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Young Ukrainians volunteer to clean up destroyed homes — and try to make it fun

Repair Together volunteers dance to music in Anysiv, Ukraine, after a day of cleaning up destroyed homes in nearby Kolychivka on Oct 1. The after-party took place in a theater damaged by shelling. Repair Together is a Ukrainian volunteer initiative that organizes young people to travel to and clean up sites damaged by Russian strikes.
Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers dance to music in Anysiv, Ukraine, after a day of cleaning up destroyed homes in nearby Kolychivka on Oct 1. The after-party took place in a theater damaged by shelling. Repair Together is a Ukrainian volunteer initiative that organizes young people to travel to and clean up sites damaged by Russian strikes.

KOLYCHIVKA, Ukraine — Hanna Yurchenko carries a basketful of apples, freshly picked from the trees next door. It's a drizzly afternoon on one of the first cool days of fall.

The 66-year-old walks around the perimeter of what was once her home — reduced to the foundation by multiple rocket hits on March 7 — and hands out apples to workers shoveling the debris into metal buckets.

"I'm retired, and I can't do this cleanup myself," she says, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm just so grateful for these kids."

Repair Together volunteers clean up the home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka, Ukraine.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers clean up the home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka, Ukraine.
"I'm retired, and I can't do this cleanup myself," says Hanna Yurchenko, 66. "I'm just so grateful for these kids." Yurchenko's home was destroyed by a Russian strike.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
"I'm retired, and I can't do this cleanup myself," says Hanna Yurchenko, 66. "I'm just so grateful for these kids." Yurchenko's home was destroyed by a Russian strike.

The "kids" she refers to are a dozen 20- and 30-somethings clearing rubble. It's a grim setting, but the mood is light: Techno music blasts from a Bluetooth speaker and people dance and laugh as they work.

They volunteer for Repair Together, a large network of friends who raise money to bring busloads of young people from around Ukraine to destroyed villages, to help people clean up their homes.

Organizers say another aim is to restore a sense of community after seven months of war.

Today, they're in Kolychivka, a village near the northern city of Chernihiv, which Russia bombarded early in the war.

Roman Tarasiuk, 27, dances atop a trailer parked out front as he empties buckets of debris to be hauled away. He worked for a major educational company in Kyiv but lost his job when the war started.

"Volunteering in Ukraine, it's become a way of our everyday life. We all just want to feel useful," he says.

Roman Tarasiuk, 27, helps clean up the destroyed home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Roman Tarasiuk, 27, helps clean up the destroyed home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
A portable speaker and an extension cord rest on a heater in the rubble of a home in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
A portable speaker and an extension cord rest on a heater in the rubble of a home in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.

Viktoria Sitovska, 20, sways to the music and shovels nearby. She was born in Ukraine and goes to school in Germany. Since the war began, she's traveled back to Ukraine on school breaks to help.

She says the festive atmosphere is necessary.

"Right now, we all feel anger and a lot of destructive emotions. Listening to music keeps us balanced, so we can keep working," she says.

The cleanup events were born out of that idea. A few friends got together to help out in a different village earlier this spring. But there were so many places that needed help that they invited other friends, who invited more friends. Now, organizers say thousands of volunteers have helped out at the events.

"The scale of destruction is just so huge," says Marina Hrebinna, 34, one of the organizers. It can be easy to become overwhelmed by it all, she says. The group tries to focus on what's possible, on the difference they can make to individual people in individual villages.

"We're not builders, yeah? We're just normal people," says Marina Hrebinna, one of the organizers of Repair Together, in Kolychivka. "But we have our bodies, we have our arms, we have our health."
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
"We're not builders, yeah? We're just normal people," says Marina Hrebinna, one of the organizers of Repair Together, in Kolychivka. "But we have our bodies, we have our arms, we have our health."
Repair Together volunteers work to clean up the home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers work to clean up the home of Hanna Yurchenko in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.

Like the six houses they are cleaning up today.

"We're not builders, yeah? We're just normal people," she says with a shrug. "But we have our bodies, we have our arms, we have our health."

