Every day while she was living in Ukraine, Deborah McLaughlin woke up in her small apartment in a Soviet-style concrete building and walked to the Izmail University of Liberal Arts, where she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching classes on small-business management and giving the occasional English lesson. In her spare time she visited the local bazaar, buying fresh vegetables to practice cooking various new dishes like borscht, okrashka and varenky.
All that changed in late February. McLaughlin was then nine months into her 27-month assignment with the Peace Corps when she and the organization’s roughly 200 volunteers in Ukraine received notice that they were to be evacuated from the country, due to the growing political unrest.
“We watched the news but we really didn’t anticipate anything happening like what happened,” McLaughlin said.
She returned to Frisco two weeks ago, caught up in the whirlwind of the sudden chain of events in Ukraine, international travel, debriefing in Washington, D.C., and uncertainty over what will happen next.
Wanting to give back
A native of Nebraska, McLaughlin has lived in Summit County for the past 25 years. Constant childhood visits to the mountains eventually translated into a desire to live there permanently, and she’s not alone. One sister also resides in Summit County and the other lives nearby in Denver. McLaughlin’s love of the area passed on to her children — Ryan Murray, who lives in Breckenridge, and Shannon Murray, who owns Shoe Inn Boutique in Frisco.
McLaughlin holds a degree in English from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and enjoys writing in her spare time. During her career, she did food marketing for a variety of national retailers, such as Safeway and Kroger. Although she was based in Summit County, she traveled out of Denver nearly every week to locations across the country to run a variety of programs, such as a cooking school for ShopRite in New York and New Jersey.
“It was a good job,” she said, but after 17 years, she decided that she wanted to do something new and different. That something, she decided, would be the Peace Corps.
“I did a lot of volunteer work here in Summit County, and … it was a very rewarding experience,” she said. She spent quite a bit of time with the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District, maintaining and patrolling trails, planting trees and other activities.
“I wanted to do something to give back, and the Peace Corps is an interesting option because you can live in a different country representing the U.S. You’re almost an ambassador.”
McLaughlin had done her fair share of traveling before applying to the Peace Corps, including several trips to Africa and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, but she had never lived abroad and was eager to give it a try.
Although Peace Corps volunteers can request certain positions, they are ultimately handed their assignments and it’s not always one that was on their list. Such was the case with McLaughlin. She’d been taking Spanish classes at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge and had also included Africa on her list, so when she saw that they were sending her to Ukraine, she was surprised, but she accepted the position.
Though McLaughlin is in the minority when it comes to age — she is 64, and the average participant, according to the organization’s website, is 28, with 8 percent of volunteers over 50 — that wasn’t a concern for her, she said.
“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage to be older, because when I want to my assignment, I could hit the ground running because I’ve been in business so long, and I think some of the younger people who were just out of school didn’t know what to do for a while,” she said with a laugh. “It was fine, and I’m healthy. I live in Summit County, so I can do anything anyway.”
Living and working abroad
McLaughlin spent last summer living with a Ukrainian host family in the small country town of Chernihiv, where she and a group of other volunteers studied Russian.
“We would meet every morning and we would have language all day every day,” she said. “It was intense. It would be so exhausting at the end of the day.”
McLaughlin bonded with her host family, which consisted of parents and three young children, to whom she taught English in her spare time. After three months of orientation was up, she was assigned to work in Izmail, a city on the Danube River in southern Ukraine. She worked with the Ukrainian Foundation for Entrepreneurial Support, a nonprofit government-funded organization.
In addition to doing business presentations at the university, McLaughlin worked on a handful of other projects, the largest of which was related to HIV/AIDS education.
“Ukraine has the highest incidents of HIV-positive people in Europe by far, so it’s a real problem,” McLaughlin said. The project she worked with involved training university, medical and vocational students, and culminated in a film festival in which several international films were shown – “Philadelphia” and “Crisis Control,” a documentary on HIV/AIDS — as well as films that the students made themselves after the training.
“It was just really interesting and the participation with the students was phenomenal,” she said.
Unfortunately, as McLaughlin and her Peace Corps counterparts became more ingrained in their projects and the surrounding culture, the political situation in Ukraine worsened, to the point where the organization decided to bring them back to America.
“When it became violent, then we had to watch (the news) more closely, and the Peace Corps put us on what they called ‘stand fast,’ which means you can’t leave your site. We had to stay where we were, and that means you also need to be prepared to leave your site at a moment’s notice, so we had to have a suitcase packed.”
At the end of February, the volunteers received word it was time to go, and that same day traveled together to the airport to fly out. They were also not allowed to let their Ukrainian counterparts know they were leaving.
“We also couldn’t say goodbye, which was really hard,” McLaughlin said.
The evacuation went smoothly, she said, and she has been in contact with her Ukrainian friends since returning. Now, all she can do is wait. If Ukraine hasn’t opened back up to the Peace Corps by April 14, she and the other volunteers will have the choice of finishing their service early, or transferring to a new assignment, which would re-start their 27-month contracts.
While she waits for news, McLaughlin is enjoying being back in Frisco, sharing aspects of her time in Ukraine, from her cooking skills to the jewelry and dolls she brought back, handmade by artists she met there.
Looking back, she said she’s proud of the work she was able to do in Ukraine, from the projects to simple, friendly interactions with the Ukrainian people.
“If you influence somebody positively about us, you’ve done your job,” she said.