For a war happening halfway across the globe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine hit close to home for the KleinLife staff.
Six months of organizing and assisting in various fundraisers to raise money for ailing refugees and Ukrainians trying to survive in their war-torn country did not feel like enough.
“All of us are watching the news, and the news is horrible,” KleinLife CEO and President Andre Krug, who is Ukrainian, said. “You feel completely helpless, and you want to do something, and you can’t.”
The rest of the KleinLife staff and leadership felt similarly. And the answer to their question of how to make a more profound impact came in July in the form of a summer camp.
The KleinLife summer camp, in addition to hosting 140 campers, is now hosting 45 more, all of whom are children who fled Ukraine and are making a new home in Philadelphia. The camp will run through August.
On Aug. 4, KleinLife launched its Grow Hope campaign to raise $750,000 to sustain the summer camp in 2023, as well as create an after-school program for Ukrainian refugee children. The funds will be used for after-school transportation and programming, English as a second language classes, emergency food distribution, access to KleinLife’s athletic facilities and job search assistance. The after-school program will accommodate up to 75
“It’s very necessary for the children, it’s really necessary for their parents and it’s a good thing for us to do,” Krug said. “And it feels good that now, finally, we can feel that we’re kind of helping somebody, helping the Ukraine.”
The summer camp was dreamed up, organized and operational within five days, underlying the passion and demand around the project.
Victoria Faykin, KleinLife’s vice president, came up with the idea for the summer camp on July 6 after several Ukrainian mothers approached her for help. More than 90% of their husbands were still in Ukraine, required by Ukrainian martial law to fight in the war. Most women had trouble getting jobs, as they were not granted permission to work when they immigrated to the U.S. Others were unable to apply for work because they had to take care of their children.
A Russian refugee who came to the U.S. almost three years ago, Faykin empathized with the women.
“I cried together with them,” Faykin said. “I came to Andre with tears in my eyes.”
Krug worked quickly with the KleinLife board and Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to get the camp off the ground. KleinLife, with the help of Jewish Federation, raised $70,000 to operate the camp.
Originally, KleinLife had 20 Ukrainian campers aged 5-12, then 30, now 45, and KleinLife is receiving 50 calls a week from parents interested in sending their children there. Faykin didn’t put out any advertising; interest was all through word of mouth.
The campers’ families have access to KleinLife’s food pantry. KleinLife is partnering with hospitals and medical centers in Philadelphia to assist refugees with dental and medical care. Faykin enlisted the help of the older siblings of the campers and teenage KleinLife members; KleinLife converted the main room of its staff office to accommodate the campers.
After one month of camp, the impact of the experience is clear to Faykin.
“[There were] eyes full of crying. They looked like scared children,” Faykin said. “And now, they smile.”
In addition to the typical camp fare of swimming, sports and arts and crafts, the campers take part in art therapy, led by program manager and licensed counselor Mariya Keselman-Mekler.
“We’ve been working on different ways for them to express themselves, to come together, to utilize coping skills, build coping skills, process things creatively and express themselves creatively,” Keselman-Mekler said.
For one project, the campers each created a puzzle piece, which were connected to puzzle pieces made by older KleinLife members, many of whom were Soviet refugees, to create a collage.
The artwork the campers create reflects the trauma they’ve experienced: the loss of their pets, fathers and life as they knew it. But Keselman-Mekler has noted the resilience of the children, shown in their ability to relate to one another and bring color into their artwork.
“They do have that hope that the future is going to be better and brighter, that the war is going to be ending, that they’re going to be reunited with their families,” she said. “They’re so open to trying new things and having these experiences because their life basically was disrupted.”
“That’s one of the amazing things about working with kids is the resilience that they have shown,” she added. “I believe that that resilience is a huge part of the Ukrainian culture.”