When Maple Grove native Abby Anderson, then 17, decided to earn a little extra cash by lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons through the Maple Grove Community Center, little did she know that she was setting in motion a passion that would take her halfway across the world.
Anderson, a 2007 graduate of Maple Grove High School, has been serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine since September 2010. She lives in eastern Ukraine, in a town similar in size to Maple Grove. Officially, her role as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to teach English, American literature and American cultural studies to elementary through high school students. But unofficially, her teaching extends far beyond the walls of the traditional classroom. Anderson spends her evenings, weekends, and summers working with kids who are living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
“Ukraine has the highest rate of HIV infection in Europe,” says Anderson. The physical ramifications of life with HIV are staggering, but Anderson says that the social stigma and discrimination that accompanies any association with the disease can be equally devastating, especially for kids and teens.
Anderson has a heart for supporting those who face the disease, as well as desire to break down the stereotypes associated with HIV, so she has spent the last two years working with two HIV training projects. The first is a summer camp with a holistic philosophy; through medical and psychological sessions, art therapy, leadership sessions, and team building activities, kids find support in all forms.
“This camp is the one thing that keeps them going throughout the year,” says Anderson. She describes the camp as a place where kids feel respected, encouraged, and able to relax. As co-director of the camp, Anderson is charged with fundraising and managing volunteers, in addition to working with the kids.
During the school year, Anderson is heavily involved with health education in local schools & orphanages via after school clubs. She describes this as a “training of the trainers.” She works hard to make her programming accessible to kids—for example, sponsoring a dance competition that will bring kids in the doors—so that her message can be heard. Through education and HIV awareness sessions, kids begin to let go of their preconceived notions about the disease and those affected by it. As barriers are broken down and opinions changed, Anderson believes that the social climate of Ukraine can change.
“I’m not going to see all the fruit of my labor while I’m in Ukraine,” says Anderson. But the work that she and others are doing “…spurs kids on, keeps them fighting. So we’re going to keep doing this.”
Anderson credits her hometown with many of the skills she now utilizes on a daily basis. After spending her high school and college summers teaching swimming lessons in Maple Grove, Anderson knew she wanted to find a job that would allow her to help kids, and perhaps even kids in another part of the world. Today she’s thankful that she developed teaching and leadership skills from the hours and hours she spent working with kids at the Maple Grove swimming pools. She is particularly glad that she gained experience working with children with special needs; Anderson works with many children who come from orphanages, many of whom have special needs, in addition to living with HIV infection, and she draws on her early teaching experiences to best help these kids.
“I’ve always enjoyed working with children,” she says of her early years as an employee of the City of Maple Grove and of her current job in Ukraine.
This past fall, Anderson committed to an additional 13 months in the Peace Corps, so she will remain in Ukraine until January of 2014. She is enthusiastic about continuing the work she has begun.
“Living here has taught me that you take what you have and do the absolute best you can [with it],” she says. “I’m very blessed to be here, very happy to be here.”