LAKELAND — A cardboard box covered in sky-blue paper sat in a hallway Friday morning outside the Florida Southern College bookstore. The open box on top bore a handcrafted message in dark blue letters on a yellow background: “Stand With Ukraine.”
The box, one of the few on campus for supply drives, reflects the college’s gesture of support not only for a nation six time zones away, but also for one of its own students.
Maria Rezhylo, a junior from Ukraine, came up with the idea of gathering medical supplies to ship to her home country, where her parents and many of her family members are enduring the anxiety and dislocation surrounding the Russian military invasion that started on February 24.
“It’s something really small and insignificant for us, but for the people there, it can literally save someone else’s life,” said Rezhylo, 23, known to his family and friends. her friends under the name Masha. “And it would also give that person (donor) an idea that they are directly doing good to someone else overseas. I think it’s a really amazing idea.
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While most Americans probably think the Russian-Ukrainian conflict only started in February, Rezhylo is quick to explain that Ukraine’s eastern neighbor has been threatening the country for years. She spent her early childhood in the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, but her family’s life changed dramatically in 2014 with the Russian invasion of the Donbass region.
Rezhylo went to live with an aunt in kyiv for about a year before her parents joined her in the capital. Most of his relatives also moved west, but some sided with the Russians and stayed in Donetsk, and Rezhylo moved away from them. This included her paternal grandmother, whom she did not see for seven years until the woman died last year.
Rezhylo said his father was a senior transport official in Donetsk and his mother worked as a midwife, but the two had to start over in Kyiv with minimal savings.
“It was traumatic, to some extent, because when we moved to Kyiv, it was really difficult for my parents to navigate the whole process because they stayed in Donetsk for a while during a very intense war,” said said Rezhylo. “The living conditions were, like, awful, awful, awful; I don’t want to give details about it. My parents started from scratch and eventually found better jobs. Life kind of got back together and we were living really, really well for the past, like, three, four years.
Rezhylo, a swimmer, has long aspired to compete for a varsity team in the United States. (She taught herself to speak English mostly by watching influencers and swimming channels on YouTube.) She received a student visa and enrolled in 2019 at a university in the northeast before transferring in South Florida last fall.
During the tense months leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rezhylo said she grew increasingly anxious. As of Friday, her parents still had electricity and an internet connection, and she is able to communicate with them on a daily basis.
In contact with parents
“I think I’m really lucky in that aspect because I have friends who live here (in the United States) and they’re from Ukraine, and some of their family members live in Mariupol, which is the ‘one of the hottest places right now in Ukraine, and they can’t communicate with their families,” she said. “A friend of mine, she told me that she spoke to her mother on Monday last, and that was it. And they just found a service (Internet) to say, for example, “We are alive”. That was it.”
On Friday, the Russian attack had killed more than 1,000 Ukrainian civilians, including about 90 children, according to the United Nations.
Rezhylo said his father, who is 53, volunteers with a group of civilian guards in his neighborhood, carrying a gun and wearing a bulletproof vest while on patrol. Her mother, 51, volunteers at a bakery that produces bread and other goods for needy locals and soldiers.
The couple have been spending every night since February 24 in a bomb shelter, Rezhylo said.
The student said she avoids asking her parents for many details about the situation in Kyiv.
“I think it’s, like, a mutual thing where we don’t say negative things to each other,” she said. “We kind of realize that it won’t do us any good to say anything bad to each other. Because even though I’m worried about them, they’re also worried about me here, because I’m the only child, I’m alone here.
Rezhylo, who specializes in sports management and psychology, said she suffers from anxiety and has trouble sleeping, and when she sleeps she sometimes endures nightmares. On Thursday, she did not feel able to attend classes. But she said she wouldn’t tell her parents, not wanting to add to their worries.
Rezhylo, a Division II All-American at a previous school, said FSC swim coaches and her teammates provided crucial emotional support. The team is currently undergoing off-season training and head coach Andy Robins said he has allowed Rezhylo to adjust his schedule as needed.
“She’s really easy to support because she’s generally in a good mood,” Robins said. “She will interact with anyone. When you have a team of 45-50 athletes, sometimes there are people who never interact with others, but she seems really good with everyone.
Not all of her classmates know she’s from Ukraine, but Rezhylo said her swimming teammates do.
“The swimming team, at all levels, it was really amazing,” she said. “A lot of people, whenever they saw me on campus, they just came over to hug me without asking rhetorical questions, like, ‘Oh, how are you?’ Because it’s obviously a tough time for me, so people were very empathetic about it.
Search for donations
As the situation in Ukraine worsened, Rezhylo yearned to do something to help his home country. But she didn’t want to ask the students for cash donations.
An uncle told her about Ukraine Express, a company that ships items from the United States to Ukraine, and she got the idea to collect supplies to deliver to a non-profit organization in her country. Rezhylo said she pitched the idea to South Florida President Anne Kerr and Dean of Students Mike Crawford, and they responded enthusiastically.
She then met with leaders of the Student Government Association, who embraced the concept and began decorating collection boxes that were placed near the bookstore, library and other locations on Wednesday. The SGA sent an email to students informing them of the campaign, which is scheduled to last two weeks.
Rezhylo and the Student Government Association are looking for non-perishable medical supplies, such as tourniquets, bandages, antiseptics, hemostatic drugs, and over-the-counter pain relievers. SGA will send the supplies to a Ukraine Express office in Delaware, and from there they will be transported to Ukraine.
Florida Southern also accepts monetary donations through its website and will use the money to purchase more supplies, said Natalie McGinniss, administrative vice president of the Student Government Association.
“It’s really exciting to be able to stand with Ukraine during this heartbreaking tragedy, knowing that we are making a huge difference in the lives of these people,” said McGinniss. “With students on campus, we’ve been contacted by locals, and I already have boxes full of different supplies, which is amazing considering it’s only been three days since we started this campaign.”
As Rezhylo worries about her loved ones in Ukraine, she said she hopes the United States and other countries will step up their military aid to the country. She would like to see allies impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a step President Joe Biden and NATO leaders have resisted because it would mean a direct military confrontation with Russia.
But Rezhylo said she was grateful to see the global expressions of solidarity with her native country.
“I think that’s great and really reassuring,” she said. “The support all over the world – it’s just, like, crazy, amazing, and people are just able to recognize what we’re fighting for, and that’s really our freedom.”