A Rotary connection leads to a new beginning for one Ukrainian family

Stories of Welcome

October 05, 2023


Finding fulfillment in giving back to others

Two strangers living a world apart found support and hope in each other as a result of unusual life circumstances—and Rotary International played a significant role in bringing them together.

Yulia and Sofiia in Boston.

When war broke out in Ukraine in February 2022, Yulia and Ivan Valinchuck found it increasingly difficult to access medical care—and the fuel to get them to the facilities providing it—that their daughter Sofiia urgently needed. Now 4 years old, Sofiia lives with Rett Syndrome, a rare genetic neurological and developmental disorder that affects brain development. Rett syndrome causes progressive loss of motor skills and language.

“My daughter Sofiia doesn't walk, she doesn't talk, and she doesn't sit without assistance,” Yulia said. “Because not all clinics work properly like they did before, we decided that we needed to leave and be closer to medical services.”

The Valinchucks’ journey out of Ukraine started in Austria, where they had a friend who lived in a small ski resort village. The village was remote and also had limited services and resources for Sofiia. Her condition requires regular therapist visits, but Yulia and Ivan could only schedule bimonthly visits with a specialist from Munich. Six months into the war, they realized they needed a new solution.

“When we moved, we thought the war would take a month or two. And we said it will finish, and we will come back,” Yulia said. “In half of a year, we understood that it's not finishing. And we need to think about what we need to do—what we will do next, where we will stay.”

A Rotary connection led the Valinchucks to Boston Area Rotary Club member Joyce Graff.
Aside from her work with Rotary, Joyce leads an organization focused on rare diseases, a reality the Valinchucks face with their daughter Sofiia.

Shortly after the Valinchucks arrived in Austria, their neighbors welcomed them with a fruit basket—a welcoming gesture that the Austrian family experienced while spending time in America. As the Valinchucks researched where to relocate to meet their daughter’s needs, they discovered that the Boston Children's Hospital in the U.S. has a special program focused on clinical trials researching a cure for Rett syndrome.

This is where Sofiia needed to be. Yulia decided to share her decision with their Austrian neighbors. “We told them about our plans, and they told us, ‘We can try to help you. We are [members of a local] Rotary Club, and we will write to [Rotarians in] the USA.’”

From just one welcoming gesture—that happened to be an American tradition—these Austrian neighbors connected the Valinchucks with the Rotary Club of Brookline and Joyce Graff, District Governor-elect for Rotary District 7910, who has been a Rotary member for 12 years. Once Joyce heard the family’s story, she couldn’t help but extend her own warm welcome as the Valinchucks arrived in the U.S. Joyce lives just one mile from the hospital, she had space in her home, and she had resources to offer the family. Plus, she understood their story better than most people.

“My son also has a rare disease,” Joyce said. First her late husband, then her son were diagnosed with von Hippel-Lindau disease. “I've been through that journey, and I work with people in a number of conditions to try to get the help they need. So when I heard that they were coming and that they had a rare disease. I said, okay, I'm up for it.”

Determining a new solution

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the Valinchucks quickly moved to a friend's home in Austria—but the remote town didn't have the resources they needed for their daughter's medical needs. A connection through Rotary International led them to Boston.

It’s especially challenging when a child experiences a problem that cannot be easily solved, even in the medical community. “You really have to pitch in and do everything you possibly can [on your own] to make things better for your child. I know that story well.”

“Joyce is amazing,” Yulia said. “We are really lucky that we met Joyce. She's very aware of how the medical system works here, because she also has some connections with rare genetic disease.”

Joyce’s connections and understanding surrounding rare diseases come not only from being a strong advocate for her son, but also from her lifelong commitment to helping others. In 1993, she founded the VHL Alliance, an organization that started with three families and now serves people all over the world.

We're really amazed with the support of American people. We don't feel like we are here alone.
Yulia Valinchuck, newcomer

Joyce invited the Valinchucks to stay in her Boston apartment until they were settled and able to move into an apartment of their own. During that time, they developed a close relationship.

“They've been just delightful to have around,” Joyce said. “They just do an amazing job for this little girl. And it's been really wonderful to have them here. They've told me they've adopted me as their grandmother.” Thanks to their Rotary connection, the Valinchucks are relieved to live somewhere safe where their daughter can receive consistent therapy—and there’s hope for a cure.

While Joyce has been a huge support for this family, the Rotary Club of Brookline also pitched in. Members welcomed them with open arms, contributing new furnishing and home items.

“Creating peaceful, welcoming, and inclusive societies is at the heart of what Rotary is about. Joyce Graff and the members of the Rotary Club of Brookline exemplify everything that’s great about Rotary," said John Hewko, General Secretary and CEO of Rotary International.

The assistance provided by Joyce and Rotary has been critical in helping this family return to living, working, and creating a more structured and hopeful life for Sofiia.

“There's actually a phrase in psychology: therapeutic altruism. That's when you do something for other people—it really nourishes you,” Joyce said. “It gives back to you a lot more than you give… It's been a lovely experience for me working with this family. It doesn't feel like I'm giving them a lot. I think it's been a wonderful exchange that has enriched my own life.”

The Rotary Foundation and Welcome.US are collaborating on sponsorship through Uniting for Ukraine, as one way for Rotarians to support Ukrainians who have fled the war and help them relocate to the United States. Click here to discover more ways that Rotary is responding to the crisis in Ukraine.

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