Former Wilton historical director finds her way in Ukraine

After the 2016 presidential election, Leslie Nolan decided it was time for a break. At the time, she was the executive director of the Wilton Historical Society, but she was looking for something else. Something to do to help others.

Married, with her two grown children out of the house, Nolan found what she was looking for. She applied to the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the United States government where Americans provide technical assistance to communities while living abroad.

“It was a self-imposed sabbatical,” she told the Bulletin.

Nolan, who lives in Fairfield, was accepted by the Peace Corps and was assigned to a two-year work stint in Ukraine.

Recently returned, during her time in Ukraine, Nolan’s work focused on community development in the town of Nadvirna, a city situated at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, with a population of about 22,000, slightly bigger than Wilton’s.

Nolan’s work projects included teaching English, raising funds for and renovating a local teen library, creating a website for the city, cleaning a Jewish library that had books dating from the 1600s to 1941, and participating in a major clean-up of the Nadvirna Jewish Cemetery, including a fundraising effort for the installation of a fence. She also had time to work on a book of Ukrainian cooking.

“My time in Ukraine with the Peace Corps has renewed my passion for life,” Nolan said.

At the time of Nolan’s assignment, Ukraine was not embroiled in American politics. But it was embroiled then, as it is now, in disputes with Russia, including a territorial dispute over the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

Including Crimea, Ukraine would be the largest country entirely within Europe and the 46th largest country in the world. However, it suffers from a high poverty rate, fueled by a past history of political corruption. With extensive farmlands, Ukraine is one of the world’s largest grain exporters.

Prior to World War II, Nadvirna had a sizable Jewish population, but most of them were victims of the Nazi Holocaust and were killed at the Belzec Concentration Camp in Poland.

A monument to those victims was installed at the Nadvirna Jewish Cemetery, where Nolan worked.

When Nolan, who is not Jewish, first set foot in the cemetery, she saw it was overgrown, with memorial stones buried and covered with debris. She met with the local group of teens who had worked with her on the library project and they agreed to help clean the cemetery.

Through Nolan’s efforts, the German nonprofit organization ESJF European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative, and the Nadworna Shtetl Research Group were able to raise 30,000 euros to construct a fence around the cemetery.

For her work with the cemetery, Nolan was honored by former Nadvirna Mayor Zinovi Andriyovich, who gave her a certificate of appreciation for helping the city.

A taste of Ukraine

While Nolan was making headway on her Peace Corps work projects, she also found time to enjoy Ukraine’s culture, people, and its food.

“Ukraine is a beautiful country. There are the mountains, skiing, hiking, and the people love music. They work hard and they like to laugh,” she said.

But it’s been tough for Ukrainians, she said. “They have been betrayed over and over again, with the Soviet Union breathing down their necks all the time.”

The biggest problem the country faces is the economy, she said. “There are not a lot of jobs out there. The average salary is about $2,000 to $3,000 a year in Nadvirna. Almost every family has a member that works abroad to send money home,” she said.

A vegetarian, Nolan was impressed with the fresh vegetables, ripe tomatoes and zucchini growing in Nadvirna and the willingness of families to cook vegetarian meals for her.

She especially delighted in dishes prepared by Oksana Semegen, head of the organizational department at the Nadvirna City Council, and Maria Osipenko, who cooked lunches for her and other volunteers while they were cleaning the cemetery.

She was also impressed with Ukrainian cooking techniques. While watching Semegen make dumplings, Nolan noticed she didn’t use measuring cups or spoons, everything was measured by eye. The results, she said, were delicious. So Nolan took note and wrote down as many recipes from the women that she could piece together. “I got some wonderful recipes and would love to put them together in a Ukrainian vegetarian cookbook,” she said.

During her two years in Nadvirna, friends from America came to visit, including Pamela Hovland from Wilton.

Hovland said there was an incredible curiosity from Ukrainian people about America’s relationship with their country. She noticed how warmly Nolan was received throughout Nadvirna. “People would hear her name across the street and were happy to see her. Leslie had an impact on the people and their causes. She was a great ambassador of the U.S.,” she said.

Reflecting on her experience in Ukraine, Nolan is a strong advocate of volunteering with the Peace Corps, and encourages anyone who has an interest in living in another country and helping others, to do so, if their station in life will allow it. “I’m glad I did this when I was older and had more work experience and background behind me,” she said.

She doesn’t view the two years she spent apart from her family as a sacrifice. “I had been thinking about joining the Peace Corps since I was in my 20s. It was in the back of my head. I care deeply now about the people in Ukraine and want them to succeed. We all want to have a sense of purpose and can do it in a variety of ways. This was my way,” she said.