JAMAICA PLAIN, Mass. – The Boston branch of the Ukrainian American Youth Association (UAYA) had its own version of NCAA March Madness when it hosted a reception and pizza party on March 23 at its clubhouse (“domivka”) in Norwood, Mass., for a group of 15 youth basketball players, 10 coaches/trainers and a translator from various parts of Ukraine, including Donetsk, Chernivtsi, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and Brovary.
The group was visiting the United States as part of an exchange program run by the Youth Leadership through Sport (YLS) Streetball Sports Diplomacy in coordination with PH International and Coaches Across Continents (CAC).
YLS is a set of international exchange programs funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs/Sports Diplomacy Division. It is designed to foster greater cross-cultural understanding by providing youth athletes and their coaches with sport and cultural opportunities to learn about leadership, teamwork, mentorship, healthy living and self-discipline in a multicultural setting.
Coaches Across Continents is a nonprofit organization founded by former Harvard University soccer player Nick Gates in 2008 to use sports as a vehicle for social change in developing communities.
Boston UAYA head Nick Zozula was instrumental in organizing the event along with CAC representative Ashlyn Hardie, after being contacted by Nick Gates’ Harvard soccer friend and Ukrainian American activist Mark Howansky.
As part of the exchange program, the Ukrainian youth players and their coaches traveled for 10 days, on March 20-30, to the United States, where they participated in the leadership through sports program. The program included daily athletic and cultural activities to help build leadership skills and foster cross-cultural understanding. The group spent a portion of the trip in and around the Boston area, visiting historical landmarks, Harvard University, Thornton Academy and the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and attended several sporting events at the Boston Garden. The other portion of the trip was spent in Saco, Maine, at the XL Sports World, where the youths participated in basketball training and drills.
The March 23 reception at the UAYA clubhouse was added to their itinerary so that the YLS group could make connections with the local Ukrainian American, and the end result was memorable for all involved. The atmosphere was very festive with songs sung, games played, gifts exchanged and bonds formed as part of a fulfilling cultural exchange program through sport.
Donations from JP Licks (ice cream), Boston College (T-shirts) and Shaw’s Supermarkets (gift bag items), as well as UAYA Boston members helped make the party a success and provide the guests with gifts for their visit and to bring back home to Ukraine.
The night clearly had an impact on the YLS visitors according to organizer Ms. Hardie: “There were many moments that night when I checked in on the Ukrainian participants in my group, and when they expressed their feelings to me about the night – their eyes watered. Hearing immigrant stories, singing traditional songs together and hearing their language spoken so freely in a very different place gave them the truest sense of home. Even on our last day, in reflection of the week – many mentioned the UAYA gathering as one of their favorite moments because of the inspirational stories some of the older UAYA members shared, and feeling so free to talk about everything in their home country, how it compares, etc. One youth participant said the thing he loved most was the freedom of expression and personality that Ukrainian American youth are given by their community, and how the UAYA senior members empower their youth with respect, trust and love.”
Similarly, the Boston UAYA members were very impressed by their guests and quickly bonded with them. According to Mr. Zozula: “The youth and coaches from Ukraine were awesome, even as teenagers, so respectful, genuine, caring, and you could tell that they really appreciated being there with us. In all honesty, we could not have been more impressed with them. I truly believe that lifelong connections and relationships were formed that night, and with the prevalence of Facebook and social media, many of us are now in touch with these youth and coaches from Ukraine. It has been nice to see how they are doing back home as they continue to learn and grow. We’re hoping that maybe a few of them might make it back to Boston for college at some point and we’d be ready to welcome them back with open arms.”
On behalf of the Coaches Across Continents organization, Ms. Hardie, presented UAYA Boston President Zozula with a branded polo shirt. Oleksandr Fomichov of the League of Tolerance presented him with a commemorative pamphlet of its “Equal Game” campaign.
As part of the same exchange program, The YLS group, again in coordination with PH International and Coaches Across Continents, will be sending a group of selected basketball-playing American youth and coaches to Ukraine in July as part of the exchange program, with planned stays in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Poltava. For those interested, the application and information on the program are available online at http://ylsp.ph-int.org/ua/; the deadline to apply is May 6. All expenses of the trip will be covered for those selected.