Since fleeing the war in Ukraine and coming to Halifax this spring, 28-year-old Natalia Ivchenko has spent countless hours volunteering at the Ukrainian Store.
The store takes donations of household furniture, kitchen items, and clothing, then distributes it to Ukrainians who arrive in Halifax to start a new life.
Ivchenko originally came because she needed clothing. She ended up staying on as a dedicated volunteer.
“I came without an appointment, and I was welcomed,” she says.
Born and raised in Kharkiv, a city near the Russian border, Natalia was on vacation in another part of Ukraine when the war began.
Unable to get back to her parents, she fled to Austria. Her mother fled to the Czech Republic. Her father, Serhii, stayed behind in Kharkiv, bombs exploding around his home.
But he survived, and eventually arrived in Halifax with her mother this fall. Reunited, the family started to build a life, says Natalia. Her father, a tradesman, was working and getting job offers.
“He was getting used to it, and he was happy to be here with me and sleeping when they are not shelling, where there are no sirens,” says Natalia. “He was also volunteering at this place. He really enjoyed it here.”
“I remember how excited she was when she knew they were coming, Oct. 1, and (she) was just, ‘I can’t wait for them to get on the plane and then I won’t worry.’”
But almost two weeks ago, tragedy struck when the 63-year-old died after an accidental slip and fall in their rental townhouse.
He had been heading out to take the family’s beloved dogs for a walk.
After the fall, Natalia says her father said he felt fine and laid down. But shortly after, she says he became disoriented. The family called an ambulance, but Serhii died by the time it arrived.
“It’s tough for the family, coming from war, to peace, and then suffering that loss,” says Rick Langille, founder of the Ukrainian Store.
“We immediately took up a collection among the volunteers,” says Langille. “We were able to gather up enough money for the funeral… (but) they don’t have the funds for burial and other expenses,” says Langille.
Now, those Natalia has been volunteering alongside at the store have pulled together and launched an online fundraising campaign in her time of need.
“They can’t afford to pay for expenses,” says Dean. “Also, her dad was one of the only of the only wage earners. Natalia does have a job but they also live with her mother and her grandmother,” says Dean.
The hope is the fundraising can help ease the burden of the loss.
“It’s the last thing that you would ever expect to happen, so it’s heart-wrenching,” says Langille.
Natalia has continued volunteering at the store since her father died. She says being in the place that’s become her community has helped her cope.
“The Ukrainian community store is not just a store where you can take things, it’s a place where you can relax your mind, find friends,” she says, “and our community is great.”