Uman City Coat of Arms Uman , Sister City of Davis Davis, California

A 12-step meeting comes to Uman, Ukraine

September, 2003
By Elisabeth Sherwin
Enterprise staff writer gizmo@

A certain percent of the population in Uman, Ukraine, suffers from addiction to drugs and alcohol, just like a percentage of the population in its American sister city of Davis.

Nationally, the drug and alcohol abuse rate in the United States is about 10 percent and is probably no lower in Ukraine.

Dr Oleskiy Leschenko and Maynard Skinner.In 2000, Dr. Oleskiy Leschenko, a public health doctor in Uman, said he had no effective way to combat these addictions.

The doctor's modest clinic is a little run-down by Western standards but the city is making a commitment to help drug addicts and alcoholics.

Leschenko said treatment at his clinic consisted of talk therapy and some drugs, but the results were not particularly encouraging.

Leschenko said he was familiar with 12-step programs, which have gained some popularity in larger cities throughout the former Soviet republics. But he was not convinced that this program, which stresses the need for a spiritual awakening and personal responsibility, would be effective.

"If I held a meeting," he said three years ago, "no one would come."

The Uman-Davis Sisters Cities Project in Davis then invited the doctor to come to the United States and find out what treatment consists of in Yolo County.

It took several years, but in June Leschenko became the first drug and alcohol specialist to visit Davis from Uman.

For one week he was taken to visit clinics, hospitals and recovery homes in Davis, Woodland and Sacramento and met doctors, social workers and alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery.

After meeting with Fred Heacock, deputy director of the Yolo County Department of Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services, Leschenko said the social problems faced by both Davis and Uman are similar.

"There are a lot of good things to learn in America that can be applied to Ukraine," he said, speaking through an interpreter, Val Zdorovenin of Sacramento.

Leschenko offered his Uman clinic as the meeting place for his city's first 12-step meeting devoted to recovery from alcoholism.

A notice appeared in Uman's local newspaper and the meeting, open to the public, was held early in August.

In the intervening month, Leschenko contacted a group in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, and received advice on how a 12-step meeting should be run. When the meeting began at 6 p.m. on Aug. 6, the clinic held more than 30 people including several couples, older women, and single men of varying ages. Many of the men were the doctor's patients from the clinic. One common language was silently spoken in that room: Misery.

No one looked up. No one said hello. People were fidgeting nervously.

But when the five guests from Kiev began to describe what it was like to be a helpless drunk and what happened to change that lifestyle, the audience paid rapt attention. For two hours the visitors from Kiev described their experience, strength and hope in terms that seem to make a difference to the people who were listening.

Finally, a break was called. The meeting newcomers seemed to have cheered up considerably. No one was laughing and smiling, but it no longer looked like a mass suicide was the only option.

Later, the doctor described his patients' reaction to the meeting.

"They liked it very much," Leschenko said. "They told me no one every talked to them that way before. No one ever told them that they have an illness and it's not their fault."

Leschenko's patients decided they would like to hold daily 12-step meetings. Later, they decided to hold a meeting once a week. At last notice, a weekly 12-step meeting was taking place every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in Leschenko's clinic in Uman.

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