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West Van's Irwin Park school sells bracelets for Ukraine

Irwin Park Elementary students sold their blue and yellow beadwork with proceeds going to humanitarian aid in the war-torn country. Two refugee families have kids at the school.

It was a weeks-long journey to get into Canada from Ukraine after the war broke out. But now Kate Panchenko and her two children are safe, and she’s grateful for all the support she’s received since arriving.

Just over a month ago, her kids started going to school at West Vancouver’s Irwin Park Elementary, which held a bracelet sale on Friday (May 6) with proceeds going to Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Appeal via Canadian Red Cross.

It started Feb. 24, when Russia invaded her country. But Panchenko didn’t want to leave her husband, as most men 18-60 years old aren’t allowed to leave.

During that time, her sister – who’s lived in Vancouver for around 20 years – was trying to convince her otherwise.

“She was always on the phone with me, and she was crying, 'Leave the country and come to me,’” Panchenko said.

So they gathered their backpacks and left home in Odesa for nearby Moldova. The traffic was so bad that she had to travel several kilometres with the children on foot.

It took another half day to get their passports processed before getting into Moldova, where they spent three days before moving to Romania. Once there, they waited another two weeks to get their visas, and then travelled to Canada.

They now live in a house with another family of five, with their three children also going to Irwin Park.

It’s a lot, Panchenko said, but the children are happy because they have companions to play with.

Her kids – six-year-old Yarick in Grade 1 and 10-year-old Anastasiia in Grade 4 – are enjoying school too.

“My children didn’t know English at all, but now they have lessons and the school supports us.”

And the language barrier hasn’t stopped them from making new friends. The boys at school like playing soccer with Panchenko’s son. “They always call him to the field.”

She doesn’t understand how the children communicate, but they do it very quickly.

“They are happy. They don’t cry. They don’t say, ‘I don’t want to go – I don’t understand anything,’” Panchenko continued. “They wake up in the morning, and they are happy to visit the school.”

The bracelet-making project was thought up by another mom at the school, Amy Jungmi Hwang.

After Panchenko arrived, Hwang messaged her, saying the two should meet. When they got together, Hwang said she wanted to organize this event.

Hwang, like many others, is shocked that such a conflict could be happening today.

“There’s nothing we can really do to stop the war,” she said. “But at least, we need to find something that we can do, we and the children can do together to just make the world a little better.”

So Hwang brought the idea to the school, and students made 350 bracelets over four days. In just 40 minutes on Friday, sales of the beaded bands reached $720. Irwin Park raised an additional $1,400 for Ukraine at a raffle in April.

When Hwang’s daughter, Serena Sua Shin – who’s eight and in Yarick’s Grade 1 class – found out she was getting a new classmate, she made him a letter with “welcome” written in Ukrainian.

School vice-principal Laine Anderson said support for the new families has been multi-faceted. It’s come in the form of anonymous grocery card donations, social connections, “And most powerfully with our Grade 1 families coming together to learn about Ukraine and create the beautiful bracelets as a fundraiser.”

Panchenko said she’s grateful for the bracelet sale.

“It’s a huge [amount of] work, a huge encouragement for me, for my children. I appreciate it very much.”

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