The U.S. government, through USAID, provided $12 billion in direct budget support to the Government of Ukraine in 2022, with more assistance planned for 2023. This funding has supported Ukraine’s government to provide basic public services including education, healthcare, and emergency services amid the devastation caused by Russia’s war. This includes helping pay the salaries of roughly 618,000 educators across Ukraine, such as the more than 3,000 educators in the city of Cherkasy, who, despite the war, continued teaching both local students and children displaced by Russia’s war.
No place in Ukraine is safe amid Russia’s continuing war, but the city of Cherkasy, a regional capital in central Ukraine, has largely been spared the intensive shelling that has ravaged much of the country. Cherkasy has become a refuge for many Ukrainians fleeing active combat zones in Ukraine’s east and south. According to local authorities, Cherkasy has become home to about 30,000 internally displaced persons since the start of the war, nearly 5,000 of whom are children.
This has strained public services in the city of nearly 300,000. Displaced families need shelter and supplies, as well as help finding employment and public services to integrate in their new communities. Their children also need to continue their education despite the traumatic wartime environment. That’s where local teachers and educators, aided by financial support from the American people, play a critical role.
Serhii Didenko is a school director who has taken on added responsibility during the war.
An educator with over 20 years of professional experience, Serhii Didenko has served as the director of Cherkasy Secondary School No. 29 since 2021. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, he had to take care of the entire school – students and staff.
“When the invasion began, I was shocked, but so was everyone. Half of the school employees were crying, the other half didn’t know what to do,” he recalls.
Serhii and his colleagues found their inner strength and resilience, motivated by the need to help others. They have continued to work throughout the war, in part due to USAID’s direct budget support to the Government of Ukraine. They are among 618,000 teachers and educators across Ukraine who have continued to receive their salaries with support from USAID, empowering them to continue serving their students and their communities.
As the only school in a residential neighborhood, Cherkasy Secondary School No. 29 turned out to be a perfect place for the local community to organize a volunteer center. At a time when Ukrainians of all stripes were finding ways to contribute to the country’s defense,
“the school slowly turned into a place where you could see people learning to [defend their] homeland by helping each other,” Serhii explains.
The school brought together adults and students, even though educational activities were stopped temporarily after the invasion.
“Although the children couldn’t study at the time, we still had to continue the educational and upbringing process by getting them involved in volunteer work. This helped them gain awareness and understanding of what Ukraine is fighting for [a sovereign, independent, and democratic future], and what is needed to win this fight,” the schoolmaster explains.
The children who joined the volunteer center helped weave camouflage nets to protect the country’s defenders, and drew pictures to inspire those serving on the frontlines.
Studies resumed on March 15, but everything had changed. Classes were conducted remotely, as they had been for much of the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike during the pandemic, the children faced more intense mental health challenges caused by the war: war-related anxiety and mood swings, uncertainty about the safety of their families and loved ones, and fears for their futures and that of Ukraine. These feelings were exacerbated by the loneliness of virtual studying amid constant news reports of the destruction caused by Russia’s military.
As more and more families fled active combat zones and areas occupied by Russia’s forces, Serhii and other school employees worked hard to integrate displaced children into the school’s educational processes.
“At the end of May, when they finished their studies, we held an in-person celebration for them to show that no matter where they came from, they are home because their home is Ukraine.”
Most students continue to attend classes virtually for safety reasons as parents have the option to choose the method of education for their children. As the war continues, many parents are afraid to send their children to attend classes on-site.
Serhii looks forward to the complete resumption of traditional studying. For him, it is at school where personality is formed:
“It is very important for children to go back to school. They must see that life goes on despite everything. Studying during the war is a challenge, but they must accept it to become stronger. They must be resilient because Ukraine is what they are.”