Legend:Bus driver Yaroslav Yuzvak (right) with Ithaca School District Employees Association President Chris Horstman. Photo provided.
For 22 years, Yaroslav Yuz’vak has been driving the big yellow school bus, driving students around Ithaca with his big Ukrainian heart.
Now he’s a different kind of channel, helping direct much-needed medical supplies, money and clothing to his community, local churches and union to help the war-ravaged people of Ukraine under attack from Russia. . His people.
“It’s so painful what’s happening,” he said. “My heart broke in two when it started.”
When he found out how much his community wanted to help, he said, “I was so grateful for this support. I can feel my heart starting to beat faster when I learned (this),” he said. “It was spiritual support.”
For a man who speaks six different languages, he seems most fluent in the language of the heart.
“Yaroslav’s ability to connect with students is unparalleled,” said Chris Horstman, president of the Ithaca City School District Employees Association, representing bus drivers. “He has an amazing sense of humor which puts students at ease when they get on his bus. He currently has a Ukrainian flag on the front of his bus which I’m sure has caused a lot of conversations.
“They had a bake sale!” Yuz’vak said. “No one told them to do it! All the money they collected, they donated to help Ukraine.
Bus drivers, monitors, dispatchers and other crew members were also on board to help Ukraine.
“Our transportation department received donations of food, socks, first aid kits and money to help ship items to where they would be most needed,” Horstman said. “Next week we will transport all donations to the church in Yaroslav for distribution.”
Yuz’vak, nicknamed “Slav” by many, has been in touch with cousins and a best friend he has in Ukraine to figure out where to send the donations and what the most urgent needs are.
“First I ask ‘Are you safe?’ then, ”What do you need to help you?” he said.
“Two weeks into the war, we just sent medical supplies.”
He said families fleeing the Russian invasion first headed to western Ukraine, seeking refuge in private homes, churches, hospitals and schools.
“Some stayed at 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 details to send donations to in Ukraine and Poland, where many refugees have fled. The Yuz’vak church congregation collected money which was distributed to specific contacts to purchase food to feed Ukrainians. Recently, two local volunteers, using money raised in the Cortland-Ithaca area where Yuz’vak lives, flew to Poland on a Polish airline that allowed them 10 pieces of luggage each.
Yuz’vak proudly stated that they had collected and packed 600 pounds of camouflage shirts, army t-shirts and more into luggage. When the couple landed, they bought food, loaded it into a van. They traveled to eastern Ukraine where the heaviest attacks took place and, through contact with volunteers there, distributed food, he said.
Yuz’vak participated in Community Meetings for Ukraine twice a week after finishing a typical 11-hour day ferrying students home from school or BOCES; home events; from school to events.
“We pack, we prepare, we put labels,” said the man named after a king. “I am so tired.”
He has worked hard since arriving in 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 just before they arrived.
By the time the visa arrived, Yuz’vak was married with two young children. He left L’viv, where the shelling 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 laughs.
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 the Soviet Union.
In America, he said, government programs — such as language classes — to help new immigrants are so helpful. “I’m really grateful. They’re helpful, getting us off the knees and standing on our legs,” he said.
He heard that bus drivers were needed and started studying for the test. “I feel inside me, that’s what I want to do.” In Ukraine, he worked as a driver for years, and as a father he loves children.
He drove mornings and afternoons and worked at a restaurant between shifts. Then at dinner time he delivered a pizza.
Now he drives buses full time and says he enjoys the benefits he can get as a union bus driver.
During the years of working three jobs and raising a family of five children, he said he missed Ukraine and often thought “What am I doing here?”
“Now I know why,” he said sadly. “I have three sons and I know they would fight in the war.”