Jul. 7—The young ones always manage to smile for the cellphone snaps in their elementary school classrooms back home.
Compelling visuals, they are — and Valerya Gritsenko finds herself going to them more and more on Facebook these days.
And their teachers do too, the WVU neuroscientist notes.
Putting on a happy face for the camera, that is.
Save for one telling detail.
Their smiles never seem to make it to the eyes.
She knows the reason.
It's because, said Gritsenko, who grew up on the outskirts of Kharkiv in Ukraine, they know what's on the other side of those walls, in their schools and in their neighborhoods.
"Outside, there's war, " she said.
"Outside, there's chaos and destruction."
Inside those classrooms, she said, there's hope.
And that emotion is what prompted her to launch a GoFundMe account last month she calls, "Laptops for Learning."
Its goal is to order laptops for those classrooms from Rozetka, an online store in the region that still manages to ship orders, shelling be damned.
All monies donated — 100 %, she said — will go directly to the cause.
With a war on, teachers have to a lot of their instruction online.
There is internet access—but countless families can't afford a laptop, even as education is valued.
For details, visit gofundme.com and type "Laptops for Learning " into the search field.
Gritsenko grew up under Russian rule.
Her mother, a history professor at a local university, was one of the first academics in the region to deliver her lectures in Ukrainian after the Soviet Union unraveled in 1991.
As a kid, Gritsenko excelled in physics and biology.
She devoured science-fiction novels and "Star Trek " reruns — while dreaming of studying life on other planets.
Good grades led to scholarships and study abroad opportunities.
She and her husband, Sergiy Yakovenko, also a neuroscientist, had an opportunity to come to West Virginia and Morgantown, where they both teach and do research at the state's flagship university.
When Putin's tanks began tearing the earth across the borders of their homeland on Feb. 24, 2022, they became activists as well.
The couple is part of "The Ukrainian Community of Morgantown, " a loosely formed coalition of kindred spirits that does fundraising while lining up housing for refugee families from the war.
"We have to do something, " she said.
Her parents emigrated to Canada years ago, she said, but she still has an aunt and uncle in Ukraine. They're in the central part of the country, where the presence of invasion isn't as pronounced.
There's also a cousin, a physician, who is on the front lines treating the war-wounded.
Sergiy was able to get his elderly parents out of Kharkiv last year, where they endured bullets and bombs on a daily basis.
His brother, who also works for a hospital and is still in the country, once famously dodged a rocket during his morning commute in the first days of the fighting.
"My in-laws are with us now, " she said.
"They want to go back to Ukraine. Eventually. But I don't know."
She can't go back, she said.
The shelling has taken care of that.
"My school is gone. My little town is gone. It's like my childhood is being destroyed."
Another reason, she said, as to why she's drawn to the smiles of the current generation in her country to fall under the shadow of Russian aggression.
A country where "Slava Ukraini "—Glory to Ukraine — is both a daily greeting and a call to arms.
"When I see those kids, my heart goes out."