For 22 years, Yaroslav Yuz’vak has been at the wheel of the big yellow school bus, driving students around Ithaca with his big Ukrainian heart.
Now, he’s another kind of conduit, helping to direct much-needed medical supplies, money and clothing collected by his community, local churches, and his union to help the war-ravaged people of Ukraine under attack by Russia. His people.
“It’s so painful what’s going on,” he said. “My heart broke in half when it started.”
When he found out how much his community wanted to help, he said, “I was so thankful for that support. I can feel my heart start to beat harder when I learned (about it),” he said. “It was spiritual support.”
For a man who speaks six different languages, he seems to be most fluent in the language of the heart.
“Yaroslav’s ability to connect with students is unmatched,” said Chris Horstman, president of the Ithaca City School District Employees Association, representing bus drivers. “He has an amazing sense of humor that makes students comfortable while riding his bus. He currently has a Ukrainian flag in the front of his bus that I am sure has sparked many conversations.”
“They did a bake sale!” Yuz’vak said. “Nobody told them to! All the money they collected they donated to aid for Ukraine.”
The bus drivers, monitors, dispatchers and other crew members have also been on board helping Ukraine.
“Our transportation department has taken up donations of food, socks, first aid kits, and money to help ship items to where they would be most helpful,” Horstman said. “Next week we’ll be transporting all donations to Yaroslav's church for distribution.”
Yuz’vak, known as “Slavi” to many, has been in contact with cousins and a best friend he has in Ukraine to determine where to send donations and what the most urgent needs are.
“First I ask ‘Are you safe?’ then, ‘’What do you need for help?’” he said.
“Two weeks after the war started we just sent medical supplies.”
He said that families fleeing the Russian invasion first headed to western Ukraine, seeking shelter in private homes, churches, hospitals and schools.
“Some stayed the night, some days. It was so confusing. They didn’t know what to do,” Yuz’vak said of the refugees.
His cousin gave him contact information where to send donations in Ukraine and in Poland, where many refugees have fled. Yuz’vak’s church congregation collected money that was distributed to specific contacts to buy food to feed Ukrainians. Recently, two local volunteers, using money raised in the Cortland-Ithaca area where Yuz’vak lives, traveled to Poland on a Polish airline that allowed them 10 items of luggage each.
Yuz’vak said proudly that they collected and packed 600 pounds of camouflage shirts, army t-shirts and more into the luggage. When the pair landed, they bought food, loaded it into a cargo van. They traveled to eastern Ukraine where the heaviest attacks have been, and through contact with volunteers there, distributed food, he said.
Yuz’vak has been taking part in community meetings for Ukraine twice a week after finishing a typical 11-hour day ferrying students from school or BOCES to home; from events to home; from school to events.
“We pack, we prepare, we put on labels,” said the man named after a king. “I’m so tired.”
He’s been working hard since he came to America 23 years ago. His family had waited 10 years for their visa, and while it was his father’s dream to live in America, he died right before they came.
By the time the visa came, Yuz’vak was married with two small children. He left L’viv, where bombing began this week, with his mother, wife Zoryana and children. They had a sponsor with a church in Ithaca. His first job was cleaning a store at night, and he took classes to learn English.
“When I came to America, I only knew two words (in English) – people and pencil! I don’t know why,” he said, laughing.
In Ukraine, which was under Soviet rule when he was growing up, he said no one was allowed to learn English. It was part of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.
In America, he said, government programs – such as language classes - to assist new immigrants are so helpful. “I am really grateful. They are helpful, to get us up from the knees and stand up on the legs,” he said.
He heard bus drivers were needed and began studying for the test. “I feel inside me, that’s what I want to do.” In Ukraine, he had worked as a chauffeur for years, and as a father, he loves children.
He drove mornings and afternoons, and worked at a restaurant between shifts. Then at dinnertime he delivered pizza.
Now, he drives bus full time, and said he appreciates the benefits he is able to get as a union bus driver.
During the years he was working three jobs, and raising a family of five children, he said he missed Ukraine and was often thinking “What I am doing here?”
“Now I know why,” he said sadly. “I have three sons and I know they would be fighting in the war.”