TUNING IN TO THE WORLD — Those attending the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club meeting March 1 at the DeLand Elks Lodge on South Alabama Avenue watch on a projection screen as the president of the Kyiv Multinational Rotary Club in Ukraine speaks to them from a world away. Oksana Blazhko’s image appears on the screen via Zoom, along with the images of other Rotarians attending the meeting virtually.

Even as she took cover from an invasion by Russian military forces, Oksana Blazhko, president of the Multinational Rotary Club in Kyiv, still made time to chat March 1 with her counterparts in the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club.

It was in the wee hours of the morning in Ukraine, Blazhko spoke with the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club via Zoom. She was at a location outside of her hometown of Kyiv in almost complete darkness because of bombings from Russian forces. 

Her video was dim, she explained, because the town of Rivne had ordered all lights be kept off at night so as to not draw the attention of Russian bombers.

“Our club was mostly in awe of the courage this woman and her country are exhibiting in the face of almost certain annihilation,” Downtown DeLand Rotary Club President-elect Aaron Preston told The Beacon. “She spoke candidly about the local resistance and stories of heroism by everyday people just like us.”

Rotarians shared stories told by Blazhko of, for example, grandmothers planting themselves in front of Russian tanks to stall their movement, citizens switching up street signs to confuse the invaders, and of others stealing Russian equipment when it was momentarily left abandoned.

Preston continued, “Although she was soft spoken, keeping her voice suppressed, presumably to avoid unwanted attention, she was not afraid. She explained the general fear felt by all of her friends and neighbors, but her demeanor was that of a boxer in the third round.”

SCREENSHOT
HALF A WORLD AWAY — Oksana Blazhko speaks with Beacon reporter Noah Hertz via video call March 3. Her video quality was poor due to the darkness of her apartment in Rivne. People in the city were instructed to keep lights off at night to not draw the attention of Russian attackers.

While the Kyiv-based Rotary Club is more than 5,000 miles from DeLand, the club’s day-to-day operations aren’t too different from the Downtown Rotary’s, Preston said. 

But in the midst of a bloody invasion that has left as of press time, at least 752 Ukrainian casualties as of March 4, according to the United Nations,  it was Blazkho’s stories of standing up to aggression that stuck with the local Rotary Club members. 

“That she was able and willing to reach out to us during something so scary and give us a firsthand account of what’s taking place is a testament to their resiliency in the face of overwhelming odds,” Downtown DeLand Rotary Club Member Steven Evans said.

It was surprisingly easy to get Blazhko on the line, Member Ken Goldberg told The Beacon.

“I asked the president [of the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club], ‘Do they have Rotary Clubs in Ukraine?’” Goldberg said. A few quick Google searches later, and Goldberg was on the phone with the president of a Kyiv-based Rotary Club.

The Beacon was able to reach Blazhko March 3 by video call from the town of Rivne, some 300 kilometers from Kyiv and about 100 kilometers from Poland. That’s where Blazhko was staying in an apartment with relatives of her fiance and her cat, Veniamin (pronounced VEN-ya-min).

For Blazhko, communicating with the Rotary in DeLand and sharing stories of what she and her fellow Ukrainians are experiencing felt like something she could use her skillset to do.
“I have a laptop, I have some contacts,” she said. “It’s what I can do right now.”

Our first conversation with Blazhko was cut short by an air-raid siren; Blazhko had to move to a basement in case bombs fell on Rivne. No bombs fell this time. 

When The Beacon reached her again, she compared the conflict to “a bad dream,” and thanked people in Florida and all over the world for their concern.

The Rotary Foundation has created a disaster-relief fund to provide direct aid to Rotary districts affected by the invasion. Donations will be collected until April 30. For more information, or to donate, visit the Rotary Foundation disaster relief fund page, HERE

In total, including matching donations from Rotarian George Jenkins and the rotary district, the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club is sending a donation of around $13,000 to support relief efforts in Ukraine.

FULL OF STORIES

Of course, awful times can breed jokes, too.

Blazhko’s cat Veniamin

While the languages are similar, Ukrainian and Russian can have different pronunciations of some words. One word, Blazhko explained, often mispronounced by Russian speakers is “palyanytsia,” a type of Ukrainian bread. Since the invasion of Ukraine began, when encountering people on the road, she said, one way to identify if they are Ukrainian or Russian is to ask them to pronounce the name of the bread.

When The Beacon spoke with Blazhko after she spoke with the Downtown DeLand Rotary Club, she asked this reporter to pronounce “palyanytsia.” This reporter pronounced the word poorly, which elicited a laugh from Blazhko.

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