Ukrainian families new to Canada are feeling the love and support this holiday season thanks to one Eston resident and the surrounding communities.  

Driven from their native country Ukraine because of war, six families now call Eston and Kindersley home. Some arrived 4 months ago, others just a few weeks. A scary situation for anyone, and one individual in the area recognized this. 

Jenelle McLean, an Eston resident and active member in the community caught wind of this and shares how she became involved. 

“I had heard there was a new Ukrainian family in town and one day I was at the pool with my kids and saw the mom and son. I introduced myself but, I could sense the mom was nervous to speak to me in English. I went home that night and could not stop thinking about how lonely she must be in a new country with limited knowledge of the language, no friends and no family. My initial intention was to spend time with this woman and help in areas I could, but we quickly realized we had a lot in common and we became fast friends. As I got to know her, I realized how much guidance many of these families were in need of from registering kids in school, to filling out difficult paperwork, and even knowing what certain foods were in the grocery store. 

McLean and the women eventually reached out to the other new families to offer advice and ask what they need. McLean describes eye opening details of what they’re coming to Canada with, and what they’d need to get started and feel welcome. 

“These families are coming to Canada with one suitcase each. Their needs are huge from bedding, utensils, school supplies, tea kettles, they don't even have a hammer (or a picture frame for that matter) to hang photos in their own house. These families are starting from scratch, and I was slightly overwhelmed thinking about how much they would need for Christmas.”  

McLean continues to say although it’s a lot on her plate, she’d never be able to do it without the tremendous support from others. 

“You can never underestimate the power of small towns. For instance, the only wish one of the boys had was for a bike and we simply do not have the funds for that. I phoned Joel at Source for Sports and nervously explained my situation. Joel is happy to help every year, but I knew this was a really big ask. He didn't even blink, “of course he said, come down and pick out any one you want”. Truthfully most companies have been the exact same.” 

Backed by members and companies throughout the West Central area, McLean and others have also put together an annual project to assist those in need. 

“Each year I help organize a project called The Giving Tree in Eston. The Giving Tree chooses anywhere from 5 to 10 families each Christmas who could use an extra hand with us lightening their load and buying their Christmas Gifts. We gather all their wish lists, from their wants to their needs, and through community financial support and local businesses, we try to get as much as we can. This year, I decided to focus on six local Ukrainian families.” 

In choosing the six families from Ukraine, McLean realized even though they themselves need help getting established with essentials, they too are focused on helping family and friends back in Ukraine. 

“As I started collecting Christmas wish lists from these families, they were all struggling to ask for anything. They need everything under the sun yet nearly every family asked the same question “what if you didn't get us anything? Could we use the money you would have spent on us and send it back home to our people in need”? Truthfully, it was an overwhelming answer for me to digest. How ignorant I was to believe that new dishes would be helpful when these families are losing their loved ones at exponential rates. They are literally facetiming their families and watching them, bundled up in mounds of clothing in an attempt to not freeze, literally to death, after days, sometimes weeks without any power or heat. They are phoning home and hearing the struggles of food and medical shortages, of endless bombing attacks, of their family forced out of their homes without any clue of where to go next. They are watching the news constantly with broken hearts as their country ferociously fights for Victory. After listening to these families' heartaches, I knew it would be shameful to offer meaningless gifts without first finding a way to fulfill their real Christmas wish, which was help for Ukraine.” 

Truly a response anyone would have trouble fighting back tears, McLean went to the drawing board to think of special ways herself, the community and the families could raise funds to support loved ones back home. 

“After a few days of brainstorming, I knew these families could raise more money through a fundraiser than I ever could through The Giving Tree. I thought Ukrainian Pride ornaments would be a perfect way to do this. Many of the new-coming families gathered together and we hand painted wooden ornaments and also created car decals. This was an awesome opportunity for these families to get to know one another, but also for them to create and sell items and feel pride in their hard work and their ability to raise significant funds through their efforts.” 

In the month of December, nearly $3300 was raised and 100% of the goes directly back to Ukraine to different organizations the families chose. 

Ukrainian Pride ornaments and decals are available at some West Central businesses including The Crafted Hand in Kindersley and the Co-op in Eston. McLean decided to expand outside the immediate area in hopes of raising more money and reaching a bigger audience. Smak and Baba’s Closest in Saskatoon also carry them for a minimum donation of $10 each. 

Ukraine Ornaments
Ukraine Ornaments

(Ukrainian Pride Ornaments pictured above are made and sold for funds to assist family back home in Ukraine. Courtesy of Jenelle McLean)

Of course, the task of helping these families comes with its challenges, Mclean says and speaks about the toughest obstacle she and others face. 

“The biggest struggle is the language barrier which can also create a deep isolation. These families are leaving their country sometimes for the first time, adjusting to a completely different country and all without their friends and family, on top of that not knowing the language. They also just don't know what they don't know. For instance, if no one speaks to them about Kidsport or sports registration, they don't know what their options are.” 

Money, essential items, and ornaments aside, McLean offers advice on how we can help with making these families feel comfortable and welcome in our communities. 

“I would say to get comfortable with a language barrier and go out of your way to introduce yourself. Download translating apps like “sayhi” so you can engage new combers when you see them. We now have a Kindersley and Area Ukrainian Facebook page. You could add a post there with any kind of assistance you might be able to offer. I believe we all have many ways we can offer our help, it's just a matter of slowing down enough to be intentional enough to do so.” 

McLean admits she may have bitten off a little more than she can chew but knows how meaningful it is to these families.  

“It is not something that I ever planned for or prepared for on the day that I first introduced myself at the pool. I in a million years did not expect that this would be the path that I would be led to this many months later, but I have absolutely loved it.” 

Ahead of the Ukrainian holiday St. Nikolas Day, celebrated on December 19th, McLean and others involved with the Giving tree project wrapped presents which were graciously donated from companies near and far. The gifts were delivered in time and weren’t labeled in order for the families to write their own names on them.  

McLean continues to praise the amazing support she has alongside her. 

“I definitely could not do what I'm doing without the support of the community and the way that they stand behind me and help me with everything. It is really magical to be a part of and amazing to see when we all work together and help, how significant that is in a person’s life.” 

After the focus on The Giving Tree and ornaments subside a bit, plans for fundraising initiatives in the New Year are certain. 

Gifts wrapped for Ukrainian FamiliesGifts wrapped and ready to be delivered for St. Nikolas Day. (Picture courtesy of Jenelle McLean)