Community Education

Peninsula High students collecting teddy bears for kids in Ukraine

Posted on November 23rd, 2022 By:

Playing alone in a gymnasium with tall windows and green walls, Arseniy, 6, bounces a basketball and aims over and over for the hoop, impossibly high.

“When they shoot, I run home. I think our flat (apartment) could be shot,” he explains in a voiceover video as his determined play continues. “I’m more worried about my parents. … You should go when they shoot — then you will be safe. You shouldn’t go outside because you might be shot.”

Sophia, 8, draws hopscotch squares on the sidewalk of her town “which of course was bombed a bit.” Despite that, she says, “I like it here.”

When the shelling starts, she advises, “In order not to be deafened, you should lie on the ground, cover your ears and scream.”

Teddy bears so no child will be alone

Peninsula High School Key Club members are collecting teddy bears for children like Arseniy and Sophia, living through the horrors of war in Ukraine. The Key Club has partnered with Voices of the Children Charitable Foundation, based in Kyiv, which provides psychological support to children throughout the country and humanitarian aid to their families.

Peninsula High School Key Club member Adelaide Chuhran holds a bin of teddy bears at the club’s meeting on Nov. 15, 2022. The Key Club is collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children traumatized by war, now through mid-February 2023. Christina T Henry

Many Ukrainian families have been displaced from their homes since Russia invaded their country in February 2022, said Elzara Halimova, partnership manager for Voices of Children. “Our mission is not to leave any child alone with this trauma of war,” she said.

Spencer Abersold, a Key Club advisor, hopes the Gig Harbor community will rally with students for the effort. The first opportunity to donate a teddy bear (or cash toward shipping) comes on Saturday and Sunday at the high school’s Winterfest arts and crafts festival.

A universal need for comfort

The Key Club, affiliated with Kiwanis Club of Gig Harbor, is a youth service organization based at Peninsula High. Kiwanis Club members help lead the group in community service projects.

Absersold, a high school staff member, has been an advisor to the club for more than a decade. The idea of gifting teddy bears to Ukraine was born more than a month ago from his sense of despair over the war.

“I think it was right around the time, I remember the news, there was a bombing of a children’s playground. And that kind of triggered something,” Abersold said. “I was thinking, they need everything. Let’s be honest about what their needs are. And I can’t provide them everything, but I thought, you know, teddy bears are kind of those universal things that you need.”

Key Club students quickly embraced the idea and have been mobilizing on publicity and logistics, Absersold said.

The Peninsula High School Key Club is collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children traumatized by war. The collection will continue through mid-February 2023. Christina T Henry

A complicated delivery

Abersold located an international shipping company, AEC Parcel Service. Through that company, he connected with Halimova at Voices of Children. The organization accepts cash and donations of items like toiletries for their humanitarian aid, but they were open to the idea of teddy bears.

Each bear will be decorated with colors of the Ukrainian flag and a message of solidarity with the children and their families.

Besides collecting bears, the Key Club must raise an estimated $800 to cover shipping. Collections will end in mid-February. AEC will deliver the shipment of teddy bears via Poland, which could take four to six weeks or more, depending on developments in the conflict.

“If we can get a teddy bear in one of those children’s hands, I can guarantee you it’ll be something they will carry with them probably for their whole life,” Abersold said.

A message of encouragement and solidarity is pinned to a teddy bear at a meeting of the Peninsula High School Key Club on Nov. 15, 2022. The club is collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children traumatized by war. Christina T Henry

Letting the children speak

Voices of Children was established in 2015 to aid families impacted by the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year, they’ve expanded to reach all of the country’s children traumatized by war.

They operate nine centers throughout Ukraine where children receive individual and group counseling, along with interventions like art therapy and camping trips in the country.

Voices of Children provides targeted humanitarian aid, giving each child or family the material and psychosocial support they need to recover from trauma and displacement. The organization is active in refugee centers and helps provide educational opportunities to children without access to their regular schools.

Children in videos on the organization’s website appear with permission from their parents. They are featured not as victims, but as stated, “These children are the winners for us already because they resist much more powerful circumstances.”

Many families fled their towns with minimal belongings, Halimova said in an email to Gig Harbor Now. For some, it is their second resettlement since 2014

“Having the support of different kinds from abroad helps us to feel not alone,” she said. “They miss home and very much want to come back. Toys like teddy bears may bring them not only some memories and hope about their homes, but also the feeling of care from their peers from other part of the world.”

