Brunswick resident fears for the safety of her friends in Ukraine and raises funds to help them

Yana (left) and Slava (right) at their wedding in the early 1990s in kyiv, Ukraine. Photo provided by Alyssa Gillespie.

Alyssa Gillespie, a Brunswick resident, scholar and professor of Russian literature and culture, felt the impact of the war in Ukraine, worrying for her friends Yana and Slava, who live in kyiv.

“I felt horrified by the outbreak of this senseless war and could hardly sleep during the first days of the conflict, as I constantly read updates on what was happening and communicated with my friends in Kyiv and Ivano-Frankivsk about what they were seeing and experiencing,” Gillespie said. “Once I was sitting in a cozy waiting room at the doctor’s office texting my friend, while she was crouched with her husband in a bomb shelter in kyiv, terrified by the bombs exploding around her. The experience was surreal.

While living in Russia in the early 1990s, Gillespie befriended Yana, a Ukrainian tour guide, while the two attended ballet and the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow.

She met Yana’s fiancé Slava soon after and was invited to their wedding in Kyiv. Over the next two years, Yana and Slava visited him in Moscow, and Gillespie visited them in kyiv.

The Times Record agreed to withhold the surnames of Gillespie’s friends to protect their safety.

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“I remember kyiv as a beautiful city, partially rebuilt after the destruction of World War II, hilly and green, and in early May, magical with the flowering of horse chestnut trees and lilacs – and I know that the Ukrainian people are kind and generous,” says Gillespie. “The juxtaposition of these memories with the photographs and videos of the blackened rubble of bombed buildings and the violence and devastation unleashed on the lives of Ukrainians was unbearable.”

She said Yana and Slava are now safe, but their son had to stay with the Territorial Defense Force due to his gender and age. Yana and Slava’s son is in his late twenties. His name is withheld for his protection.

“After that conversation with my friend, I knew I had to do something to try to help Ukrainians who are going through such devastation, even in the smallest of ways,” she said.

To help Ukraine, Gillespie joined Bowdoinham Public Library Director Kate Cutko and Bowdoin College Librarian Melissa Orth for the Pysanky for Peace fundraiser on April 21.

Brunswick’s Alyssa Gillespie making pysanky eggs. Photo courtesy of Kate Cutko

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After inquiring about pysanky egg supplies at Brunswick art store The Mix, owner Leslie Beattie connected Gillespie with Cutko, who has taught pysanky for many years at the shop.

Like Gillespie, Cutko has deep roots that connect her to Ukraine.

In 2003, Cutko and her husband adopted their daughter Olena from Ukraine.

“My daughter has a very emotional connection to the country,” Cutko said.

While Olena was in high school, Cutko hosted three different Ukrainian students. One of the students attended Brunswick High School and the other two attended Mt. Ararat High School.

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Cutko said she is still in touch with these students as well as the adoption translator who assisted her in 2003.

During a phone call, Cutko got emotional while talking about the orphanage in Donetsk, Ukraine, where she and her husband adopted Olena. She said the orphanage had recently been bombed by Russian soldiers. She said some of her friends in Ukraine have chosen to say, while others have chosen to flee, but she supports them regardless of their decision.

Kistki tools used to write on eggs with melted wax. Photo provided by Kate Cutko.

Bowdoin College librarian Melissa Orth joined in the fundraising efforts when Cutko called her. Orth said she took pysanky lessons from Ukrainian artist Olga Pastuchiv in her hometown of Richmond.

Gillespie has been making pysanky for 20 years and shared the craft with the students she taught at Notre Dame and Bowdoin College.

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“I thought organizing an event like this was a perfect way to raise awareness of the plight of Ukraine and raise funds to help with war relief, while simultaneously teaching people something about the cultural richness and the artistic beauty of Ukrainian culture,” Gillespie said. “Ukrainian Pysanky is an ancient Ukrainian art form that takes its name from the Ukrainian verb ‘pysaty’, which means ‘to write’. Designs are written onto the eggshell using hot beeswax, which seals in successive dye colors, creating vibrant and intricate designs.

Much like the American tradition of dying Easter eggs, pysanky is traditionally performed in the spring, but is also considered a year-round tradition in Ukraine. Pysanky is more intricate in its designs to reflect a specific prayer or special occasions like a new baby or a new home, Gillespie added.

Pysanky eggs made by Alyssa Gillespie. Photo provided by Alyssa Gillespie.

There is a suggested donation of $20 per person for the pysanky workshop fundraiser. The funds raised will be donated to Nova Ukraine, Razom for Ukraine, Fundacja ocalenie and Meduza. Each person can choose the organization they wish to support.

Nova Ukraine delivers food, clothing and medical supplies and helps rescue animals for refugees in Ukraine. Razom for Ukraine provides medical, hospital and communication supplies to Ukraine. Fundacja ocalenie provides humanitarian aid to refugees on the Polish-Belarusian border, while Meduza benefits one of the few independent Latvian-based news sources providing factual coverage on Russia and Ukraine, Gillespie said.

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Pysanky eggs made by Kate Cutko. Photo provided by Kate Cutko.

“I’m thrilled to be working with Kate Cutko and Melissa Orth to organize this event!” She says.

All pysanky supplies will be provided and guests are welcome to drop by anytime during the event to start making an egg. On average, it takes 2 to 3 hours to make an egg, Cutko said.

The Pysanky for Peace event will take place on Thursday, April 21 from noon to 7 p.m. at St. Charles Borromeo Parish Hall located at 132 McKeen Street in Brunswick.

Melissa Orth, left, and Kate Cutko make pysanky eggs in Bowdoinham. Photo provided by Kate Cutko.

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