weeks they organized the camp for about 200 children in the middle of the Hungarian countryside, with the idea of letting them enjoy a peaceful care-free time away from the stress of their new situation," Luca explains. "Shoestring funding came together quickly from Ukrainian and Hungarian donors. My father provided transportation for the food and some of the campers on the first day. I planned daily activities for the campers, and served them three meals each day."

Ukrainian children

For three weeks, Luca dedicated long days—usually 7:30 am to 10.30 pm—to bringing a measure of joy and comfort to the campers. Throughout the day, children engaged in sports and games, swam in the farm's pool, did arts and crafts projects, and connected with the staff—and with each other—in small groups.

"There were usually fun community activities after dinner, such as dancing, a mini-play, or singing and singing contests. Then we headed back to the rooms, where I would attempt to get a room with seven of the older boys (13-16) to go to bed," Luca notes.

Luca worked to teach basic English skills to the campers, while also working hard to learn functional bits of the Ukrainian language. In the end, it was the children, themselves, who had the greatest impact on Luca.

"Many of these children had lost everything and had to suddenly leave their country and live in a new land. Yet, all the children at the camp were happy, despite their loss. One girl told me that her father was a soldier in the army. She said because of his assignments, he often could not call her and her mother for several days. When he didn't call, they wondered if the previous conversation had been their last. Another told me of the nonstop bomb warnings throughout each day, and how they spent much time in the hallway of their building to stay away from the windows. Max, an 18-year-old camp counselor, explained that he missed his family but could not return to Ukraine because he would have had to fight. He also shocked me when he said that the influx of refugees caused the city he was from in Western Ukraine to swell from 150,000 people to nearly a million. Their situation really put things into perspective for me. I have been affected more by so much less. Their resilience is something I now think about constantly."