By Tiffany Merlo Phelps
When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, all Natalia Plyam could do was cry for the first few weeks. Then she decided that she wanted to do something locally to help and saw a Facebook post about Ukrainians coming to this area and needing assistance. She responded to that post and began finding neighbors via a local social media site who wanted to assist Ukrainian families. She began by posting a need for furniture, next housing and then jobs.
The response was immediate and overwhelming.
“It is a wonderful community, and everyone has been so generous. Little by little, we are getting somewhere,” said Plyam, who is from East Ukraine. “Honestly, it took on a life of its own. It has become a movement.”
Plyam said 28 people from nine different families have been helped so far. One neighbor donated $2,000, another resident donated a condo for three months to a family and a lot of furniture has been donated, Plyam said. Also, Plyam’s best friend is a partner in a local law firm and has offered to do pro bono legal work for Ukrainians in need of legal advice. Residents continue to ask Plyam how they can help, and she intends to act as intermediary for as long as necessary.
Plyam, who has lived in Ponte Vedra Beach for four years, came to the United States when she was 19 years old as a Jewish refugee. At that time, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” she said, adding that her husband arrived in the United States when he was seven years old. The couple, who have three children, lived in California prior to moving to Ponte Vedra Beach.
Alex Stozhok moved to the United States from Ukraine in March and said he felt very welcomed by the Ponte Vedra Beach community via Plyam’s outreach efforts.
“This is an amazing area with amazing people,” said Stozhok, who moved with his wife, three young daughters and mother-in-law. “I came here with $2,000 in my wallet. I did not expect all the help that we received.”
In Ukraine before the war, Stozhok ran three businesses with his six brothers. He had built a new house for his family, and they had only lived in it for four months before the family had to flee. Now three brothers are in Ponte Vedra Beach and three brothers remain in Ukraine along with his sister and parents.
Stozhok is focused on helping other Ukrainian families as they arrive, continuing to assist his brothers with restarting the businesses in Ukraine once the Russians are gone, and making enough money now to pay for daily living expenses. His wife, Olena, cleans houses, and he plans to start a business in Ponte Vedra Beach.
Plyam said many residents have stepped up to sponsor Ukrainians, which is a requirement to be able to move to the United States. Stozhok’s 18-year-old brother is being sponsored by Ponte Vedra Beach resident Audrey Costabile. While it was a lot of paperwork, Costabile said it was an easy task for an incredibly amazing purpose.
“I am so happy to reunite him with his family,” said Costabile, whose mother is from Ukraine. “I encourage residents to sponsor so that they can get people out of harm’s way.”
Costabile said that there is no financial obligation tied to the paperwork, and each person must have an individual sponsor.
Plyam, who often serves as a translator, said Ukrainian families continue to need help because they are “still very much in no man’s land.” For example, finding VPK for young Ukrainian children is difficult. They do not qualify for it through the state and can’t afford to pay for it privately, she said.
Also, many families are in need of dining room chairs and tables. In addition, Plyam suggests the purchase of gift cards for groceries as many of the families are struggling with daily living expenses.
[Author’s note: Anyone wishing to help Ukrainian families may contact Plyam at email@example.com.]
Photo courtesy Alex Stozhok
Alex Stozhok greeting friends who had just arrived from Ukraine.