How Repair Together NGO Turn a Volunteer Cleanup Into a Party

For the second year in a row, Repair Together NGO continue to rebuild war-ravaged communities in the Chernihiv Oblast. Volunteers get so inspired due to the incredible atmosphere created by the NGO  leadership, and appreciate the opportunity to literally put their hands to rebuilding Ukraine. Their engagements are full of surprises and even parties in unexpected places.

In 2022, right after the de-occupation of the Chernihiv Oblast, a team of volunteers gathered their friends and went to the badly affected community to offer their help. Later, friends of friends began to join, and then everyone else. This is how the special format of Rave Toloka, or Rave Cleanup, was born, combining DJ sets with the dismantling of the rubble amidst the war-destroyed houses.

This year, thanks to participation in the Spilnodiia Program, the Repair Together team was able to significantly expand its activities and strengthen the community of volunteers. This season, volunteers cleaned nine villages in five communities, and works are currently underway on nine construction sites. “We were able to scale up thanks to our stability. Last year, we had no understanding of finances and opportunities, so we had to take breaks,” says Viktoriia Afanasieva, co-founder of Repair Together NGO. “This season, we managed to hold cleanups almost weekly, over the past three months. Now we are already announcing cleanups for the whole month in advance, so people can choose convenient dates and register in advance through a chatbot.

This was made possible thanks to the Spilnodiia Program, which is implemented by East Europe Foundation in partnership with the Ukrainian Independent Center for Political Research and the Together Against Corruption nongovernmental organization with funds from the EU. With the grant funds, activists purchased the necessary equipment for the field kitchen and music gadgets to hold  cultural evenings. As the community expanded and grew stronger, many of the volunteers began to engage in construction as well. Repair Together launched an international construction camp for the first time, which is now working on an ongoing basis. “You definitely need to have the relevant training and knowledge. Yet volunteers can be involved to help fix roof trusses, or mix concrete. Our advantage is that a lot of people work together to quickly move something from one place to another to get things done on the construction site,” says Viktoriia.

Gratitude for Work

According to Viktoriia, many people join the project thanks to cultural events. After a day’s work, volunteers always have a gift waiting for them – an artist’s performance, movie screening, or dancing. “So it turns out that people invite their friends to go with them to a concert of their favorite artist, and they end up doing a cleanup at the same time. And so instead of just one volunteer, a group of friends takes part in our events.”

Social events serve as a thank you to the volunteers for their hard work. We want people to know that they didn’t just come to work, instead, they have to get something in return. The Repair Together team provides a sense of community, new acquaintances, and amazing experience to the project participants. The co-founder recalls an old Ukrainian tradition of toloka, or a volunteer cleanup: “Once upon a time, the owner would hire musicians and give people treats for their hard work. In our case, we’re talking about 200-300 volunteers. Considering that the owners of destroyed houses can’t affod that, we, as an organization, take over this function and continue the tradition of the volunteer cleanup.”

Crowbar and Shovel Therapy

Thanks to all these cleanup highlights, volunteers come back again. Sofiia Vozniak came for the first time on Midsummer weekend and still recalls the impressions she got at the Kupala volunteer cleanup: “It was something incredible when we jumped over the fire. Almost everyone was wearing embroidered shirts, a cool ethnic band was playing… I came back 10 times after that and eventually joined a core team.” Each time she is pleasantly surprised by something: a rave in a barn or a saxophonist in a field on a trailer.

Sofiia calls the cleanup “crowbar and shovel therapy.” She likes the fact that the physical labor helps people recover, especially those who have lost everything as a result of the Russian war. Furthermore, it is an opportunity to feel better, to see that life goes on even during the war. Over the course of more than 10 volunteer cleanups, Sofiia has learned a lot about herself: “I was such a city kid, and here it turned out that I can break a wall with a crowbar, lay gas blocks, and process wood.”

In 2023, Lilia Klunko took part in the cleanups 10 times. Lilya learned about Repair Together last year, but was hesitant to join herself. She was motivated by a friend, a “veteran of volunteer work,” as she calls him: “We exchanged a few words, and he convinced me that if I wanted to, I should try. And now I go to every cleanup.” Chernihiv Oblast is her native region, so it is of particular significance for Lilia to participate in rebuilding the affected communities there. A special discovery regarding the volunteer cleanup for the girl was the fact that the artists who come to give a concert take part in the cleanup, too, just like all other project participants: “When I was a child, I used to divide all the people into “stars” and ordinary individuals. Here, this stereotype has been shattered, everyone is there for each other.”

Lilya is not going to stop her participation in Repair Together initiatives this winter, and has already bought special Do-It-Yourself winter clothes. Co-founder Victoria, in turn, says that during winter, her organization will expore other possibilities for expanding its activities. Due to safety considerations, construction will continue in the Chernihiv Oblast, but in 2024, the team is eager to start volunteer cleanups in Kharkiv, Sumy, and Kherson Oblasts.