Thursday, February 24, 2022, was a day that shook Ukraine and the world, sparking a myriad of stories including one that connects Easton to Sviatohirsk, Ukraine, another small farming town 4,915 miles away.

Central to this story is Katya Wauchope, who was born in a small town in Southwest Russia near the eastern border of Ukraine. She now dedicates her working life to helping the victims of Russia’s aggression through Ukraine Aid International, where she is director of development.

Katya’s young mother, Svetlana, was divorced when Katya was a baby. Her father lived in the same town in Russia, but the only time she remembers seeing him was at a court hearing.

Katya Wauchope. Contributed photo

Through determination, Svetlana was able to realize her dream of leaving Russia. In 2001, she emigrated to the United States with Katya, then 16, and settled in Haddam, Connecticut with her new American husband. Katya helped her mom negotiate the English-speaking world, as immigrants’ children often do. Along the way, despite having been reluctant to leave her life and friends in Russia, Katya made friends and began to embrace and love the American way of life.

“I became all American,” she says. “I remember having fights with my mom over Halloween pumpkins.” Teenage Katya wanted to incorporate all of the American traditions, while Svetlana wondered, “Why go to trouble and expense to put vegetables on our porch?”

Twenty years later, as part of her passion to build a full, meaningful life, Katya reached out to her father. It was important that she convey to him her success; in spite of his absence, she was making it. At the same time she was looking for an answer to her lifelong question: How had he been all right with leaving her to grow up fatherless?

The journey they began through Zoom is yet another casualty of the Russia/Ukraine War. Katya was beginning to forgive, if not really understand her father’s behavior, but when she called him in tears, asking if it were really true that Russia was invading its neighbor, he stopped her.

“Katya,” he said, “Don’t be so naive. Don’t you know there are Nazis in Ukraine?” No matter what she said to him — that she had access to information from all over the world and that what he was saying was false — her father was unmoved. His responses boiled down to, “Your TV is lying to you.” In his voice she sensed disdain, not only for the West, but for her. It was too much. Their fledgling relationship ended before it got much under way. They no longer speak.

A young Katya with her cousin. Contributed photo

Like so many immigrants, Katya has carried a double burden: adjusting to a new world and worrying about family members left behind. Katya’s aunt and her two children had lived near them in Russia. The two families were very close; Katya and her cousins played together daily as kids. Eventually her aunt moved just across the border, to Donetsk, now a Russian-occupied city in Ukraine.

When the war began in 2022, it came directly to their doorstep, destroying infrastructure and lives. Katya’s cousin, who is close in age and now a mother of two, was hit by exploding debris while standing in line, waiting for water. The bomb took the lower half of her right leg, leaving her unable to care for her children. Now, a single mother, it was up to Katya’s aunt to care for them all. The image of her cousin haunts her.

“No matter what comes to pass — next year or many years from now, when she’s an old woman — she will never regain her leg,” Katya says.

Because she grew up with a very young mother and no father, Katya learned to forge her own path early. “I always knew I had to set my own boundaries if I were to succeed,” she says. While in college, she focused her studies on business; during her year abroad in Italy, she became fluent in Italian.

Now a multi-linguist, she propelled herself into the world of finance. For the next 10 years, she worked all over the world, gaining skill and confidence as she traveled. Only in the last three years has she slowed down to focus on what’s always been important to her: a loving family, with traditions.

Katya with her mother on her wedding day. Contributed photo.

At 38, happily married to her husband, Clyde, and now pregnant, Katya is living the life she dreamed of as a girl. Standing tall, strong and clear-eyed, Katya embodies a radiance apparent in happily pregnant women but stemming too from her resolute conviction. She is tethered to Ukraine because of her childhood in a small Russian town, just across its border.

Her cousins are trapped in Donetsk. Her male cousin, who barely leaves his apartment for fear of shelling or being forced to join the Russian Army; and his sister, so brutally injured. For a long time, Katya experienced phantom pain in her own leg, after learning of her cousin’s injury. Now, finally, she is doing work she strongly believes in, work she is meant to do.

It was Westport blogger Dan Woog who introduced Katya to Ukraine Aid International. Westport was looking for a sister city in Ukraine to mirror their World War II sister-city relationship with Marigny, a small town in France. Now part of the steering committee, Katya helped Westport select and form a similar relationship with Lyman in Ukraine. With encouragement from family, Katya left her job in finance, where she admits she felt very little motivation, and joined UAI, working to help Ukrainians who are suffering because of the invasion and war.

Now, finally, she is doing work she strongly believes in — work she is meant to do.

“I am very embarrassed, being Russian,” she says. Still, she acknowledges that her new job is her destiny. “I love Ukraine and Ukrainian people,” she states simply. “And when I think of my cousin, without a leg … it has forever touched me.”

Ukraine Aid International has been helping other towns in Fairfield County to form their own sister city relationships with Ukraine. Easton was the first additional town after Westport to form a steering committee to begin raising money to help Sviatohirsk, an historic, riverside farming town with a 17th century monastery, surrounded by ancient forest. The town is located near Lyman, Westport’s sister city.

A campaign is underway now to raise $300,000, to help Sviatohirsk repair damaged buildings that would otherwise be ruined by rain and snow before they can be rebuilt; help with water filtration; supply seeds for farmers; and for other expenses. Funds for a dump truck to remove rubble from the streets have already been raised and the dump truck has been delivered.

You can be an integral part of helping Easton reach its goal by donating at Ukraine Aid International’s website. Please be sure to designate Easton-Sviatohirsk Sister City.

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