Solution 10:05 05 Jun 2023

"What, in face of grief, but love?”: Summer camp heals the psychic wounds of war

Gen.Camp is a psychological rehabilitation camp for children offering three weeks in the Carpathian mountain with psychologists, skill-building activities, and a friendly, safe environment where talking about pain is not shameful. Rubryka looked into the work of the initiative.


What is the problem?


The number of children who have suffered from the military aggression of the Russian Federation is increasing every day. Some of them lost their parents in the shelling, and some even witnessed how Russians murdered their loved ones before their very eyes. Today, thousands of Ukrainian children are living with traumatic war experiences and need psychological rehabilitation.

What is the solution?

Gen.Ukrainian was born as a project  of like-minded people and philanthropists, united to help the children of Ukraine. The initiative's mission is to help  children who have faced the horrors of war in overcoming psychological trauma. In the summer of 2022, Gen.Ukrainian launched the Gen.Camp project — a camp for the psychological rehabilitation of children. For the second year in a row, the camp organizers, employees, and therapists are doing everything they can so that war-traumatized children can smile, talk and feel happy again.

How does it work?
"It is necessary to restore the future now"


Ukrainian children have lived with trauma for most or all of their lives, since war began in 2014 Photo: Gen.Camp

Gen.Camp project began with the realization that the full-scale war Ukrainians live through has severe traumatic consequences for mental health, which must be dealt with now, says Oksana Lebedeva, the founder of Gen.Ukrainian.

"For some time after the de-occupation of the Kyiv region, I was under the strong impression and shock of the horrors that became known," says Lebedeva. "I asked myself: how to live with this further and whether there is a way to survive it. Then I thought about children and how traumatic the described events are for children's mental health."

Lebedeva realized she wanted to help children go on after what they had seen to have a future without traumatic psychological consequences.

Gen.Camp is a health and educational summer camp, the main offline project of the Gen.Ukrainian NGO. The project is implemented with the support of the Olena Zelenska Foundation, and participation in the camp is free of charge to families, as Ukrainian patrons sponsor rehabilitation.

дитячий табір Gen.Camp

Children who have experienced war trauma need rehabilitation. Photo: Gen.Camp

The program was developed by the Ukrainian psychotherapist Oksana Shlionska, who has more than 30 years of experience. Ukrainian specialists are also involved in the formation of the program, which includes individual and group therapy, as well as work with parents and guardians. After all, it is essential to properly prepare the adults responsible for the child for their return from rehabilitation. The child returns to a traumatized environment, and adults must have at least a minimal competence to prevent regression.

Overcoming not only trauma, but also the stigmas around it


Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

In 2022, Gen.Camp took place in Spain, where 60 children were rehabilitated in two sessions.

As Lebedeva admits, it was not easy at first to gather the children in the newly created camp. Some parents and guardians were afraid to let their children go,  due to prevailing  views around psychological help that carry a stigma of shame. Now that two sessions of the camp have already passed, and there are examples of transformations among children, adults send children to the camp with more and more trust.

The process for attending the summer camp is selective. Parents apply via  the Gen.Ukrainian website, and staff follows up with the candidates. Volunteers, organizations, foundations, ministries, and the National Police also make referrals. Some people even approach the project's creators to refer children who need help and support. Moreover, parents often  recommend the camp to other parents of war-affected children.

At times there are so many applications for participation in the camp that it can no longer accept everyone willing, because adequate conditions and quality assistance for the children requires both material and professional resources.

"We have thousands of applications that we process every day. And the only filter we have is primary assistance to children who are experiencing loss, who have witnessed war crimes," says the project's founder.

In 2023, not two, but five or six sessions are planned at Gen.Camp. This year the camp is based in the Ukrainian Carpathians. In April, 50 children and teenagers from different parts of Ukraine came to the Carpathians, where they underwent rehabilitation for three weeks.

Healing Carpathians

реабілітаційний табір для дітей

Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

It was not for nothing that the organizers chose the most secure and picturesque location for the camp because nature also becomes therapy for children. Here an atmosphere of comfort and trust was created for Ukrainian children on their own land. Everything looks like an ordinary children's summer camp — only the children, unfortunately, have deep trauma.

This year, the camp expanded the age range of participants to also work with teenagers,  who faced war, loss of loved ones, and the milestones of adolescence, all while going through puberty.

All this trauma at the age of 12 to 16 can be terrifying, says Lebedeva, so a special program was created for teenagers. It includes career guidance, meetings with professionals in their field like artists, singers, bloggers, police officers, doctors, and IT workers. Of course, the camp also has a lot of sports, reading at night with night rituals and interesting innovations — for example, playing music and classes with a DJ.

