RYLEIGH NORGROVE / CHRONICLE PHOTOS - So far, the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church has raised more than $100,000 to support Ukrainian relief efforts. Father Richard Janowicz said he was happy with the turnout for Ukrainian Day but called for community members to stay strong and continue to pray for the people of Ukraine.
SPRINGFIELD – The Piasta family lives and breathes Ukrainian dance. It's resilient, spirited and joyful – just like them.
The family has spearheaded the largest Ukrainian dance group on the West Coast, Veselka, since its inception 30 years ago.
"This is a blessing for us and this year more than ever important for us to be together celebrating this culture," Kalyna Piasta said. "Given the state of Ukraine, it's a very tough time for the country and culture but we're really glad we're able to celebrate."
Saturday, Veselka dancers performed to a full-bellied and smiling crowd at Ukrainian Day hosted by the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield. Hundreds of visitors enjoyed the sunny afternoon, traditional Ukrainian food and dance.
Though Saturday was a day of celebration, the Russian invasion of Ukraine hung over the festivities. In February, the Russian invasion caused Europe's largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 8.8 million Ukrainians fleeing the country and a third of the population displaced. And while the war was on the forefront of many minds present, Leo Piasta insisted it was a day of celebration and a "gift to share his culture and dance."
"We dance in our way," Leo said. "It's not just Ukrainian, it's Cossack and it's Hutsul. Each family or smaller culture (in Eastern Europe) dances specific to them. And there are many types. But there is not one Ukrainian dance, there is one Ukrainian people. We will dance for them."
Leo started dancing young, at only 5 years old. "Everyone was yelling and stomping and jumping and running and spinning. It was just fun," he said. Piasta's grandparents immigrated from Ukraine and there, away from the "sovietization" of Ukrainian culture back home, Piasta says he was able to preserve tradition. "Some young people now do not remember what it was like, to see our culture and dance be small, and more square. We were far from there and so, we were able to keep things going."
He started Veselka 30 years ago, and today, his children Kalyna and Alex help lead a two-week dance intensive to celebrate Ukrainian culture. His sister, Donna, coaches dancers too. "Through this, we get to share who we are," Leo said. "My children help me share our dance with everyone who wants to learn. It is a real blessing."
Alex and Kalyna grew up dancing, just like their father. The pair choreographed most of the performance, and Alex says the two of them are "on the same page" rhythmically. "The music kind of tells us what to do," he said. "We'll be making a dance together, and we can just look at each other and do the same thing. It's a different language, but one we both speak."
On Ukrainian day, 81 students aged 5 to 25 danced in two energetic performances. Senior members participated in a traditional "Rite of Passage Ceremony" where eligible girls and boys were presented with wreaths and sashes, signifying their passage into adulthood. Leo says the wreath and ribbon ceremony is one he's fought to protect, which has often been "reinterpreted" by Soviet influence.
"Even though most of these kids aren't Ukrainian, it's always awesome to share this part of our life and our family's life with them," Alex said. "And all these people in Ukraine are struggling right now. So this is a great time to spread some good energy and do what we can to promote the culture."
Senior dancer Miranda Coleman has been dancing with Veselka since she was a little girl. For her, celebrating Saturday was an act of defiance. "It's a joy, coming together with people who share the same love for this culture as I do and representing my culture onstage," Coleman said. "My heart just hurts for all the people in Ukraine, and it makes me emotional to talk about it. Coming here today after two years of being unable to, with everything going on, it's more important to be here than it ever has been."
Father Richard Janowicz of the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church was happy with the turnout but called for community members to stay strong and continue to pray for the people of Ukraine.
In the months following the Russian invasion, the church raised nearly $40,000 to send medical supplies and donations to Ukrainian relief efforts. Saturday, the number was well over $100,000, Kalyna said.
Parishioners served Kowbasa – a Ukrainian-style sausage, Varenyky – a traditional potato dumping, Pyrizhky – a stuffed bun and fresh baked goods to hungry festival-goers. Many vendors planned to donate any profits from sales to Ukrainian relief efforts, Piasta said.
In Lane County, supporting Ukrainian refugees means cutting through a lot of red tape, officials said.
In April, the U.S. government created the "Uniting for Ukraine" program, providing a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate families to come to the United States and stay for two years of “parole.” This parole status comes with a few stipulations; participants must have a supporter stateside who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay. Under this program, migrating Ukrainians aren't defined as refugees and cannot access resettlement services. Those services would have included SNAP benefits, housing placement, job connections, visa support and many others.
Christine Zeller-Powell manages the Refugee and Immigrant Services program at Catholic Community services in Lane County. "There are a few Ukrainians here who have fled the war, but they did not come through the parole program," Zeller-Powell said. "So we can support those folks with legal advice and job placement help, but because we are a part of the U.S. refugee admissions program, we provide services to individuals who are assigned to us. And so because the Ukrainian parolees are not coming through the federal refugee admissions program, we don't get funding to serve them."
Zeller-Powell did say that more pathways to citizenship and services are available for Ukrainian refugees fleeing religious persecution or as a member of a religious minority, such as the Ukrainian Catholic Church.
Christy Beltrán, left, a parishioner at the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, costumed all 81 dancers for Ukrainian day.
Christy Beltrán, a parishioner at the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church in Springfield, costumed all 81 dancers for Ukrainian day. She hand-sewed snaps into piles of kersetkas, embroidered vests worn by female dancers. Her favorite accessory? An ear-to-ear smile.
"The dancing is just beautiful," Beltrán said. "And the church does everything we can to help make this day go smoothly. The dancing is disciplined, like a language, it's a vocabulary of steps and the beautiful thing about it is, anyone who does Ukrainian dance would have something in common with other people cross-culturally because they would know the same dance language."
At the end of the show, dancers sang a prayer for the people of Ukraine. Kalyna led the crowd in prayer saying, "To the people of Ukraine, we pray our thoughts rise to you. We are with you. We are with you here, in Springfield Oregon."
To support the Nativity of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church’s efforts to support the people of Ukraine, please visit nativityukr.org.