Cooking for a cause: Fundraiser held to support Ukraine

Jessica Geis/Herald Contributor Olha Stronchak with her husband, Serhii Stronchak and 17-year-old son Mykyta Stroncha pose at a fundraiser held for Ukraine at St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church last Friday night.

Jessica Gies

Herald contributor

It was once a “very beautiful” small city, about the same size as Prince Albert, surrounded by trees and filled with families of Ukrainians.

Tragically, after its recent Russian occupation, most of Olha Stronchak’s home of Izium was destroyed.

“It’s my hometown in my memory only,” said Stronchak, taking a break from serving supper at a fundraiser last Friday, held at St. George Ukranian Catholic Church.

The Ukrainian woman immigrated to Prince Albert last June with her husband, Serhii Stronchak, and her son, 17-year-old Mykyta Stronchak, hoping to build a new and meaningful life.

In Izium, located near Ukraine’s border with Russia, Olha and her family witnessed first-hand the horrors of war.

“We lived without light, water…we (drank) water from (the) river,” she said.

Jessica Geis/Herald Contributor Trofymchuk (left) with Olha Stronchak (right), serving up food at a fundraiser for Ukraine last Friday night.

Curfews kept the family inside from dusk until dawn, hiding in rooms with no doors or windows as bombs dropped outside. Food and medicine were in critical shortage. Olha witnessed people being taken hostage by Russian forces. Others, she said, were baited by promises of food provision only to be executed.

When bombing and shelling quieted down, the family would use candlelight to prepare what food they had, cooking over a fire.

After five months of occupation, the family felt forced to flee Izium, heading by boat from Russia, traveling through eastern Europe to Germany, where they awaited their Canadian immigration.

Arriving to the relative safety of Prince Albert last June, the Stronchak family is adjusting well and feels welcomed.

“It’s very friendly,” Olha said. “I like my co-workers. I like people in this community.”

At the fundraiser, Olha was among a kitchenful of cooks and servers, feeding the dozens gathered in the church hall perogies, corn, ham, scalloped potatoes and desserts. Their work helped to raise money which will be sent to Ukraine for much-needed military defensive aid.

When asked why she would volunteer to serve, Olha explained that bringing happiness to others fulfills her.

“It’s very necessary for me in my heart,” she said, adding that in the future, she may also try teaching some of her handicraft skills to local residents, adding more value to the community.

Working at kitchen and housekeeping duties at Mont St. Joseph Home, Olha is earning hours towards permanent residency status. From there, she hopes to bring her mother to Canada, having no choice but to leave her behind in Ukraine.

Jessica Geis/Herald Contributor Joe Olesko smiles as he holds up his portion of the food served up for $30 per plate at St. George Ukranian Catholic Church last Friday night.

There is no plan to ever return to Izium, where the terrors Olha witnessed would only haunt her, forcing her to relive the trauma of knowing innocent people, including children, have been needlessly killed.

Patrons of the fundraiser realized the gravity of what Ukrainians have endured, eager to help the country’s cause.

Cherise Arnesen, who has Ukrainian heritage, was in the takeout line after enjoying her dine-in meal, maximizing her opportunity to donate.

“I can’t imagine the bravery it takes to leave your country when it is embattled and embroiled in conflict,” she said, calling the Ukrainian immigrants in her community “gracious,” and “hard-working,” appearing “unflappable” in the face of what their homeland is enduring.

“They have my endless admiration,” Arnesen said, adding that she was full and satisfied from the “phenomenal” food prepared Friday.

“I would encourage my fellow Prince Albert people to come out in droves and show their support at the next fundraiser,” she said.

For Terry and Karen Halcro, coming out to enjoy the food including the “exceptionally good” ham was a was a way of showing solidarity with the Ukraine.

“Everyone doing a little big makes a big difference,” Terry said, adding that Canadians shouldn’t just stand by while Russia invades.

Volunteer Mariya Firman was helping sell litres of “borshch,” as it’s known to Ukrainians, along with perogies and honey to boost fundraising proceeds. “Everyone’s happy to support us,” she said.

“We are not there, but we are with Ukraine,” she added.

Taras Kachkowski, an organizer for Friday’s fundraiser, said most of the women cooking and serving at the event had recently emigrated from Ukraine. Other volunteers from Prince Albert, including himself, were on hand to help the event run smoothly.

A Canadian with Ukrainian heritage, Kachkowski feels a strong tie to the country, understanding the language and having relatives still living in the western region of the country.

“I think Ukrainians around the world not only here in P.A. but everywhere just feel like we need to do something,” Kachkowsi said, adding that aid shortages motivated volunteers to help fill in funding gaps.

“As long as the war continues, we feel like we want to do our part and help,” he said.

It was the fourth food fundraiser in Prince Albert benefiting Ukraine since conflict in the country escalated into full-scale war, now more than two years ago.

Of the 300 tickets available Friday, more than 200 sold in advance, with the remainder selling quickly throughout the evening. By the end of the event, at least $7,200 had been raised for the Ukrainian cause.

Though the next fundraiser has not yet been announced, Kachkowski encourages those who would like to donate now to direct funds to organizations such as Come Back Alive or the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, among other charities supporting Ukraine.