FERGUS – A flourishing friendship creates a fresh start for a Ukrainian mother of two.
Olena Mikhalchenkova and Katarina Zanelli from Fergus will host a Kids Arts and Crafts March Break Camp, something that will offer children the opportunity to build some essential skills including basic sewing, painting and a bit of cooking, Ukrainian style.
Mikhalchenkova and her two children are settling into their new life in Fergus after fleeing the war in Ukraine a year ago.
With help from her newfound friend Zanelli, Mikhalchenkova looks forward to making a new start. And through her own love of sewing and art, she hopes to share her culture and inspire others.
“When Olena started talking about crafts for kids and wanting to do a craft camp, I thought well I want to help. So now, we are in this together,” Zanelli said.
“I think the camp can offer a great opportunity for kids to learn some important skills. We’ve had about nine or ten kids sign up so far. And we’ve had other inquiries.”
The camp is open to all children that want to join in.
“For me, I’ve had a love of art since childhood. I would grab a piece of fabric and want to create something. And what I really enjoy is recycling clothing, finding a new life for old things,” Mikhalchenkova said.
“I think for kids, sewing is an important skill to have. And there will also be cooking at the camp which adds to the experience.”
In Ukraine, Mikhalchenkova would sew more in the summer months and do painting and crafts with kids during the winter.
“In the summer, I would take kids groups out on hiking adventures along rivers, and do crafts out in the open air,” she said.
Mikhalchenkova hopes to continue teaching children in Fergus and has already offered a private lesson.
“A young girl was wanting to learn how to sew. She was a bit confused and panicked at first, not knowing what to do,” Mikhalchenkova said.
“For me, it’s art when two people get together and understand each other. Soon enough the girl just relaxed and enjoyed what she made. We finished, and we will continue lessons.”
Zanelli and Mikhalchenkova met in January. Their Ukrainian culture is something the two friends share.
“I am Ukrainian, on my mother’s side. Each year we celebrate Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas. My great-grandparents were refugees and fled Ukraine during WW2. This year, my mom thought to invite Olena and her family to join us for Ukrainian Christmas,” Zanelli said.
Zanelli also teaches at St. Joseph’s School, where Mikhalchenkova’s children attend.
“Once I heard that Olena sewed in Ukraine and she showed her pictures, we started looking at finding her a sewing machine. She did get a job at a local pizza place. But we knew that she was hoping to sew and we didn’t want her using her own money since she had to make a living,” Zanelli said.
Zanelli and her family decided to start a GoFund Me page for Mikhalchenkova.
“Now, she has an industrial serger and sewing machine and a domestic sewing machine and serger. It felt great to be able to get these machines for her and hopefully now, she can start up her business, which my mom began on Facebook, ‘Olena’s Sewing Corner in Fergus’,” Zanelli said.
“She’s already had a few customers already for things like alterations and hemming.”
Along with sewing, Mikhalchenkova enjoys patterns, adding decorative elements, hand embroidery, and painting fabric.
Mikhalchenkova moved to Canada in September with her two children, Arina, 13, and Yegor, nine. The family has lived in Fergus since January.
“We left home a year ago, just 10 days after the war broke out. Waiting at the train station, it was so difficult. But we were very lucky. We lived only 10-15 minutes from the station,” Mikhalchenkova said.
“Six of us left, me and the kids, my mom and sister and my five-year-old nephew. It was cold and rainy. We had to spend the night at the rail station.”
Mikhalchenkova and her family completed a 23-hour train ride to Poland.
“We lived in Warsaw. I had a friend living there. I called him and he helped us,” she said.
Her family in Poland hopes to return home to Ukraine one day.
“My mom is happy we are here but my sister, misses me. We are five years apart. She younger and misses her older sister who helps her with life’s decisions,” Mikhalchenkova said.
Olena says arriving in Canada was difficult at first.
“Everything was just so new for us. It’s is always strange at first, especially the little things,” Mikhalchenkova said.
“But now, my son is on a soccer team, and Arina plays volleyball at school and she just picked her courses as she will be starting high school next year. She was very excited about that.”
Language was a bit of a barrier, but Mikhalchenkova says both Arina and Yegor have caught on quickly.
“Kids need to be safe. They need to have a future. In Ukraine right now, kids are learning online, if they have hydro” she said.
Mikhalchenkova is currently working at a local restaurant and says she hopes to stay in Fergus.
“I do plan on staying. I don’t want any more change, especially for my kids. Last year, they were in three systems of education. And all are so very different,” she said.
“I’ve had to start again, one step at a time. I just want to take things day by day and enjoy the small moments. I feel inspiration here.”
Mikhalchenkova is grateful for the support she has received form Zanelli and both look forward to the camp next week.
“It’s important to know how to do things and work with your hands. It is so useful. There are always opportunities,” Mikhalchenkova said.
“When children learn and see how long it takes to sew something, they will know how long it takes others.”
Zanelli says she is happy Mikhalchenkova feels settled into her new life.
“Customers are starting to come and are asking Olena for her sewing services. A local art gallery will also be taking a few of her pieces. And hopefully the camp will be a success too,” Zanelli said.
“I like arts and crafts. I might not be as good at making them, but I do love working with kids, and I just want to support Olena.”
In the future, the friends hope to hold another camp, perhaps during the Easter season.
“I just want to just enjoy every day. Our lives are hidden in the small, beautiful things” Mikhalchenkova said.
“And in art, when we do something from love, it fill our souls.”
For more information about the Kids Arts and Crafts March Break Camp and Olena’s Sewing Corner in Fergus, visit here.