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Benefield: Friendship built decades ago sparks partnership in time of war

How to help

Donations are being collected to support the procurement of medical supplies for hospitals in Cherkasy. To donate, go to santarosarotary.com/ukrainian-aid/

Checks can be mailed to Rotary Club of Santa Rosa P.O. Box 505, Santa Rosa, California 95402. Checks need to be made out to Rotary Club of Santa Rosa, noting Ukraine on memo field.

Natasha and Leonid Lashchenko did not want to leave Ukraine.

For decades — their entire professional careers — the two doctors were deeply involved in Ruska Polyana, a children’s sanitarium near Cherkasy, Ukraine, that for decades has provided full health care for some of the area’s most impoverished children.

Leonid Lashchenko is the sanitarium’s director. Natasha Lashchenko is a pediatrician.

“My dad has been running the sanitarium for the last 30-35 years. It’s been his life,” the Lashchenko’s daughter, Katya Lashchenko Chen, said.

She and her sister Leanna, who now both make their homes in the Bay Area, were deeply relieved when their parents decided to leave Ukraine less than two weeks ago.

The Lashchenkos had been living mostly in a bomb shelter. When the daughters would call, cell service often couldn’t penetrate the shelter.

It was a harrowing time.

“They are still recovering from all the trauma,” Chen said. “It was a long and very dangerous journey. They don’t really want to talk much about it. They didn’t really want to leave.”

They felt guilty. Ukraine is their home. Their friends and family members remain.

“It’s very difficult because Ukrainian people, especially in the last 30 years, they grew very patriotic,” Chen said. “So people are actually not afraid, they are not scared. They want to do the right thing, they want to protect their land. There are stories of courage. They really want to win and they believe that we will win, it’s just at what cost?”

The cost for the Lashchenkos is already clear: They had to leave not only their home, but their life’s work at Ruska Polyana behind.

It could be argued that in some ways, though, leaving Ukraine will allow them to help more people than staying. At least for the time being.

Before they left, both were desperate to make sure scores of children living and getting care at the sanitarium were not only safe, but returned to their families.

When that was done, they each packed one carry-on suitcase and drove toward Poland.

‘They completely opened their hearts’

The Lashchenkos have deep ties to Sonoma County and Santa Rosa in particular. It’s a connection that goes back decades.

Sonoma County is believed to be the only county in America with three sister cities in Ukraine: Santa Rosa and Cherkasy, Sebastopol and Chihirin, and Sonoma with Kaniv.

At the time of the establishment of the sister city partnership between Santa Rosa and Cherkasy, the Lashchenkos regularly hosted Santa Rosa travelers.

Curt Groninga, the now-retired former vice president at Santa Rosa Junior College, was part of one trip that sent local ambassadors to Ukraine. He didn’t stay with the Lashchenkos but made a lasting connection with them.

“At some point, I’m not quite certain when or how I was approached, but Leonid and Natasha basically asked me, would I be interested in bringing the two girls to Santa Rosa and get them involved in higher education in the United States?” he said.

From a leader at the junior college, the answer was a resounding yes.

Katya and Leana Laschenko became Santa Rosa Junior College Bear Cubs in the early aughts, and a deep friendship between families living 6,000 miles apart was born.

“It was the first time my sister and I left our parents,” Chen said. “Curt and his family were so helpful. I didn’t have a car, I couldn’t afford a car, but Curt helped me with the commute, helped me with the cost of the text books, free room and board. They completely opened their hearts and house to us.”

The Groninga’s even took the Lashchenkos on family vacations, Chen said.

“Now that I’m grown, I know not everybody would do that,” she said.

And in the years that followed, Groninga’s appreciation for the work the Lashchenko’s do for children in Ukraine has only grown.

Groninga uses the word heroic to describe the work.

And the resolve, despite some medical issues of their own, that the Lashchenkos’ showed in staying in their war-torn country until every child was re-connected with family was moving, he said.

A FaceTime call before the Lashchenkos decided to leave was harrowing, Groninga said.

“They were under a lot of duress,” he said. “It was very emotional, that’s all I can tell you.”

“Looks like a war zone list’

But now that the Lashckenkos are staying in Alameda with their daughter, Leana Tarvin, the work that was started in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, has picked up steam.

Leonid Lashckenko is in regular contact with his colleagues in the Rotary Club Cherkasy, linking their efforts with those of local Rotary clubs to send support in the form of both money and supplies.

Groninga, a long time former member of Rotary Club of Santa Rosa is, working to spread the word among other area Rotary clubs and the general public as to the need on the ground. He regularly posts updates on Facebook.

The efforts involve sending funds director from Rotary Club of Santa Rosa to the Cherkasy Ukraine Rotary Club for distribution to the Cherkasy Regional Hospital and to smaller medical facilities within nearby villages, he said.

The partnership between Rotary Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa — East West has raised $27,000 thus far, according to Groninga.

He said the list of supplies needed is harrowing.

“The list looks like a war zone list,” he said. “It’s all emergency medical supplies, bandages, everything you can imagine as it relates to trauma produced by war.”

And these days Chen spends much of her time as a translator and quasi business manager for the coordination.

“My full time job is translating between multiple parties,” she said.

The situation on the ground in Ukraine is ever-changing, as are the needs of those who have stayed to fight and care for others, said.

“It’s all the correspondence,” she said. “It’s a great purpose and I’m glad to do it. My dad, he didn’t bring his iPad or laptop. He has his phone.”

“They feel guilty that they are safe and that family and neighbors are still there,” she said.

So they continue to work for those who remain in Ukraine.

This wasn’t what Groninga envisioned when he got involved with the sister city program more than two decades ago.

But Groninga sounds grateful that connections built so long ago can reap real rewards in a time of so much tragedy.

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

Have a story that is wild, wacky, bizarre or beautiful? Tell me about it. Have a question that starts with, “What’s the deal with…?” Let’s figure it out together. This column is about the story behind the story, a place to shine a light on who we are, what makes us a community and all of the things that make us special. With your help, I'll be tackling the questions that vex us: (the funny, the mundane, and the irritating.)

How to help

Donations are being collected to support the procurement of medical supplies for hospitals in Cherkasy. To donate, go to santarosarotary.com/ukrainian-aid/

Checks can be mailed to Rotary Club of Santa Rosa P.O. Box 505, Santa Rosa, California 95402. Checks need to be made out to Rotary Club of Santa Rosa, noting Ukraine on memo field.

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