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Local doctor creates community for Ukrainian girls through volleyball

By Alice Momany / The Blade, 06/22/23, 2:06PM PDT


Dr. Paat takes the time out of his day to teach the girls an organized American sport and is helping them transition to life in a new country.

Screams of “mine” and “out” could be heard this week throughout the halls of Queen of Apostles Grade School in South Toledo.
A Ukrainian flag hung in the center of the third-floor gym on a volleyball net as three girls passed a ball to one another.

“OK guys, let’s get started,” said Dr. Richard Paat, the head coach of the Toledo Starlings volleyball club, and the players ran into position.

When Dr. Paat isn’t busy seeing patients at Mercy Health Maumee Primary Care or teaching classes at the University of Toledo Health Science Campus, he enjoys going on mission trips and coaching volleyball.

The Health Science Campus is the former Medical College of Ohio.
Dr. Paat has been coaching volleyball for more than 40 years, and he has been on 95 mission trips.

He has been to Ukraine four times, and after his most recent trip, he reached out to Alona Matchenko, founder of Toledo Helps Ukraine, and Svitlana Zhukivska, a colleague at UT, to see if there were any Ukrainian girls who would be interested in learning volleyball.

They responded with the names of three 12-year-old girls: Anastasiia Siredzhuk, Viktoriia “Vika” Novak, and Marharyta “Margo” Kulish.
For the past two months, the girls have been practicing two to three times a week, but not without a little extra help.
In addition to Dr. Paat, five assistant coaches and three translators join the girls on the court. The five assistant coaches are students at the University of Toledo and Lourdes University who happen to have volleyball experience.

The girls and their families came to Toledo from various parts of Ukraine through Toledo Helps Ukraine.

Helping from Toledo.

The Toledo Helps Ukraine organization was founded in February, 2022, by Mrs. Matchenko in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The organization has gone on one mission trip to Mukachevo, Ukraine, and brought supplies such as flashlights, generators, and batteries to internally displaced refugees. The organization has also sent two containers of aid to a church in Central Ukraine, but the primary service the organization focuses on is relocating refugees to the United States.

In the past year, 58 individuals have been relocated across Ohio, with six families brought to Toledo and seven more expected this summer.

Dr. Paat joined the organization in Mukachevo and helped those affected by providing medical equipment and supplies to families.
“[Dr. Paat] has been a wonderful missionary to many countries and certainly Ukraine has not been exempt from that,” Mrs. Matchenko said.

Margo has lived in Toledo for the past year, but Vika and Anastasiia relocated only a few months ago, and they are all still learning English. To help with the language barrier, Dr. Zhukivska’s three children, Dennis, Danielle, and Jessica, help translate the directions during practice.

“[In Toledo], it’s super hard to find Ukrainians to translate in this way, so I was just happy I could help,” Dennis said.

Dr. Zhukivska, her husband, and Dennis came to the United States from Chernivtsi, Ukraine. They originally moved to Portland but came to Toledo for Dr. Zhukivska’s residency as a family physician. She is the doctor to all of the girls, and she wanted to help Dr. Paat because she saw this as a positive experience for them.

“I think it’s good for them because they’ve all been through a traumatic experience, leaving their school, friends, and life behind,” Dr. Zhukivska said. “I think doing [sports] helps distracts from the hardships.”

On the court

While Dennis translated Dr. Paat’s instructions from the sidelines to the girls at the recent practice, Jessica and Danielle were busy making blue and yellow ribbons, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, to hand out this weekend at the Starlings Volleyball Club’s national tournament in Irvine, Calif. Starlings is a nonprofit group and the nation’s largest junior volleyball club.

Although the girls don’t have enough players to form a team, they will be joining girls from Antelope Valley, Calif. and representing Ukraine on the court.
“They pretty much started from no volleyball skills, and they have developed well enough that they’ll be competitive at nationals,” Dr. Paat said.

In addition to the highly competitive tournament, he said the girls will have a “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” complete with a trip to Disneyland and a day at Huntington Beach.

“They’ve really learned a lot, and they are all great kids,” Dr. Paat said. “They’ve all been through difficult times, living in bomb shelters and having to come over here and make a new life.”

The journey of coming to the United States and starting anew is what all of the girls wrote about in their essay submissions to the Starlings Literary/Art Contest. All the volleyball players are invited to submit a work of literature or art that follows the chosen theme and the winners are announced at the national championship game. This year’s theme is “Opportunity.”

“I’m just learning volleyball, and I’m very grateful for this opportunity to make my dream come true,” Margo wrote in her essay.

Margo talked about her experience fleeing from Poland and then to Germany before coming to Toledo. She also wrote about her aspirations to become an engineer and study at Ohio State University.

Vika echoed Margo’s thankfulness to Dr. Paat for teaching her a sport that she would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn.
“We have an incredible coach, and my teammates have become my closest friends,” Vika wrote. “I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all those who have provided us with safety and assistance.”

Vika came to Toledo from Vyshevychi, Ukraine with her mother, father, and brother and said she will never forget the day she was awakened by a “deafening explosion.” Anastasiia also said she will never forget that day because “everything changed in one morning.”

“On that fateful day, we awoke to the news that we couldn’t attend school as usual, meet with friends, or play,” Anastasiia wrote in her essay.

Mrs. Matchenko said it is incredible that Dr. Paat takes the time out of his day to teach the girls an organized American sport and is helping them transition to life in a new country.

“It’s unbelievable how they have been able to adjust to life here in Toledo,” Mrs. Matchenko said. “It’s uplifting and it’s encouraging to know that people want to help, especially when times are rough.”

Dr. Paat said he doesn’t mind the time commitment because it combines two of his passions: medical missionary work and volleyball. But more importantly, it is about the girls.
“It’s about giving the kids opportunities like [volleyball],” he said. “That is what’s really important.”