It's been nearly a year since Cassandra Taylor first heard about Russia’s despicable invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. Her first reaction was simple. "We’ve got to do something to help the people of my mother’s homeland." Cassandra is. local doctor, who goes by her married name of Taylor. "Czornyj is my family name and my mom has family in Ukraine. I have been to Ukraine before, so it takes on a personal level for me. That’s what got it started for me. Right away I reached out to Father Bohdan Winnicki, at the Ukrainian Church and said, ‘Let’s get a prayer vigil started.’"

From there, their efforts grew. "We knew anything we did would cost money, so we began fundraising. We had guessed that at some point people would probably be leaving Ukraine and so we started to make connections with people in that country." They started with a fundraiser where Sarnia residents could donate items that could be sent to Ukraine. With the help of Father Bohdan's connection and the church, they were able to move those items overseas. Then in April, the group hosted a “Pysanky and Perogy fundraiser” with the help of Cat Cajabar. The funds raised at this event supported incoming Ukrainian families, and helped introduce Ukrainian culture to Sarnia-Lambton residents.

Shortly afterward, the group began to make plans to bring Ukrainian families to Sarnia. Cassandra became the go-to person behind Sarnia’s effort to house families fleeing Ukraine. Cassandra, along with fellow Sarnia residents Tanyea Myers, Stephanie Czornyj, Carla Rankin Van-Horn, Lisa Maltovich, Rachel Philips, and Father Bohdan, spearheaded the city’s effort to help the people of Ukraine.

Far back Rachel Phillips. Left to Right: Carla Rankin, Lisa Matlovich, Cassandra Taylor, Father Bohdan Winnicki and Tanyea Myers. 

One of the first things they did was start a Save Ukraine Sarnia and Lambton County Facebook page. They also used the I Can Help app which is a place for people to go to donate money to the cause. “This is something I am passionate about,” Cassandra says. “We have created a group and there are a bunch of women that organize and oversee the group and fundraisers," Cassandra explains.

The group works alongside Father Bohdan at the church to build welcome baskets for all the families that arrive from Ukraine. Tanyea Myers looks after the baskets as well as helping the families get health cards. While Lisa Matlovich has taken on many roles. She currently arranges a buddy program for Sarnia-Lambton residents who want to help but can’t help by donating financial support or host a family. "Buddies can drive Ukraine families to their appointments. Every little bit helps. We have lots of people volunteering to do that.” Lisa was also a significant advocator for the families arriving. In addition to their work in fundraising, Carla Rankin and Rachel Phillips also vetted homes and paired hosts with Ukrainian families as well as supporting families once here.

Cassandra and her husband Greg and their son and daughter also did their part by taking in a mother and daughter who left Ukraine after the war started. “It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” Cassandra says. “They spoke English, but we still used the translator app when we needed to. It was amazing realizing what we have in our home for ourselves compared to what they had coming to a country where you don’t speak the language with just a suitcase while rehoming your children and putting them into a new school system with strange people that you do not know.”

Like Cassandra and the many active members of the Save Ukraine Sarnia and Lambton County Facebook Liana Smith of Bright’s Grove felt the need to help the people of Ukraine. However, just sending money wasn’t enough. “My roots are Ukrainian and Dutch,” Liana says. “When everything started happening in the winter, we were really upset and sort of had this helpless feeling. We were sending money and supplies, but you don’t see the results of that. My husband Kevin and I decided we needed to do more.”

The Smiths decided to take in a family from Ukraine and after connecting with Dr. Taylor, they were matched up with a family. Liana and her husband Kevin, along with their children Hudson, Layne, and Harlow, welcomed Dmytro Volodin and his wife Olena Volodina along with their children Yaroslav, and Anastasiia into their home. Their tickets to Canada were purchased through a local fundraising effort. “We emptied our small basement, sold our furniture, and got bunkbeds for the kids and a bed for mom and dad,” Liana says. “We set it up like it was a one-room landing pad for people and we were fortunate to receive lots of supplies from people in the community because they arrived with just four suitcases.”

The newcomers from Ukraine landed in Toronto in the middle of the night and Dave Smith was there to greet them while Liana and the kids waited at home. “It was so emotional as they came through the front door of our house,” Liana says. “We had to use translator apps to understand each other and they were so exhausted. The mom spoke basic English, but the kids and dad did not speak English at all.”

Dmytro, Olena, and the kids settled in after a while. “After what happened to their home and their lives, it makes sense that it would take a while for them to feel safe,” Liana says. “We have a doorbell camera, so when someone comes to the door, a little noise goes off in the kitchen. We were out of the house when it went off and they thought it was an air raid alarm. When they arrived they didn’t trust the police or teachers because there is so much corruption in Ukraine. We had to convince them it is not like that in Canada. They did a lot of cooking and eventually, you could tell they were growing comfortable.”

Liana takes particular pride in doing something that is a bit of a family tradition. “On the Dutch side of my family, my grandmother was a prisoner of war during World War II,” Liana says. “Her dad was part of the Dutch underground helping Jewish families escape and that ultimately led to his death and my grandma going to jail. After she was released from jail, she continued to take people into her home. That was our family story and we felt it was our turn to help others.”

Dmytro, who has a job, Olena, and the kids have since moved into their own apartment but the two families remain very close.

Paulina Dillon of Sarnia also felt a calling when she reached out to assist a Ukrainian family. “I was born in Poland, very close to the Ukraine border, so this war on Ukraine is very personal to me,” Paulina says. Like the Smiths, Paulina and her husband Brian contacted Cassandra who put them in touch with a woman and her two children. The family continues to live with the Dillons, while the husband remains in Ukraine fighting the Russian invaders. The Dillons are thrilled to be helping their visitors. “Oh my gosh, it is incredible,” Paulina gushes. “I love it. I will cry my eyes out when the day comes that they leave our home. As much as we are helping them, they bring so much joy to our lives.”

In addition to opening her home, Paulina has spearheaded a fundraising effort, selling sunflowers, that netted nearly $10,000 that was donated to help those still in Ukraine. “We sent some to a friend who lives in Poland and he used the money to bring busloads of people to his country and out of Ukraine. At one point, he had 14 families living in his home! We also donated to local organizations that are helping people and we gave some to the Canadian Red Cross for their efforts in Ukraine and along the Polish border.”

It's Paulina's hope that her efforts won’t go unnoticed by other Canadians and may in fact influence others to consider supporting this cause. “As the war wages on, people will continue to come to Canada that don’t have host families,” Paulina says. “I would really love to see people open their homes and their hearts to people who really, really need the help.”

While it's been almost a year since that first vigil was held by Cassandra and Father Bohdan the Save Ukraine Sarnia group continues to go out of its way to make the people from Ukraine feel comfortable in their new surroundings. Tanyea Myers and Niki Nauta hosted a Christmas party and dinner where every child received a Christmas gift. The group also arranged for Ukraine families to gather following Sunday church services to socialize. Building community and connection amongst the Ukrainians and Sarnia-Lambton residents remain at the forefront of their efforts.

Cassandra will continue to do whatever she can to help the people of Ukraine as the war continues into a second year. “It still upsets me when I think that this is still going on,” Cassandra says. “That in 2023, people still think war is an answer for resolving whatever issues may be taking place. It still blows my mind that in this day and age, war is still acceptable. Common sense goes right out the window."