Maria Dovzhyk, head of Veterans' Space in Vinnytsia
When developing veteran policies, the state should cooperate more with the public sector
16.08.2023 14:07

Three years ago, Vinnytsia opened its own Veterans' Space, one of 21 that are currently operating in Ukraine. The idea for its creation came from several non-governmental organizations that in one way or another helped the military, volunteered, acted in the interests of veterans, and united into a union. The city provided it with premises on the first floor of a multi-storey building in the center of Vinnytsia, covered the cost of staffing, and provided every assistance. "We are also working on attracting funds from international organizations and foundations," says Maria Dovzhyk, head of the veterans' center. Next, we will tell you how the center helps the parents of heroes to cope with the pain of loss, puts our defenders back on their feet, and even takes care of their legal problems.

- Ms. Dovzhyk, how do you work? How can you be useful?

- At least by the fact that a professional rehabilitation therapist works here in a properly equipped office. It is not about treatment, but about physical recovery. We also provide the necessary procedures at the place of residence of clients with limited mobility, including those disabled as a result of the war. And it is incredibly satisfying when veterans no longer need such services at home and are able to come to the Veteran's Space!

We also practice consultations with a psychologist who works with the children of our veterans and fallen heroes. Several psychologists work with adults, both individually and in support groups - for wives and parents of the fallen, and those who are waiting for their loved ones to return from the war. Veterans are the most likely to use individual counseling. We also employ lawyers who provide legal advice, including remote consultations, which is in demand. We organize many different events such as board games, excursions, and art therapy, particularly for children.

Last year, we initiated the first six-day psychological retreat [the so-called spiritual seminars or periods of solitude for self-improvement] for 20 parents of fallen defenders. The City Council provided half of the funds needed for the event, the rest of the funding came from the resources of our partners. Based on the results of the retreat, we can hold a twice as large seminar in the fall, and the city will also join in. People trust us because if we come up with an idea, we implement it and show results. These activities are effective and solve the problems of the city's veteran community.

- What else have you managed to implement?

- First of all, the union is a co-developer of the city's program to support defenders, family members of fallen heroes and missing persons. We are proud of this. We are also proud of the fact that thanks to the retreats, we manage to restore the mental state of these people. As a result, we have the first formed community of fathers and mothers of fallen soldiers who regularly gather here to talk, share news and thoughts, and experiences. Or, to weave a protective camouflage net for the front with prayer, or to draw and discuss important topics with a psychologist. We will develop this technique of collaboration further, because through communication these people will be able to return to society. It is a way to experience deeply individual pain and understand how to deal with this story. And at the same time, to realize that they are not alone in their tragedy, they have someone to support them and show them a model of a full life. This way, there is a chance that they will emerge strong and motivated after suffering terrible and irreparable losses.

- That is, the union of families who have already experienced frontline tragedies can take a kind of "patronage" over those who have just plunged into this state of acute pain and anxiety?

- Such care helps to emotionally pull grieving people to a certain stabilization and comprehension. It means that we are able to successfully create circles of empathy, trust and support. The veterans' space is also called a prayerful place, or a place of strength. Our regular support groups for those who are waiting for their loved ones to return from the war also have their effect. We were among the first to launch this format in Vinnytsia.

- How do those in need of support find the space?

We are proactive, and word of mouth also works well. Because if you come somewhere and feel good there, you don't keep quiet about it. You tell people with similar needs. Of course, we are active on social media, we have a website, we even have a representative office in TikTok, and we keep in touch with veterans and families of fallen heroes and missing persons. And we will not just wait for people to come to us. We are constantly working to improve our presence in the public space and inform the audience about the services we provide, which are free of charge.

- Tell us a little bit about your team.

We have almost no people who are not involved in the war and no veterans. Our first director returned to the front, he fought before. Our social manager also fought, and he is with us now. Among the team members are relatives of fallen defenders. I also came here for a reason. Since 2014, I have been volunteering at the hospital, supporting the wounded. It was there that I met my future husband.  He is a combatant and is currently fighting the occupiers.

Even before the full-scale invasion, we were one of the few organizations that trained civilians to defend Ukraine. On February 23, 2022, we just finished a combat course for 150 people. We held 5 theoretical classes and one practical one at the training ground. And the next day we knew what to do when we learned about the Russian attack in the morning. And all those who were trained here, as well as professional soldiers, could be clearly distinguished in the crowd. They calmly walked with their pre-prepared backpacks to the place where people who know what they will do in the war go.

I remember that time fondly, because it brought a lot of good people to us, despite all the pain and horror. It was easier for them here: they were sorting through a lot of volunteers, because all our spaces - offices and corridors - were filled with help. Thanks to our caring partners, we sent more than 60 stoves alone...

In a few months, we gradually returned to our statutory activities to build up our capacity. In particular, we opened an office of the Commissioner for Persons Missing in Special Circumstances. I am his representative. People searching for their loved ones in Veterans' Space not only receive advice from a representative of the commissioner's office, but also receive comprehensive support. We are currently preparing to move to a new building adapted to modern requirements in terms of inclusiveness. It is larger and designed specifically for the needs of our people.

- What are the statistics of veterans' appeals to you in terms of priority problems?

- Veterans apply mainly for social support and secondary legal aid, many come with issues related to the passage of the military medical commission, Medical and Social Expert Commission (MSEC) and treatment, and obtaining the status of combatant. We have also signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Pension Fund - its specialists conduct information events on employment and starting a business. I would also like to note that we have organized a local platform to develop opportunities and help start a veteran business in the form of training and funding from our partners. We are developing additional areas, inviting veteran entrepreneurs to discuss and share their experiences.

In general, I believe that the state should cooperate much more with the public sector when developing veteran policies and initiatives. After all, it is a huge force that should not be perceived as a competitor, because it can be a great partner, support and tool for implementing initiatives and feedback.

Hennadiy Karpiuk

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