American Charity Helps To Repair War-Ravaged Music School In Ukraine Fixing up the school is part of an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of a people whose ethnic ties are with Russia but whose military and leaders identify with the West.

American Charity Helps To Repair War-Ravaged Music School In Ukraine

American Charity Helps To Repair War-Ravaged Music School In Ukraine

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Fixing up the school is part of an ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of a people whose ethnic ties are with Russia but whose military and leaders identify with the West.


And now a story about music and conflict in eastern Ukraine. Along the border, where tensions with Russia run high, an American charity is helping to rebuild a music school. This kind of Hearts and Minds project is part of a U.S.-led effort to support Ukraine against Russia's incursions. NPR's David Welna visited the music school, traveling there with Ukrainian troops.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Along Ukraine's line of separation, Donetsk, just to the east, is controlled by pro-Russian rebels. On this side, controlled by Ukraine's army, lies the town of Krasnohorivka. At its center stands a two-story, white stucco building, pockmarked with bullet holes. That's where this story begins, outside Krasnohorivka's war-ravaged music school.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: Awaiting the Ukrainian army SUV that's just pulled up, it's the school's diminutive, black-haired director, Ina Vertsanova.

ANDRII MARTYNOV: "Good day. It's very nice to see you here again. I am very, very glad to see you."

JIM HAKE: Looking good.

WELNA: Senior lieutenant Andrii Martynov interpretes for the school director. She, like everyone else here, speaks Russian. Vertsanova is especially welcoming to an American in this group Jim Hake. He visits the school regularly.

HAKE: The school is looking really good.

MARTYNOV: (Speaking Russian).

Not yet, but we have done something, a lot of work.

INA VERTSANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

MARTYNOV: "Very special thank you for windows. It's a very good start."

WELNA: Hake knows director Vertsanova because Spirit of America, the charity Hake founded, donated funds to replace windows blown out two years ago by pro-Russian separatists. Inside, we climb past falling plaster to a second-floor auditorium. Waiting for us there, a 5-year-old girl with big brown eyes - she's dressed all in pink, a big, white bow crowns her head.

VERTSANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: The director tells us the girl's name, Iretchka. Iretchka, Director Vertsanova informs us, has come to perform a song about a big, white stork on a rooftop.

IRETCHKA KARCHINKA: (Singing in Russian).

WELNA: The little girl sings along to recorded music in Russian.

IRETCHKA: (Singing in Russian).

WELNA: In September, if all goes well, Iretchka Kharchinka will begin classes here along with nearly 100 other students - that is, if the school gets repaired in time and it's not attacked again. Spirit of America, which Hake founded as a response to the 9/11 attacks, has donated some $200,000 to projects in Ukraine. The charity is not a neutral player. Its main mission, he says, is to help advance American foreign policy objectives in hotspots like Ukraine.

HAKE: I think you look at what Russia has done in launching the war here, and to stop that kind of aggression, you have to take a side. And that's what Spirit of America is doing here in Ukraine, working with our troops and diplomats to support the Ukrainians on the front lines of this struggle.

WELNA: There's been another key player in rebuilding Krasnohorivka's music school - the Ukrainian army.

COLONEL OLEKSEI NOSDRACHOV: To show those people who are on occupied territories that there is some positive activity.

WELNA: That's Colonel Oleksei Nosdrachov, head of the army's department of civil military cooperation. Krasnohorivka's music school, he says, is that front-line town's moral center of gravity, which is why helping rebuild it has also been a trust-building exercise.

NOSDRACHOV: It definitely bolstered the attitude and support from locals to the Ukrainian armed forces and the Ukrainian government in general.

VERTSANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: Back in her office, school director Vertsanova pours cups of tea. She thanks Jim Hake for the $17,000 Spirit of America donated for the school's windows and its badly shelled roof. That help, she says, has proved crucial.

VERTSANOVA: (Speaking Russian).

VERTSANOVA: "We wanted very much to open that school. We didn't have a lot of support from local authority. And only because of your support, now it is possible to open."

GEOFFREY PYATT: It is a unusual response to an unusual circumstance.

WELNA: Geoffrey Pyatt is the American ambassador to Ukraine. This U.S. charity's role in the battle between East and West that's playing out in Ukraine, is relatively small, he says, compared to the more than $600 million in non-lethal aid that Washington sent.

PYATT: We have welcomed the work that Spirit of America has done here, precisely because it compliments so well what we're doing in official channels.

WELNA: Spirit of America's Hake says his aim is reassurance.

HAKE: By helping that school, we can help show the Ukrainians that America and Americans can actually be a force for good and that Ukraine and Ukrainians are also there to help.

WELNA: And to send this message - that the world to the west has not forgotten this fratricidal war nor the nearly 10,000 lives it's taken. David Welna, NPR News. Krasnohorivka, Ukraine.

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