It already was a great story, even before I sat down with Rachel Story at her family’s rural Oregon home.
Girl joins the Peace Corps and serves in Ukraine, where she meets an adorable German shepherd puppy. Her heart sufficiently melted, girl carries puppy home. A few months later, girl is evacuated, only to return to the embattled nation to reclaim her new family member.
But then we sat down, and Story became so much more. Click here to listen to a podcast of the complete interview.
The gravel kicking from my tires seemed raucous compared to the serene scenery that greeted me. The Story home sits on several rolling, lush acres. To my left, horses grazed. At the end of the driveway stood the breathtaking home Rachel’s parents built from the ground up when she was little. Just outside the garage, I was received by two adult-yet-spry dogs. Then their newfound kid brother, Simba, bounded toward me.
“Nyet!” Story called, with a bold voice much bigger than her slight build, to her 9-month-old sweet but rambunctious puppy.
That was really all the introduction I needed.
Story gave me lots of background as I stood just inside the entrance, chicken-scratching notes. Then we sat down in the living room, where I turned my scratching to the “Yeah, that’s the spot” fur behind Simba’s ears.
Story, a 23-year-old with a degree from Robert Morris still warm from the printer, was to serve 27 months in Ukraine. But Russia’s tightening grip of Kiev forced the corps to evacuate its members in late February, just 1 year into their work. But in that time, Story had some remarkable first encounters.
There was the first time she saw Simba. She’d already set her heart on bringing home a stray from the sea of unclaimed pups that wandered the streets in Ukraine. She was out for a run when she spotted him, then just a few weeks old, under some trees.
“He was terrified,” she said.
So she carried him back to her tiny one-room apartment and, voila, she had family overseas.
While she did her best to Skype with her folks, a) to pacify her desire to see her family and b) to ease their concerns, considering the headlines Russia was generating on a daily basis, Simba was one of many whom Story met in Ukraine who quickly formed her new family.
That family got big fast when she walked into Eskra for the first time. A community development volunteer with the corps, Story found out after 3 months of training that she’d be working to enrich the lives of developmentally disabled youths. Think of Eskra as Ukraine’s answer to places like Kreider Services or Self Help, only with those outside holding a disregard for those inside that only the most ignorant Americans could achieve.
Story and her best friend, Olga, a Ukrainian journalism student, built a handicap-accessible outdoor workout gym, and put their hearts and souls into a grant that, when Story was evacuated, wasn’t finished. In fact, the tone of her voice softens, and its cadence becomes deliberate and calculated, as she laments having just purchased so many materials she’ll never get to use.
“We were really just about to get started with so many projects,” Story said. She was also about to teach another series of international economics courses at Donetsk National University.
But the grant has since been completed, and will offer the youth unprecedented opportunities that likely seemed impossible previously, considering the perception of the disabled in that area of the world. In short, they’re considered inferior. A burden. As such, they’re effectively hidden from society. Not given the chance to socialize with or, heaven forbid, play with other Ukrainian youths.
That’s why, when Story walked through the doors and saw the children’s reaction, her mission already felt accomplished.
“Their faces lit up when they saw an American,” she said.
It was toward the end of our conversation, my recorder rich with the proverbial gold it had panned from our chat, that Story shared the three goals of the corps: to train, to share the American culture, and to bring home the culture of those with whom the volunteer works.
There’s a beautiful reminder in those last two goals.
Integration is a two-way street
Yes, Story brought home an adorable new best friend. But as we spoke, it seemed the best things she brought home can’t be leashed.
That whole considering-the-disabled-inferior thing? On some level, Story understands. To serve in the corps, volunteers have to be pretty compassionate and sympathetic. Somewhere in the process of promoting integration, sympathy can morph into empathy as the volunteer, immersed in the culture, adopts the native values.
“You become the city you are living in, and the people you’re around,” Story said. “They still very much have the Soviet mentality. Their way of thinking is simply to survive, and that is so sad.
“They have never really been able to prosper. You understand why they seem so beaten down. Every time they see something positive happen, they just get knocked back down.”
That pragmatic worldview is juxtaposed against babushkas who invite you into their home for tea and long, endearing conversations. And 6-hour dinners, during which no one turns on the TV or lays a finger on a smartphone.
“Their sense of family and commitment is just amazing,” Story said. “Dinner is just quality time with each other. Those people’s relationships are incredible.
“I think I learned just as much from the people that I worked with as they learned from me.”
That’s why it comes as little surprise that, when she and her 13 fellow volunteers were consolidated, evacuated and put on administrative hold for 45 days, her heart remained in Ukraine.
The city of Donetsk, where she lived, was relatively at peace when she was evacuated. Not so anymore.
But Story was able to check in with Olga and her other loved ones overseas, including friends who took care of Simba until she could return. That was vital to her mental health.
See, Simba had to stay behind, as Story was allowed one check bag. Finally, on April 25, she booked a flight for the next day. While her Chicago flight’s delay saw her take an impromptu tour of European countries – and not the good kind of tour, but the multiple-layover kind – she had little issue bringing Simba home.
She had followed to the letter all the U.S. requirements for bringing home a foreign animal, even securing Simba’s passport.
Home at last, Story suddenly found herself back at work in a real estate office, thinking of the power of her work in Ukraine, missing her second family.
But Olga had finished the grant, and it was being executed, fulfilling Story’s hard work. Her integration had not only taken with the Ukrainians. They were running with it.
“The biggest success for me was that I was able to transfer those skills, and that they were confident enough to do it without me,” Story said. “That is the goal, ... to teach them that they can do it. I was only going to be there for 2 years, so they were eventually going to have to do it without me, anyway. That they can do it already is phenomenal.”
Don’t get her wrong. Story wishes she could have fulfilled her service. But nothing could replicate the impact she had on people who so badly needed someone’s impact.
So, maybe I should take that back. People like Story spend their lives looking for ways to replicate the good feeling of changing people’s lives for the better.
I can’t wait to hear where her story goes from here.