Reconnecting with Ukraine
That’s how Linda Weinberger of Quakertown describes the Ukrainian people.
It’s not a lesson she learned because of the recent Russian invasion, but rather in the early 2000s when Boyertown in Berks County south of the Lehigh Valley, celebrated the relationship with its Ukrainian sister city, Bohodukhiv. The city is around 50 miles south of the Russian border and just west of Kharkiv, the country's second largest city and a heavily battered area in Russia’s invasion.
Weinberger was a counselor in the Boyertown school district when teachers from Ukraine visited as part of the Sister Cities International program. She eventually made the return trip to spend a month in Ukraine as an exchange teacher.
Contact with her Eastern European colleagues waned over the years, but Weinberger is back in touch with her friends who remain there, including her host teacher, Vita, who asked that WVIA omit her last name to protect her family and location. Since the Russian invasion the two have checked in daily through email and Facebook. Vita and her husband have remained in Bohodukhiv to care for her parents, who are in their 80’s. Meanwhile, another teacher friend of Linda’s evacuated her home in Karkhiv with her husband and daughter last week, spending 53 hours in the car to get to the western city of Lviv, where supplies are easier to find.
“Bohodukhiv is more of my concern because there is no food on the shelves,” Weinberger said, adding “Right now it seems to be quiet. There’s been no bombings.”
The Ukrainian teachers visited Boyertown in 2002 and Weinberger and her colleagues traveled to Bohodukhiv in 2004.
They toured grade schools and shared resources and ideas, and met with teachers, who marveled at salaries in the United States.
“At that time in Ukraine, teachers were paid $100 a month, if the government had the money to pay them,” she said.
When she returned home, she used a courier service to send care packages of seeds, medical supplies, and knitting and sewing materials for Ukrainian students.The formal relationship between Boyertown and Bohodukhiv ended in 2015 after more than 30 years. Despite this, Weinberger, now retired, is once again finding ways to help.She called and emailed U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, who recently traveled to the Ukraine as part of a bipartisan delegation. She’s also giving to online fundraisers and urges others to do the same.
“We have to get food there. We have to get aid there. They’re going to starve,” she said. Weinberger plans to talk with her Ukrainian colleagues every day for as long as possible. But as reports of the scarcity of supplies and basic resources mount, she is unsure how long her connections there will last.
During Weinberger’s trip a first-grade teacher asked if they would walk by her class of lined up students.
“They just want[ed] to hear an American say ‘Hello’,” she said.
In a photo from her visit, the then-first-graders hold tiny American and Ukrainian flags. Weinberger's thoughts often return to those Ukrainian school children, and she wonders if they are fighting Russian forces or fleeing to safety.
“It just breaks my heart to think that those kids are there today,” she said. “They’re just like us. It makes me want to hug my kids and my grandkids closer.”