Elementary school community rallies in support of Ukraine

Dozens of students, parents and teachers at Columbus Elementary School in Ukrainian Village waved flags and hoisted signs in support for the Ukrainian community in an after-school rally Thursday.

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Students rally to support Ukrainian families outside of Columbus Elementary School in Ukrainian Village, Thursday.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

In Ukrainian Village on Thursday, a single tear rolled down Christina Gumenyak’s cheek.

Christina, 12, a sixth-grader at Columbus Elementary School, 1003 N. Leavitt St., joined her mother as dozens of classmates, parents and teachers waved flags and hoisted signs in support of the Ukrainian community in an after-school rally Thursday.

“I have my grandma, two uncles, a couple of friends in Ukraine. And my aunt,” Christina said. “It’s very scary.”

Christina Gumenyak, left, and her mom, Oksana Ostapenko cried as they discussed Ukraine at Columbus Elementary School on Thursday.

Christina Gumenyak, left, and her mom, Oksana Ostapenko cried as they discussed Ukraine at Columbus Elementary School on Thursday.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

“No words,” Christina’s mom, Oksana Ostapenko, said, also with tears in her eyes. “It’s very, very terrible. I am worried. I am sad. I am… I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. I am, from morning to night, watching TV. And cry. Cry about Ukraine. I hope we can win, and everything will be fine... Thank you, everyone who helps us... We are a small country, but we are strong.”

Attendees waved the Ukrainian flag alongside Mexican, Puerto Rican and American flags, showing solidarity.

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“We are a big family,” said Robin Vallejo, a teacher’s assistant who has worked at the school for more than 40 years. “We treat all nations, all nationalities like they’re our own kids, our own family, and we stand by them. This is the time for unity, and this is time for everybody to join in.”

Vallejo is Puerto Rican but born and raised in the Ukrainian Village. She said she does her best to be there for the young children she teaches, but sometimes feels helpless. In one small show of support, Vallejo decorated the school yard with blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“This is really hard. Especially to know that there are children dying over there. We wish we could do more. But we do what we can,” Vallejo said emotionally, gesturing to the decorations.

Students rally to support Ukrainian families outside of the Columbus Elementary School, 1003 N. Leavitt St.

Students rally to support Ukrainian families outside of the Columbus Elementary School, 1003 N. Leavitt St.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

The school’s support has meant everything to Romana Labazevych, also a teacher’s assistant. Labazevych said she and her daughter, Iryna, 29, a Columbus alum, moved from Lviv, in western Ukraine, nearly 20 years ago, leaving behind her mother.

“She’s 87, and she lives by herself, so we are pretty worried for her,” said Iryna. “But we’re trying to remain hopeful and pray.”

Seventh-grader Danylo Germak remained defiant against Russia. He sported a shirt with traditional embroidery and spoke to the crowd.

“We will not simply stand aside,” Danylo said. “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”

Danylo was born in Ukraine and came to the U.S. in 2016. His father, a doctor, is still in Ukraine, and is being forced to fight to defend Ukraine in the army, Danylo said. While he tries to speak with his father as often as he can, he’s not always sure when he’ll be able to hear his dad’s voice next.

Students hold up posters with the Ukrainian and U.S. flags as Wendy Garr-Oleksy, the school’s principal, speaks to the crowd.

Students hold up posters with the Ukrainian and U.S. flags as Wendy Garr-Oleksy, the school’s principal, speaks to the crowd.

Anthony Vázquez/Sun-Times

“We all hope that this unrest ends very soon,” Principal Wendy Garr-Oleksy said. “We hope that our families receive news that their families are safe, and that Ukraine has remained the democratic nation that it is. We stand with Ukraine and the rest of the world in condemning [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the senseless use of violence.”

The group took a march around the block as passing cars honked in support. As the group finished, a single blue balloon floated to the sky.


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