Local Ministries

Topeka welcomes Ukrainian refugees

Barb Chamberlain, center, is a volunteer for Top City Promise, a nonprofit that helps Ukrainian refugees start a new life in Topeka. Here, she’s joined by refugees Tetiana Balashova, left, and Mariia Potapenko. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

TOPEKA — Suddenly, life as they knew it was over for a single mom and her 6-year-old son.

“One day, there were bombings going on around [them],” said Barb Chamberlain. “She left her apartment, and she had to take her little boy and crawl over dead bodies.

“There are so many heartbreaking stories like this.

“It just rips your heart out.”

After escaping the war in Ukraine, the mom, her child and their dogs arrived shaken up in Topeka.

“I remember going to her apartment that first night and she just cried,” said Chamberlain. “She said, ‘I’m so scared.’”

Chamberlain was there to offer comfort and support.

For nearly two years, the parishioner of Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka has helped Ukrainian refugees find a home in Kansas’ capital city.

“It makes we want to cry,” said Chamberlain, “because I feel blessed. God has blessed me by bringing all of these amazing families and amazing volunteers [into my life].”

‘God-driven’

When Ukrainian refugees arrive in Topeka, a greeting committee welcomes them into a fully furnished apartment of their own.

A pot of homemade borscht, a traditional Ukrainian meal, sits on the kitchen table ready to be enjoyed.

“No other place in the United States does what our group does,” said Chamberlain.

Diane Baysinger, housing committee chair for Top City Promise, gives apartment keys to Olga and her daughter Yuliia. COURTESY PHOTO

Top City Promise, created by Yana Ross in May 2022 and established as a nonprofit in March 2023, is made up of around 60 regular volunteers.

The group helps families and individuals obtain sponsorship so they can enter the United States.

From there, it provides them with an apartment and covers the cost of the first three months of rent and utilities.

Families are given enough groceries for a week, a bicycle for each member who wants one, and resources to access clothing, doctors, dentists, food, jobs, schools and transportation.

The Ukrainians learn about American culture and traditions through special events, and volunteers offer companionship along the way.

“We want to give people a chance [to succeed],” explained Chamberlain.

“We also want to make them part of our community and [for them] to enjoy life here,” she added.

Top City Promise was the brainchild of Ross, its founder and president.

A native of Ukraine living in the United States for several years, she was desperate to ease her loved ones’ plight when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.

The Yakunin family is welcomed to an apartment in Topeka. Top City Promise sets refugees up with an apartment and covers the cost of the first three months of rent and utilities. Families are welcomed by both locals and Ukrainians. COURTESY PHOTO

Chamberlain, a retiree who taught high school English for 39 years, heard about her efforts through a Facebook post.

Since then, the nonprofit has been ingrained in her daily life.

“All of the volunteers will say this,” said Chamberlain. “Regardless of what church we go to or what our faith is, this was a God-driven moment for all of us.”

‘They welcomed us’

Top City Promise’s work wouldn’t be possible without community support.

Most Pure Heart is just one of the local churches involved. The parish’s former rectory, once fairly empty, is now a hub for donations.

Its rooms are bursting with bedding, décor, mattresses and furniture items. Its kitchen cabinets and drawers are stocked with dishes, glassware, pots, pans and silverware.

Chamberlain, who heads the nonprofit’s welcoming committee, and other volunteers use the donations to furnish and decorate each apartment before families arrive.

Families can also visit the rectory if they want to pick out different items.

Mariia Potapenko, left, and Barb Chamberlain check out the pillows at the former Most Pure Heart of Mary rectory in Topeka. The house has become a hub for Top City Promise donations. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

For refugees like Mariia Potapenko, her husband and their two children, the amount of help has been profound.

After fleeing to France and eventually California, Potapenko was desperate for a more sustainable life for her family.

She turned to Google, where she read about Ross’ Topeka project.

“When I spoke to Yana,” said Potapenko, “she said, ‘You can come. You will have support here. You will have an apartment.’

“I didn’t even imagine when [we’d] come, it will be fully furnished — even toothbrush and toothpaste, even clothes for my children and me, even bedding.

“And now I know who took care of this. Now I know that it was Barb.”

Potapenko is still astonished by the support her family has received.

“It was like a miracle,” she said. “I didn’t believe that strangers — they didn’t know us — and they opened their hearts. And they welcomed us.”

Mariia Potapenko tears up while sharing the story of how Top City Promise has changed her family’s life. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

It brings her to tears.