табір Gen.Camp

Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

While rehabilitation is the camp's core goal, the children should not perceive it that way – and this information is aimed primarily at adults. But it isn't necessary for parents to view it through a lens of mental health – they may simply see it as an opportunity for their children to travel, socialize and relax in summer after living through traumatic events.

Protect with love

психологічна реабілітація для українських дітей

Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

Every child has a different story , but what is common is that they have lived through trauma. Some of them witnessed war crimes, fled their home towns in cars while being shot at by Russians troops, or saw their homes crumbling before their eyes. Sometimes their parents died in their arms.

The founder of the project recalls one child from Bucha whose father was killed, and the boy was shot in the hand and head. Fortunately, he survived.

"We know about this terrible crime. Today the child is learning to live with this, feels deep guilt, and we must help him," Lebedeva shares.

At the last session, there was a child in the camp whose whole family was killed by Russians who shot into the gas tank with fuel. The child's father, mother, and uncle were burned before his eyes.

The stories of the people of Mariupol were no less difficult. Eight-year-old Margot lost nearly her entire family in one day. On March 8, 2022 they were planning to leave through the green evacuation corridor. The whole family gathered at the grandmother's private housebecause they believed private houses would be safer during shelling. A shell flew in at five in the morning, and the entire family was killed: grandparents, nephews, cousins, brothers, and sisters. Only Margot and her mother survived, recovering in a hospital under Russian fire for three days without food or water, while Margot waited for her mother to regain consciousness after significant blood loss.

There were also children from Mariupol in the camp whose father was wounded and whose mother was killed while trying to bring him painkillers. Children aged four and ten remained in the apartment alone. For a week, they ate only cookies and drank water from radiators.

Children also have a hard time coping with the death of parents who were in the military. Sometimes, children can blame themselves, and some feel anger at their them for leaving them to defend the country.

"In the future, we will face the fact that there will be a lot of different stories and misunderstandings related to this in society. The children already have questions about themselves and their loved ones and unmotivated aggression because they are experiencing such grief," says Lebedeva.

літні табори для дітей

Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

During the first session of Gen.Camp, the project team realized that existing programs were not designed for the depth of trauma that Ukrainian children have experienced, and that the program needed to be developed anew to consider the Ukrainian mentality, and culture. By the second session of the camp, Ukrainian specialists had developed a new program they called  "Protected by Love".

"After all, love is greater than death," Lebedeva is convinced. "Cognitive-behavioral therapy and symbol drama, an effective method of psychotherapy based on the analysis of images, the work of the imagination, and art-therapeutic elements, are scientifically proven therapy directions, are also about love since any therapy is about it."

Even more useful solutions!

табір для дітей в Карпатах

Illustrative photo. Photo: Gen.Camp

The activity of Gen.Ukrainian is focused on helping children in every way available. In addition to working at Gen.Camp, they also support children after the camp and help those who, for various reasons, do not make it to the camp — by conducting consultations. Individual attention is paid to scientific activity.

The project itself continues to develop. According to  Lebedeva, Gen is a story where you don't move the project, but the project moves you.

One of their programs, called 'Continuity,' works to understand individuals' needs over the long term and recommend them to different options based on their needs. "We need to watch the kids for a certain amount of time to ensure they're okay," Lebedeva continues.

Next, the project hopes to take individual elements that are currently developing in general education programs and scale this experience. After all, according to a preliminary analysis, after the war, four million children will need special assistance. It is extremely difficult to determine the degree of children's trauma, and it should be done only by a specialist.

Lebedeva adds that children who have not suffered any losses may also be just as traumatized. According to her, Ukraine will start to  become a safe environment after war when every person  knows what trauma is, and how to work toward post-traumatic growth, not post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

допомога дітям, які пережили окупацію

Oksana Lebedeva is the founder of Gen.Ukrainian

"This project is also a real personal therapy for me," shares Lebedeva. "People imagine spiritual development while sitting in Bali, but growth, as life shows, happens through sweat and tears. For me, as for many, the only way not to despair of what is happening is to act."

Lebedeva recalls that on the day of the start of the camp's third session, she saw a child fall to the floor because a glass fell. After a few weeks, this behavior stopped.. "It makes me feel really good. We measure this terrible time with the opportunity to help those who feel bad, really bad — and children are my personal Achilles heel, so I concentrate and focus on it, I see results, I get a lot of energy from it, and I am ready to invest it further and then to children".


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