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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

‘You get more than you give:’ Welcome Circle Volunteer Jean Anderson-Collier on Welcoming Ukrainian Family in Need

For Catholic Charities Boston Welcome Circle volunteers Jean Anderson and her husband David Small, music has always been a powerful tool for self-expression and cultivating connection. As musicians and professors at Boston Conservatory School of Music, Jean and David have made successful careers out of their shared passion.

What they didn’t know was that music was also the invisible string linking them to a Ukrainian family who would come to change their lives, beginning when Jean and her colleague hired a pianist they’d found online to transpose a piece of music.

Only later did they realize the man they’d hired, named Ruslan, was from Ukraine and had, in the midst of completing their project, fled to Florida with his family in search of safety.

As deeply faithful parishioners at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Scituate, Jean and David immediately felt called to help. Not only were they moved by the struggles the family had endured but also by the expertise and beauty with which Ruslan played the piano.

Eager to help the family relocate to Boston, where job opportunities for Ruslan would be more plentiful, Jean reached out to Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services Department.

“Catholic Charities Boston’s programs for refugees was so comprehensive, and they got back to me right away,” she said. “The more I researched it, I began to think, ‘You know, with my church, we can set up a Welcome Circle. We can do this.’”

As a first step in supporting the family, Jean’s parish helped Ruslan fly to Boston, where he participated in a concert at their church that served as a fundraiser for his family. Only a week later, however, the individuals Ruslan and his family had been staying with in Florida experienced a major health crisis and regrettably had to ask Ruslan and his family to leave almost immediately. With no other family or friends nearby, Ruslan reached out to Jean to share that they would not be able to move to Boston after all and instead would have to use the money he’d earned at the concert to find affordable housing in Florida.

“When we learned this, David and I looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t believe that is what God intended that money to be used for. We told Ruslan, ‘Just come to Boston and stay with us. We’ll figure it out from there.’”

A mere week later, with the fundraising from Jean’s parish and assistance from the church Ruslan had been performing at in Florida, Ruslan and his family arrived at Jean’s doorsteps with their bags, where they lived for two months over the summer.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Jean. “We turned our studio into a bedroom for their two sons, 12 and 9, and Ruslan and his wife Olga stayed in our guest room. They love to cook and made some fantastic food while they were with us. We got to experience their culture and they got to experience ours.”

Ruslan and Olga’s sons on Christmas morning playing a game, with Ruslan and David in the background.

With the support of RIS Program Manager Phil D’Agati, Jean and her husband worked with the other Welcome Circle members to enroll the children in school and to connect the family to ESOL classes, health insurance, community events, and job opportunities, as well as to eventually find them an apartment of their own in Cambridge.

“I’ve been so inspired by this family’s work ethic, resilience, and their ability to just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” said Jean.

Despite the obstacles they’ve faced, the family continues to find joy in every day.

Having studied English in Ukraine, Olga has resumed her career as a social worker, while Ruslan is working as a collaborative pianist with classical musicians at Boston Conservatory School of Music and Berklee School of Music. Meanwhile, Jean said their two sons are thriving at school and wasted no time in resuming the activities they love, including playing the violin, joining intramural soccer, and becoming members of the chess club.

Though Ruslan and his family now live in Cambridge, Jean said she and David continue to see them nearly every week, whether it’s playing music together, grabbing a bite to eat, or at Sunday mass at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Jean said it’s been a beautiful experience to witness her church come together to welcome Ruslan’s family into their parish community.

“When they moved to their new apartment, our parish completely furnished the place, providing everything from linens to towels to kitchen supplies,” she said. “Our church has just fallen in love with them and realized that we can make a tangible difference.”

“We’ve gotten so much more out of this experience than they have,” she continued. “You really get more than you give.”

To learn more about Jean and David’s experience running a Welcome Circle, check out Channel 5’s ‘5 for Good’ segment here.

To learn more about Catholic Charities Boston’s Welcome Circles program, and how you can get involved, click here.

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