Barrington Lions Club President Cat Horn (left) and Past President Doreen Burgers (center) award the 2023 scholarship to Helena DeFanti
Essay (250-500 words). Reflect on your community service experiences and accomplishments. Why is community service important to you and how has your life been touched and shaped by these experiences?
I stare at the split Zoom screens on my computer. My bedroom’s walls, cluttered with grotesquely non-compatible colors and posters, stand in direct contrast to her bare background. My outgoing audio is ceaselessly filled with chatter, yet all of what I hear from Sofiia’s end is her thickly accented voice cutting through the apprehensive quiet of a grim town. I am here to teach her English, but she has provided me with much greater lessons.
I have been volunteering with the ENGin program since the summer of 2021, where I was paired with Sofiia Kvasnikevych, a teenage girl living just outside Lviv, Ukraine. Initially, my English lessons came secondary to our conversations: we often gossiped over books and shared music. Our commonalities provided comfort while our cultural nuances created a bond, and we quickly became friends.
However, when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, my naivety that our lives were similar was shattered. We were still the same 16 year old girls, but we were now living in completely different worlds. I was moving through each day while Sofiia was stagnant; huddled in emergency shelters. I watched on my classroom’s TV the same missiles streaking through her sky.
Sofiia was a face to all that I had read and watched about the Ukraine war. She personified the statistics. In my limited world I could not conceive her fear, her uncertainty, her loss. Nothing in my test scores or transcript hinted at the words necessary to comfort her in times of desperation, whether it be the loss of a peer or her inability to afford to flee her town. I may have been school smart, but I was nowhere near worldly.
I entered my first meeting as Sofiia’s mentor, but in the wake of the war I have become a student, exposed to cruel realities I had only ever experienced through a textbook. I am steadily learning how to scale the cultural wall that sometimes slows our weekly conversations. I have learned to acknowledge the dark in a situation before immediately seeking the light. I’ve stopped glossing over hardship or remaining unrealistically optimistic because it soothed my own fear for her well-being. Now, I try to listen instead of speak. Not all problems have a solution, or rather, one that I can offer, and all that I can be is a friend, a confidant, a girl from a different world that will always care.
I volunteer weekly at a nonprofit; I’ve organized book drives, sewn masks and worked in soup kitchens, but I have learned the most in teaching Sofiia. I have so much more to learn and experience, cultures to become immersed in and new conversations to have. And to do this, I will continue to volunteer. I plan to join the Peace Corps after I finish my schooling, a dream that is best accomplished with the necessary global awareness gained from an undergraduate education, a dream that I ask the help of the Barrington Lions Scholarship to help me achieve.