And they try to make it memorable, usually camping nearby. They work through weekends and hold dance parties at night to blow off steam after days of hard, emotional work.

Repair Together volunteers break for lunch  in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers break for lunch in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
Volunteers drink beer and dance to a song by The Lonely Island comedy group at the end of the day in Kolychivka.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Volunteers drink beer and dance to a song by The Lonely Island comedy group at the end of the day in Kolychivka.
Volunteers put down sleeping pads in a school gym where they will sleep for the night in Anysiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Volunteers put down sleeping pads in a school gym where they will sleep for the night in Anysiv, Ukraine, on Oct. 1.

"Some people say, come on, you can't have fun, it's a war! But I say, we're doing something good. Why can't we also have fun?" Hrebinna asks.

Down the street, a boombox perched on the foundation of a destroyed home blasts Ukrainian pop music. Two young people throw bricks to one another, stacking them as they go.

Tetiana Vereshchahina shovels alongside the volunteers. This was her family's house.

"This was all a surprise," she says with a laugh, referring to the volunteer effort. "I didn't know about any of it!"

Tetiana Vereshchahina and her daughter Anastasiia, 9, stand next to a destroyed home owned by their family in Kolychivka.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Tetiana Vereshchahina and her daughter Anastasiia, 9, stand next to a destroyed home owned by their family in Kolychivka.
Volunteers from Repair Together work at the destroyed home of the Vereshchahina family in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Volunteers from Repair Together work at the destroyed home of the Vereshchahina family in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.

Vereshchahina says she asked local authorities if she could borrow a trailer to haul away debris. Instead, she found out that a whole team was coming to help.

Her nine-year-old daughter Anastasiia jumps around and dances nearby. She's been making tea for the volunteers, to help them keep warm.

Volunteer Liza Kochubei is helping Vereshchahina shovel, joking as they work. Kochubei says just because she's out here laughing today doesn't mean she doesn't pay attention to the news.

Liza Kochubei, 26, works to clean up a home belonging to the family of Tetiana Vereshchahina in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Liza Kochubei, 26, works to clean up a home belonging to the family of Tetiana Vereshchahina in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.

"There are seven days a week — five of those days we read the news, and get really sad. And two days a week, we gather together and get distracted by work," she says.

A short walk away, past cows grazing by the road, 60-year-old Kateryna Yurchenko (no relation to Hanna Yurchenko) keeps watch over her destroyed property, where more young volunteers are packing up at the end of the day.

Repair Together volunteers work to clean up the destroyed home of Kateryna Yurchenko in Kolychivka.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers work to clean up the destroyed home of Kateryna Yurchenko in Kolychivka.

She was born in this house and lived here all her life. Cleaning it up has been too emotionally difficult to do alone. She says this group of workers finished in one day what would have taken her months — even if their music isn't for her.

"They are young and they like music, so I don't mind," she says. "But honestly ... I don't have any music in my soul right now."

She pauses, thinking, and then continues: "You know what, though? The music is much better than the bombs."

As she talks, a sunset fills the horizon — bright pink, orange, purple. It bounces off the gold-domed church next door and is reflected in the nearby stream.

Repair Together volunteers photograph a church as the sun sets in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Repair Together volunteers photograph a church as the sun sets in Kolychivka on Oct. 1.
Kateryna Yurchenko, 60, stands near what remains of her lifelong home as volunteers work to clean it up in Kolychivka, seven months after it was destroyed on March 9.
/ Pete Kiehart for NPR
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Pete Kiehart for NPR
Kateryna Yurchenko, 60, stands near what remains of her lifelong home as volunteers work to clean it up in Kolychivka, seven months after it was destroyed on March 9.

A few volunteers pause their packing to take selfies, then continue stacking equipment.

She thanks them. They wave and head down the dirt road, the Bluetooth speaker still blasting. They turn a corner, and the music fades. The village is quiet again.

Yurchenko walks over and stands in what was once her kitchen. Now, she says, she just needs help to rebuild.

Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this report from Kolychivka.

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