Aug. 17, 2022

UCalgary PhD candidate's camp for Ukrainian evacuee kids is big success

Children from war-torn country find comfort and friendship in shared experience
Twelve-year-old Sofiya is one of more than 85 Ukrainian campers.

What Anastasiia Stepanchuk started as a summer camp to aid Ukrainian evacuee children in Calgary is fast sowing a lifetime of friendships for dozens of kids.

Two weeks after the camp opened, more than 85 kids are now arriving each day for school classes and crafts taught by volunteer teachers — and it’s clear the primary lesson of the summer school is "You are not going through this alone."

“Honestly, when we see the reactions on their faces, and the fact we have a 90 per cent attendance rate every day, that means a lot to us,” says Stepanchuk, a PhD candidate in clinical neuroscience at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“They really want to be here; they really love that they have a chance to meet friends and make new friends — and their English is really improving already.”

Helping young evacuees feel at home

Stepanchuk calls the camp Ready to Study Ukrainian Summer School and students in Grades 4 to 12 are taking part in a three-week, half-day immersion in classes aimed to help the newcomers learn English and feel more at home with their new situation in Canada.

Stepanchuk came to Calgary from Ukraine four years ago to attend university, and then the Russian invasion changed everything back home. When her mom and younger brothers, 12 and 15, arrived here as evacuees in June, she knew it was time to act.

“Even when I came here four years ago, it was an isolating experience at first, and for my brothers, I think this is crucial,” she told UToday before the camp opened. “Having a support system where they can actually find people to share their problems with could be really good for their mental health and to help them adjust.”

Getting ready for school, Alberta style

As well as English classes and a review of the Alberta school curriculum, students take part in crafts, sports and STEM activities.

The camp is headquartered at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in the community of Bridgeland, though demand has meant opening another location a short walk away.

Volunteer teachers from the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District join with community volunteers to teach the kids and help them settle into their new home in Canada.

Anastasiia Stepanchuk is a member of the Stys lab within the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the Cumming School of Medicine. Stepanchuk was awarded HBI’s PhD of the Year. She hopes to defend her dissertation in November.