“Some [people] can give you some money and forget about you,” said Potapenko. “And here, people care about you all the time.

“They call you. They send you message: ‘How are you? What do you need?’”

The experience has led her to a confident conclusion.

“God exists here,” she said. “He exists, because you can’t explain this.”

‘When you dream’

Despite the warm welcome Ukrainians are receiving in Topeka, many are rattled by loss.

“You leave oftentimes your family, your friends, your pets,” said Chamberlain. “We have kids who still cry every day because they miss their dogs or their cats.”

Tetiana Balashova, her husband and their three children had to leave their dog behind.

“The dog is part of the family,” said Balashova, who has tried unsuccessfully to transfer their companion to the United States.

They also left behind their 60-acre farm.

Diane Baysinger, left, gives the Balashov family the keys to their apartment. The two younger children now attend Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Topeka. COURTESY PHOTO

Making friends through Top City Promise has eased the suffering.

“Tetiana goes to church every Sunday with me now,” said Chamberlain. “We sit next to each other at Mass.”

Two of her children attend Most Pure Heart of Mary School thanks to scholarships provided by the Catholic Education Foundation (CEF).

“My kids love it,” said Balashova.

“The classes are small,” said Chamberlain. “It’s very personal. Eric White (the school’s principal) is amazing.”

Like most of the refugees, Balashova was eager to earn a living when she arrived in Topeka. She was a baker in Ukraine but now works as a teacher’s aide for special-needs students at a local school.

“We have a truck driver who was a lawyer in Ukraine,” said Chamberlain. “We have a woman who was a doctor and now she cleans houses.”

Nataliia Mostova and her children Mariia and Bohdan, refugees from Ukraine, try out the new bicycles they received from Top City Promise. The nonprofit provides everything a family would need to start a new life in Topeka. COURTESY PHOTO

But refugees like Balashova and Potapenko haven’t given up hope.

The friends chat fondly about opening a café together one day.

“I think it’s important when you dream,” said Potapenko. “If you stop dreaming, you stop living.”

‘Little miracles’

Top City Promise has a waiting list of Ukrainians hoping to receive assistance.

“One of them is a mom,” said Chamberlain. “Her husband’s at war. They don’t know whether he’s dead or alive. He’s missing in action.

“She has a child who has Down syndrome. And they’re living in a building where the bombing is going around all the time.

“They have to run down and hide in the basement.”

A girl uses her mobile phone Jan. 1, 2024, while she sits on a swing in Odesa, Ukraine, at a compound of residential houses heavily damaged during a Russian drone strike. (OSV News photo/Serhii Smolientsev, Reuters)

Chamberlain hopes to help more families find safety and a brighter future in Topeka.

Although it’s a big task, she said, somehow it always comes together.

“There have been a lot of miracles,” said Chamberlain.

And those who have received help so far couldn’t be more thankful.

“Everything you do for them, they are so overwhelmingly grateful,” said Chamberlain. “I cannot tell you how many amazing meals I’ve been offered.”

Chamberlain, who Potapenko has dubbed “my American mom,” looks forward to continuing her retirement years as a Top City Promise volunteer.

“When you have a passion for something, it keeps you younger,” she said. “It keeps you motivated.”

Barb Chamberlain, a parishioner of Most Pure Heart of Mary in Topeka, plays a slideshow of photos featuring Ukrainian refugees she and other Top City Promise volunteers have helped while Mariia Potapenko, left, and Tetiana Balashova look on. Balashova, Potapenko and their families fled the war in Ukraine and have since found refuge in Kansas’ capital city, where they’ve received assistance settling in and starting a new life thanks to Top City Promise. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

But the benefits of this project go far beyond that.

“It has changed my life in so many ways,” said Chamberlain. “I’m the one who says, ‘Thank you,’ because I have received so much, and I feel so thankful that God has led me to this.

“I thank God every day we have so many of these little miracles.”

To learn more about Top City Promise or to donate, visit the website at: topcitypromise.org.

Attend Top City Promise’s gala

Top City Promise is hosting an inaugural gala on Feb. 24 at 7 p.m. at The Foundry Event Center in Topeka.

The evening will include a silent auction that includes Ukrainian-made items. Ukrainian women will make appetizers and desserts. A professional singer who is a refugee from Ukraine will perform.

Individual tickets and table sponsorships are available.

To purchase tickets or make a donation, go online to: topcitypromise.org/annual-gala.

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in 2015. After a move to Denver, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven and continues to write and manage the website, social media channels and Archbishop Naumann's Facebook page. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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