Students at Maryland Catholic school reach out to counterparts in Ukraine

Students at St. Michael's School in Ridge, Md., use chalk to create a Ukrainian flag and offer messages of hope Feb. 11, 2022, as part of an outreach project to students in the East European nation. They were sending pictures and letters electronically to students in Chortiv, Ukraine. (CNS photo/courtesy Philip McQuilkin, St. Michael's School via Catholic Standard)

RIDGE, Md. (CNS) -- Students at a Catholic school in southern Maryland are writing letters to their counterparts in Ukraine to offer their prayers and support.

"Our students have written to make a connection," said Lila Hofmeister, principal of at St. Michael's School in Ridge. "The stress these children (in Ukraine) are living under by being in a state of not knowing what is going to happen next is heart-wrenching."

"Those children are experiencing this world event on a level that children in the U.S. cannot comprehend," she said.

The Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese, interviewed Hofmeister and others at the school before Russia invaded Ukraine in the early morning hours of Feb. 24 (local Ukrainian time). The invasion came after weeks of Russia built up troops along the Ukraine border.

A week before the invasion, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students at St. Michael's began writing letters and sending pictures to students at School #6 in Chortiv, Ukraine.

Fourth-grade teacher Philip McQuilkin is spearheading the project at the Maryland school. McQuilkin's brother, Bill, has served as a missionary to Ukraine, and the woman who served as Bill's translator there, Olena Roydnuik, is a teacher at the Chortiv school. Roydnuik also teaches autistic children at the Catholic school, as well as English to adults at night.

"I see the gravitas of this situation, and I can only imagine how desperate they must be," Philip McQuilkin said. "For those children (in Ukraine) who are exposed to the dangers and threats of war, this (letter-writing campaign) is a real opportunity for them to know that people thousands of miles away are concerned and willing to pray for them."

McQuilkin said that since these students began the project, "the student body has been including prayers for peace in the Ukraine during our morning intentions."

"While we all try and grapple with the unfolding drama," he said, the students and staff are "hoping and praying we can make a small difference for the people of Ukraine in the face of such adversity."

St. Michael's students have created biographies, photos and videos that will be emailed to their new friends in Chortiv. By sending the Chortiv students everyday snippets of what the students at St. Michael's do, Hofmeister said, "this gives those children a sense of normalcy."

"Our children are providing a sense of stability in their innocence. Through their connection, they are taking about their dog or what they had for breakfast or that we planted a garden here at school," Hofmeister said. "This is not to make them envious, but to let them know what a gift they have in the sense that someone out there is praying for them and reminding them of everyday joys."

Hofmeister said the Maryland students also benefit from the pen-pal project.

As they reach out, they are "getting a lesson in history, we have a large map so students can see the location (of Ukraine), they are learning about longitude and latitude," she said. "This also incorporates lessons in religion, writing, English and social studies."

McQuilkin added that "to help the St. Michael's students understand the import of our correspondence, the grades have been studying Ukraine geography, history, culture, and current events." He said lessons are "avoiding the more sensitive aspects of the Russian aggression."

St. Michael's students "understand the gravity and the fear and the reason behind the fear, but not the politics," Hofmeister noted.

McQuilkin said that because mail service in Ukraine "is not dependable and slow," his students are communicating electronically. He said St. Michael's students are reaching out to Chortiv students "sending video messages, emails and hopefully linking up via Facetime or Skype."

According to news reports, the Russian invasion has impacted internet service in some Ukrainian cities, but they did not say whether Chortiv, in western Ukraine, was among them.

"This is a very poignant time, a sad time," Hofmeister said. "Our students are learning to appreciate that there are people around the world who need us and need our prayers, and we can reach out to them; and they (the students in Ukraine) know they have someone reaching out to them and they are not alone."

McQuilkin said the project is opening the St. Michael's students eyes "to the experiences of other Christian communities and cultures, and how fragile and precious our cherished freedoms of faith and democracy can be."

He said the students were "anxiously hoping for good news from their pen pals, while sharing their love and concern with family, friends and each other.

"We will continue to pray for peace and comfort for all those in distress," McQuilkin added.


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