Notes From Ukraine: How one exchange student changed the lives of a local family

When Judy Hughes invited a Ukrainian foreign exchange student into her home, she had no idea that she’d be gaining a new family.

The principal of her daughters’ school — Bob Herring at Nativity — started the program in 1994, and Hughes first hosted a student from Guatemala, but when her youngest asked to do the same, Hughes was worried because the kids were so young.

Her daughter, Carrie, was 10, and their exchange student, Elena (Lena) was the same age.

“It was one of the most rewarding experiences for me and my daughter,” Hughes says. “She was just an absolute delight. She and Carrie bonded immediately.”

Lena won their hearts immediately, and brought hand-painted gifts from Ukraine that the family still has today.

Lena’s English was good, but there were some setbacks. However, they made it through the three-week program without a hitch, visiting all of the Cincinnati staples — like the zoo and Graeter’s — before Lena boarded the bus to head back to Kharkiv.

Hughes and her daughters have kept in touch with Lena since she stayed with them in 1994, and Carrie even stayed with Lena’s family a few months later.

“With everything that’s going on right now, we’re just heartbroken, says Hughes. “Every holiday of any sort, she sends a message — to my American mom.”

Lena also regularly writes Hughes’ two daughters, and the connection to Ukraine has become intergenerational.

Hughes’ oldest daughter, Christy, told her children about Lena, who is now married with a 5-year-old son. One of Christy’s kids decided to write a letter to Sasha — Lena’s son — and used an online translation app to convert her note to Russian. In turn, he sent her some music.

Just this past weekend, Hughes and her family learned that Lena and her son had safely escaped Ukraine. The email was cryptic for safety concerns, but Hughes is happy that Lena and her little boy are safe. They are, however concerned that her husband and brother, who might be serving in the war.

Overall, Hughes says, the exchange program was “An eye-opening experience showed us how connected we really are.”

Read more articles by Jessica Esemplare.

Jessica Esemplare is the managing editor of Soapbox Cincinnati and a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Shortly after completing her degree in magazine journalism, she began covering local and regional topics at The Cincinnati Herald and, later, as an editor at Ohio Magazine. Her writing has also been featured in U.S. News and World Report.