PEPPER PIKE, Ohio — As the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches the one year mark this Friday, an eighth-grade class in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine is bonding with students in a classroom in Pepper Pike.
The Ukrainian Bila Tserkva Lyceum of Foreign Languages (School #9) is participating in monthly virtual meetups with a social studies class at Brady Middle School within the Orange City School District.
“I teach American history but often times when you're looking at American history, you're looking at world history,” says Brady Social Studies Teacher Samantha Schaedler. “This was an opportunity to bring the world into the classroom.”
The meetings are an educational initiative under the recently formed nonprofit Urgent. Alex Toporovskiy is the organization’s director. He lived in Ukraine until he was 12 years old before moving to Israel with his parents. Toporovskiy came to the United States in 2014 and his son Amit is a student in Schaedler’s class.
Toporovskiy and Schaedler have organized two virtual meetups so far. The first was at the end of January where the Orange Facebook page says students “exchanged greetings, compared an average school day, and even sang the song "We are The World" together.”
They held the second virtual exchange in mid-February. Toporovskiy traveled to Ukraine for this meetup, where students from School #9 had to participate from a shelter room because of air raids.
“Unfortunately, this is a shelter room which is kind of normal here. However, it is not normal,” Toporovskiy said to his son’s classroom in Orange while he was in the shelter room with the Ukrainian class and their teachers. “It is not normal, and this is not the normal reality that I hope that very soon will disappear from this country.”
“I don't think I would be able to keep smiling and acting like everything is fine if I was there,” says Toporovskiy 13-year-old son Amit. “They're strong.”
Although Amit never lived in Ukraine like his dad, he is part of the school’s Ukrainian Culture Club Schaedler started. She formed the club in part to support students from Ukraine enrolled in Orange Schools. There are fifteen students enrolled in the district from the eastern European country. Three of the fifteen students are at the middle school.
13-year-old Ihor Nepomniashchyi, also a student in Schaedler’s social studies class, has only been in the U.S. for six months. His father and older brother are still in Ukraine fighting in the war. When asked how he was feeling, Nepomniashchyi said through an interpreter that he was “sad and upset.” He says these virtual meetups with the Ukrainian school helps.
At the February meet-up, the two classes exchanged gifts, letters and made Valentine’s Day cards together.
Schaedler believes these meetups will leave a permanent impression with students.
“When they leave the classroom, they look back at this and they're like 'wow, that was really powerful and that was really something special and we, even though we're teenagers can play a role in doing something great like that too.’”
Toporovskiy and Schaedler are planning the next virtual exchange to take place in early March, where students will discuss the history of the Ukrainian Easter Egg.