Elena, the tourist guide from Odessa, in front of a montage of pictures at The Way Home shelter. Pictures: Kerry Botha
Elena, the tourist guide from Odessa, in front of a montage of pictures at The Way Home shelter. Pictures: Kerry Botha
The Odessa Opera Theatre has been restored to a magnificent condition, thanks to residents energetic fund-raising efforts.
The Odessa Opera Theatre has been restored to a magnificent condition, thanks to residents energetic fund-raising efforts.

Odesssa, Ukraine - At first glance, The Way Home shelter, tucked in an inner city courtyard in the tangle of one-way streets in central Odessa, Ukraine, is unpromising.

The shelter’s decaying buildings are offset by strings of cheery and colourful bunting. Could this be a happy place?

The smiles on the faces of the children and their caregivers – some barely out of childhood themselves – are warmly optimistic. But they belie the harsh reality.

These children have been plucked from a feral life in the gritty streets of Odessa. Many are forced there through marital or family breakdown and find shelter in cellars, sewers and old tenement buildings. It often takes weeks of regular and consistent contact with the shelter’s carers before they can be coaxed to leave the streets.

Like wild animals, they are scared of people; they have to re-learn to trust.

And it’s a long and difficult process, taking between nine months and a year before the kids are really acting like normal youngsters again. The feral nature of their existence means that they have to relearn basic hygiene and life skills, such as cooking and cleaning in order to be rehabilitated into society.

The Way Home shelter is for street children and vulnerable youngsters in Odessa – the first of its kind in Ukraine.

As the name suggests, the organisation helps adults, children and drug users (drug abuse is pervasive throughout Ukraine) find a better way of life by providing medical care, psychological rehabilitation and legal services.

Any doubts why we are here are melted away by the reception we receive from the wide-eyed and happy children, who treat us to a concert, dancing, and ball-throwing.

Why we were there was because we volunteered for the “You Care We Care” voluntourism excursion provided by Crystal Cruises on one of its 12-day luxury Black Sea cruise. I was sent with two journalists as part of a press tour by my client, Cruises International, which represents Crystal Cruises in South Africa. My brief was to experience luxury cruising, so I would be in a position to promote it as their public relations consultant.

What I got was that and a whole lot more – an appreciation of the power of the human spirit to survive, and the desire to reach out to those in need.

Initially, to be honest, I wasn’t thinking about joining the voluntourism trip. After all, I – like the average middle-class South African – feel almost overwhelmed sometimes by the often searing realities that bombard us every day, whether in the media, the street corners or the heart-breaking stories more closer to home.

The ship berthed in Odessa at eight sharp in the brilliant morning sunshine. The famous Potempkin Steps beckoned.

What the heck, I figured, let’s do this and see what Ukraine can offer in terms of social anomalies and upheaval. Bet nothing could rival our own.

In halting English accompanied by a wide-eyed smile, our young Ukrainian guide Elena described as best she could the highlights of the city as we headed towards the shelter in our bus.

For those who have not been to Ukraine, Odessa is a city of contrasts. Magnificent and majestic late 18th century pastel coloured buildings, both crumbling and partially or perfectly restored, hint at the glory years of Tsarist Russia. The undulating pavements, chaotic traffic and cacophony of shops – some perfectly replicating the best of high street shopping in any European city, most small and sometimes pathetic offering thin choice – speak with more disquiet.

This is a city that was brought to its knees in the last century – first during the uphevals of World War II and later Soviet domination, whose priorities were other than maintenance.

As a city in Ukraine, Odessa faces new domination by oligarchs whose huge black limousines with blackened windows trawl the streets. Poverty and wealth disparities are evident.

At the shelter it was heartwarming to meet Sergei, Oleg and Maggie.

The carers were mostlyyoungsters who themselves had been rehabilitated. Empathy for the younger children was palpable.We as the team were there to provide our services in whatever capacity, but we ended up being entertained.

Much like South Africa, indeed perhaps more so, Ukraine’s public health care and schooling system is under strain, and the shelter finds itself competing for funding from social welfare institutions.

Funds for the shelter are raised through international donor organisations, as well as the sale of art and craft works created by the children.

Something happened to me that day. The visit to the shelter gave me a window into heart of Odessa – a city trying to come to terms with its past and its present, and prepare for its future.

By way of contrast, I attended a gloriously glamorous performance of Giselle in the magnificent Odessa Opera Theatre, complete with deep-piled, plush velvet seats with gilt trimmings.

My appreciation of the evening was deepened by the knowledge that it had been the citizens of Odessa themselves who hadraised the funds to restore the theatre.

Would I do it again? You bet! Three hours out of 12 days of luxurious heaven is a small price to pay for the insight I gained into the life and human condition of Odessa and indeed Ukraine itself, as well as a refreshed appreciation of my own blessed life.

Our own problems have also been resized with renewed knowledge that social difficulties are common throughout the world, and more particularly among countries, like the Ukraine, whose societies are in the throes of social and political transition.

About “You Care, We Care”

Starting in 2011, Crystal Cruises’ “You Care, We Care” programme was designed to assist local projects – in ports where the cruises berth – and educate participants on local community needs, while enhancing the traveller’s personal growth and connection with a destination.

Every Crystal itinerary has a planned “You Care, We Care” Crystal Adventure in which a limited number of guests and crew can donate their time, with Crystal covering all logistical arrangements and costs. Since launching last year, this programme has fostered an environment for understanding and caring about cultures, places, animals, and people.

Last year participants were treated several voluntourism opportunities. Cruisers fed homeless donkeys in Antigua; supported conservation efforts at an Oregon state park; tended to rescued sea turtles in Athens; helped garden outside an elderly domicile in Dubrovnik; rehabbed an educational salmon hatchery in Alaska; bonded with disabled adults in Tuscany and the Canary Islands; played with underprivileged children in Uruguay, Peru, St. Martin, Rio, Fiji, and South Africa; and gathered and distributed food and supplies in Israel, Santa Barbara, Nova Scotia, Boston and Estonia.

l www.cruises.co.za, or11 327 0327

The progamme is also in operation in:

l Cambodia: Teaching children the arts, plus plant a vegetable garden, at an orphanage

l British Columbia: Stocking, packing, and distributing food and toys at a local food bank

l Singapore: Helping literacy-challenged children to read

l South Korea: Bringing goodwill to a home for underprivileged children

Additional locales featuring the program in 2012 include Cartagena, Colombia; Willemstad, Curaçao; Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain; Livorno, Italy; Athens, Greece; Tallinn, Estonia; Rostock, Germany; Dubrovnik, Croatia; Honolulu; and Boston, among others. - Saturday Star