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Ukrainian refugees bring music to the Northeast Kingdom

Derby Ukraine rehearsal
Mikaela Lefrak
Joseph Arana Sanchez (center) rehearses on his guitar ahead of a benefit concert for fellow Ukrainians living in Vermont.

On a recent snowy day in Derby, Vt., a 24-year-old Ukrainian named Joseph Arana Sanchez pulled out a guitar and plucked out the chords to the 1960s American hit "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King. He was surrounded by a group of Americans who, in one way or another, have helped more than 30 Ukrainian refugees escape the war with Russia and establish themselves in Derby.

On Dec. 10, many of the Ukrainians will sing in a benefit concert at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro. The event, which is co-organized by David Kelley, Kathy Cadwell and Charlie Hosford, is already sold out. It's the most recent example of how the Northeast Kingdom community has rallied around the new arrivals and the American couple who brought them here, Theresa and Scott Cianciolo.

The Cianciolos founded Agape Ministries, a Christian nonprofit that works with children and adults with developmental disabilities in Ukraine.

agape couple
Mikaela Lefrak
Scott and Theresa Cianciolo on the porch of the Agape Ministries house in Derby.

The Cianciolos adopted twin boys with Down Syndrome from Odessa years ago, and they have another adopted son with autism. For years, they've been going back and forth between the U.S. and Ukraine. When Russia invaded, the Cianciolos followed the U.S. government's advice to evacuate.

"We had to really reflect on what was next," Scott said. "As people of faith, we just really prayed and fasted, and somebody from our board of directors had this great idea. They said, you need to open up a refugee center."

They raised about $750,000 to purchase the former Derby Green, a 10,000-square-foot property that used to serve as a nursing home. Plumbers, electricians and contractors donated their time and supplies to renovate the house and make it accessible to children with disabilities.

"It's a peaceful home, and it's a safe home," Scott said.

The UN estimates the war in Ukraine has internally displaced more than 7 million people. An additional six million Ukrainians have fled to other European countries. And about 150,000 have come to the United States, according to reporting by VTDigger.

Oleg and Tetiana Nadkyrnychi came to Derby from the city of Rivne. They have two sons, a 9-year-old and a 15-year-old.

The instability of wartime was particularly hard on their older son, who is autistic, so they decided to flee. They went to two different countries in Europe before Tetiana reached out to the Cianciolos for help getting to the U.S.

pic 3.jpg
Mikaela Lefrak
A flier for the upcoming holiday benefit concert at the Highland Center for the Arts.

A federal program allows Ukrainians fleeing the war to come to the U.S. for two years, as long as they have a sponsor like Agape that can support them financially and give them a place to live. Oleg is now trying to get a work permit and practicing for his driving test.

"What next, we don’t know. But people here share food and also clothes. It’s OK. We are Ukrainian. We are tough," Oleg said.

Many of the children at Agape have special needs, including autism, hydrocephalus, seizure disorders, and one child who needs multiple skin grafts. Volunteer nurses and teachers visit daily.

"They just step in and they build a relationship, which is the most important part," said Theresa. "It's not the things [people donate]. It's really that people feel surrounded and cared for."

The benefit concert on Saturday will support the families currently living at Agape, as well as future arrivals—around nine more Ukrainians are expected to arrive in the coming weeks.

The concert will include a video performance by a children's choir in Kyiv and live performances by folk musicians Dave Mallett and Mike Burd, Northeast Kingdom high school choirs, and Ukrainian children and young adults living at Agape. They'll sing Christmas music, folk songs and, last but not least, "Stand By Me."

Mikaela Lefrak joined Vermont Public in 2021 as co-host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Originally from Delaware, Matt moved to Alaska in 2010 for his first job in radio. He spent five years working as a radio and television reporter, radio producer, talk show host, and news director. His reporting received awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Alaska Broadcasters Association. Relocating to southwest Florida, he was a producer for television news and NPR member station WGCU for their daily radio show, Gulf Coast Live. He joined Vermont Public in October 2017 as producer of Vermont Edition.