Nevertheless, She Persisted

I did this interview at the end of January while visiting my hometown of Kostyantynivka, Ukraine. I discovered Natalka Sosnytska by the means of the almighty Instagram. Her enchanting photos, the fact that she lived in my hometown AND was a native Ukrainian speaker just kind of blew me away. I followed her stuff for a hot minute (fangirled a little too). One morning she posted something about opening up a Free Space in Kostyantynivka and how challenging but rewarding working on that project was. A free space is kind of like a university of nontraditional studies, a place where you can come and listen to a lecture on project management or enjoy a night of board games. Basically a Mecca of progressive-thinking humans that was missing from my little town.

Natalka grew up in a Ukrainian-speaking family, a rarity in Kostyantynivka. After graduating high school she packed up and decided to start her college adventure in Kyiv. At the end of 2012 she came back to our hometown to help out her parents with their businesses and her little sister that was just born. You see, both of her parents are entrepreneurs which led to Natalka opening up her own store as well. When 2014 rolled around and the war happened, things were gloomy, especially for the people who are Ukrainian speakers and are well-known around town. Threats kept piling in, their businesses were robbed. Two cars were stolen as well. Natalka’s parents had to move from Kostyantynivka. The businesses had to be divided between Kostyantynivka and Kyiv. Natalka had no choice but to stay here and take care of what was left.

“My whole life I wanted to build some sort of art school for children, not something soviet and strict but rather something modern, where kids can learn about modern art. Last year when I returned to Kostyantynivka I saw that there is a giant need for unity. The youth did not have access to any opportunities. When the road to Donetsk was closed [an occupied city about 30 miles from my hometown - edit] the alternative that our youth was left with was literally to do nothing. Unless your family could afford to take you to Kyiv or somewhere to travel there weren’t any opportunities here in this town”.

Last summer Natalka met another badass girl and their journey to opening up their own space started. Sofiya Pylypenko was no stranger to social work and community development. She singlehandedly wrote a project directed on beautifying one of the parks in our town. She successfully got funding. She was 14 at a time.

These two wonderful women, who didn’t seem to have much in common, were united by a selfless dream: creating a better place for the youth in their hometown. Even writing this is making me misty-eyed. In my small politically divided town creating something like this is not only difficult - it is flat out dangerous.

The first event they organized together was a salsa lesson in the park with a little dance at night. Instead of a ‘few strangers’ that the girls thought would show up - over 300 people participated. The town clearly was thirsty for young progressive energy and Natalka and Sofiya were ready to give it to them. They followed up the event with a movie in the park and again, hundreds showed up. After this people did not only hear about these ladies - they eagerly helped.

Having all of these ideas for events and trainings required something bigger than a park in the city. “We agreed on the same thing: we wanted to have some kind of space where we can implement all of our stupid, sometimes awesome, ideas, work on them, touch them up, polish those diamonds of ideas a bit and release them to the public”. Looking for a space to create all of this was not easy without any budget for leasing. However, that didn’t stop Natalka. This girl walked into our Deputy Mayor’s office and demanded he listen to her. This girl, who is naturally shy when she meets new people had guts to insist he listens to her. This girl, dagainst bureaucracy and all odds talked the Deputy Mayor into giving them a space for free. The groundwork was completed.

Then came sleepless nights of writing grant proposals and trying to figure out the budget, the concept, and the gist. The Lviv Education Foundation and USAID came to the rescue and granted Natalka the finances to open up a free space in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine.

The grand opening of ‘Druzi (Friends). Free Space’ happened in January and Andrew and I were lucky enough to witness it. Natalka and her team were excited, nervous, and hopeful. Judging by how many people showed up for the opening I knew that this is going to be a success. Students, moms and dads, teachers, social workers, poets, journalists - it seemed like everyone wanted to be a part of the opening and was eager to help in any way possible. Druzi did not get all the funding before their opening date and did so much more work after we left. When you are around those people you feel like there is nothing that you can’t do. Their laughs, their ideas, and their attitudes are infectious. They are the future.

I want to thank each and every volunteer who helped Druzi and Natalka. Some of them do not even know how big of a movement and change they are creating and how completely mesmerizing it is to watch them take their future by the horns. You can learn more about Druzi on their website You can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
If you would like to drop by and write a couple of nice words to Natalka herself you can follow her Instagram here.

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