A recent acquaintance commits to a two-year sponsorship of a Ukrainian family
By George Valadie
Joe’s no saint, said so himself. Though I myself have never met one to compare.
But I’m thinking he thinks like one might think.
To be honest, I don’t really know Joe all that well, just met the man a week ago. Seemed like a nice enough fella.
A local parishioner, he had been invited to guest speak at our Serra Club lunch so he might relate the story of a recent journey on which his family had embarked.
Upon hearing his tale, I must admit his words moved and inspired me. And though not at all his intention, they dump-trucked a considerable amount of guilt on me as well.
Good people doing good things often affect me that way.
Still, afterward, I stepped out of my box and invited myself to this stranger’s home in hope of learning more as I felt theirs was a story in need of retelling.
What follows is his. I’m honored to share it.
Some 13 months ago, while watching TV in his den, Joe saw one of those late-night commercials that typically sells things that don’t make prime time. This one was seeking support for a relatively new government program entitled “United for Ukraine.”
Immigration and arms debates aside, their countrymen are in a mess and have been since the 2022 invasion.
As of this writing, a war that many believed would end quickly—and disastrously—has now endured some 500-plus days, destroying a countryside of cities and homes, schools and businesses and hospitals … and people. Some death toll estimates approximate 16,000 civilians and military personnel.
The 60-second ad introduced him to a federal program that allows a limited number of displaced Ukrainians (equaling 0.06 percent of our population) to apply to come to the United States for two years (with a possibility for more) through a designation known as “humanitarian parole.”
It’s not the first time we have reached out to people in need. The only catch—though a darn big one—is they must have a sponsor.
Because, according to U.S. Homeland Security, “Ukrainians must have a United States supporter who agrees to provide them with financial support for the (minimal) duration of their stay (two years).” Additionally, they cannot work for the sponsor nor join in on any medical insurance plans.
“I don’t know how to explain it. I watched it and was suddenly overcome with the feeling that I should help,” Joe said. “And no, just then, I didn’t have a clue what that really meant or what that really involved.”
Nor did he choose to mention it to his wife, Renee.
“I dug in and began researching. We’d been planning a trip with our church, and I decided I’d wait until we got back home before I broached the idea with her.”
“Well, what did she say when you told her?” I asked.
“Let’s do it!”
She apparently thinks like a saint as well.
Turns out committing was the easy part.
“You can’t just raise your hand and say I’m in. We had to apply as well. And be approved. Then we had to be trained, and I’m so glad we were. There’s so much we didn’t know and hadn’t thought of.
“They said, ‘Think about it, you may end up not even liking the people. Or what they eat. Or the lifestyle they lead. Or how they spend the money you provide. Don’t ever forget, you’re not adopting them, you’re sponsoring them.’”
As one can imagine, the number of Ukrainians desiring such an opportunity far outstretches the number of willing sponsors and/or our government’s ability to open its doors.
Technology did allow Joe and Renee to review profiles and photos of the approved—some single, some married, some engaged, and some with whole families who would need even more support. Bingo!
So, Joe began a months-long series of video meet-and-greet conversations with a family of four: a mom, two children, and mom’s mom. Dad was on the front lines, having joined the military at age 53 to defend their nation (and was at the time unaware his wife had applied to leave their homeland).
“It could be coincidence—or possibly the Holy Spirit—but they turned out to be Catholic like our family. I was committed to the program before I met them but even more so when the mom told me, ‘Like most places, COVID decimated much of our country’s economy. And before we could ever get going again, the war began. Real opportunities in our country—and for my children—might not happen here again for a generation.’”
Since Joe is one, he also thinks like an accountant.
Better off than some, but hardly wealthy, he was coming to terms with the financial commitment that would be required. And wasn’t certain how or if they could manage it in the manner he hoped, nor did he know if anyone might be willing to assist.
Before committing, he gathered some folks in his church group to share what he was considering.
Am I crazy? Is this doable? Do you think people will help?
“Six people raised their hands right then and offered. We were blessed with pray-ers (who pray), and play-ers (who give time), and pay-ers (who give money.) All convinced me we could.”
Imagine what would be needed. Food and clothes (one travel suitcase allowed). Housing and utilities. Furniture and furnishings. Transportation and fuel. Not to mention hurdles like language and culture, jobs, a bank account, and a driver’s license.
New life, new country, no stuff.
Joe and Renee had agreed to a two-year financial commitment, but his personal goal includes helping them achieve independence for well beyond that.
But they’re not there yet. Not even close.
He created flyers for fundraising and set out to get ready for their arrival. Thinking like an accountant, rather than rent, he bought them a house as an investment he might one day sell.
“Not everyone can or would do that; I get it. But they couldn’t live with us, though that’s allowed. So many people have come out of nowhere to make this feasible, and I hated the idea of paying rent we’d never get back.
“Our pastor has been fully supportive as well and has agreed for the church to receive and disperse donations. They’ve been a godsend,” Joe explained.
They’d need a car, so he approached a local dealership, shared a flyer to explain his efforts, requested the best deal he could get. When he returned to finalize a sale, the manager presented Joe $4,500—gifts from all his employees.
On the battlefront, Dad—the soldier—suffered third-degree burns, had a non-functioning kidney, and lay near death in an intensive-care unit. In Ukraine, though, medical costs resulting from military injury are the financial responsibility of the family. So, Joe also helped mom get back home, covering the costs of saving her husband’s life.
“He’s doing much better. So much so we’ll get him here to join his family next week. Imagine that reunion! He won’t have seen his kids for two years.”
The story is ongoing. And way longer than this column.
Their two years are really just getting underway, having arrived last November. A school has been located. So has a job. Though it turns out having a Ukrainian law degree isn’t all that helpful. In the meantime, there’s a monthly allotment to help them pay bills that “we’ve funded at least through December.”
But Joe and Renee are in for the long haul, whatever that may mean. And whatever that may cost.
“One thing I know, the Holy Spirit is at work here. At first, I thought I was being asked, then it felt more like I was being called. Now I’m convinced I was chosen. I just can’t do it alone.”
A final thought. “Joe, this is your story, what do you want to tell the readers?”
“Well, I guess it’s all turned into a much bigger thing than I first imagined. And I have no idea where it will end.
“But nothing nearly this ambitious is needed to make the world a better place. If folks could just wave at their neighbors now and again, help an elderly person drag in their garbage cans, maybe share some chicken off your grill. Just be nice. We can all do something, and that’s a pretty good start.”
Pretty good indeed.
Dear God—The new home is nice, but I bet they’d prefer peace around the one they had. Thank you for considering what might well require one of your miracles. Amen.
If anyone wishes to make a gift toward the effort Joe and Renee have begun, you can mail it to: OLPH Church, 501 S. Moore Road, Chattanooga, TN 37412 and mark it “for Ukrainian family.”
George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.