Students hear from local Ukrainians

At a Key Club meeting last week, students heard from Pastor Mark Suko of Discovery Baptist Church in Gig Harbor and his Ukrainian granddaughters Noelle, 17, and Anastasia Suko, 16.

The two girls left Ukraine earlier this year to live with their Gig Harbor family and study at a local private school. Their school in Odesa disbanded when the fighting started.

“When it started, it was pretty frightening, because there’s nothing you can do when there’s bombs going off,” said Noelle.

Noelle and Anastasia Suko of Ukraine spoke to members of the Peninsula High School Key Club on Nov. 15, 2022. The girls, whose family lives in Odesa, Ukraine, are temporarily living with family in Gig Harbor and attending a local private school since their school in Ukraine disbanded because of the war with Russia.

Pastor Suko’s grandparents emigrated from Ukraine to Washington state. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Suko worked in Ukraine, helping to establish churches. His son Caleb, who served with his dad in Ukraine, married a Ukrainian woman, although they met at college in the United States.

Caleb and Christina Suko have five children: the two teenage girls, a 12-year-old son who lives with them and two adult children, one in the U.S. and one in Chile. The couple have stayed in Odesa to continue their work with refugees.

‘A sign of hope’

Although Odesa, a port city in the south, has been targeted by the Russians, areas to the east have been hardest hit, Noelle said. Her city sees many refugees. They appreciate international support, especially from America, she told the Key Club students.

“So, I thought that, you know, just seeing a small gift like a teddy bear would really encourage them and kind of give them a sign of hope,” she said. “It’s really hard just to even imagine what they’re going through.”

Noelle Suko, 17, of Ukraine, smiles at a teddy bear during a Key Club meeting Nov. 15, 2022, at Peninsula High School. Key Club students are collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children traumatized by that country’s war with Russia. Suko and her sister Anastasia, 16 (left) are temporarily living with their grandfather Mark Suko (left of Anastasia), pastor of Discovery Baptist Church in Gig Harbor. Christina T Henry

On Nov. 19, several days after the Key Club meeting, Pastor Suko heard from his son that the electricity was back on in Odesa after being off for a few days due to Russian shelling. “They dressed warm and used candles,” Suko said. “It is likely to go off again since much of the power grid is damaged by attacks.”

Spreading the word

Key Club editor Peyton O’Brien hopes the teddy bear drive will keep Ukraine’s need in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

“We need to remind people why it’s so important to help these people that are in such an unfortunate event that’s happening, that we can never imagine,” she said.

Key Club President Gabby Feinstein hopes their idea catches fire and inspires others.

“My biggest hope is seeing our community come together a little bit more. Like, I think that as a Key Club, we could collect some teddy bears and call it good, call it a day,” Feinstein said. “But I think that it would be really great if we could see maybe other clubs, other parts of our community come together and say, ‘We would like to help this cause.’”

Spencer Abersold, an advisor for the Peninsula High School Key Club, holds teddy bears like those the club is collecting for Ukrainian children traumatized by the country’s war with Russia. Christina T Henry

Abersold has multiple goals for the teddy bear drive. One, of course, is to comfort the children and to show, at least in some small way, solidarity with the people of Ukraine.

“Two is to give our students in the Key Club this opportunity to really try to do something very dynamic, something very important, something they will look back in their life and say, ‘You know World War III? What did you do to help?”

He expects they’ll use everything they learn to tackle bolder projects in the future.

“We’re going to take our notes back out, and we’re going to start applying our ideas. And we’re going to make the world a bigger and better place,” he said.

How you can help

The Peninsula High School Key Club is collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children supported by Voices of Children Charitable Foundation, based in Kyiv. Donations of cash to help cover shipping costs are also welcome.

The students are seeking businesses and other locations for teddy bear collection bins now through mid-February.

The Peninsula High School Key Club is collecting teddy bears for Ukrainian children traumatized by war. The collection will continue through mid-February 2023. Christina T Henry

Collections will take place at the following events:

  • Winterfest arts and crafts festival, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 26) and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 26) at Peninsula High School, 14105 Purdy Drive NW, Gig Harbor.
  • Holiday Tree Lighting, sponsored by the city of Gig Harbor, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in downtown Gig Harbor, with holiday vendors on Harborview Drive, a live band, cocoa and cookies. Look for special guests Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus, with Key Club members serving as their elves.
  • Lighted Car Parade & Santa’s Village, sponsored by Kiwanis Club of Gig Harbor, starting at 4 p.m. Dec. 17 at Uptown Gig Harbor.