When Zina Tkachenko’s 10-year-old son, Pasha, first saw their new home in south St. Louis, he said, “Wow! I want to play football in this backyard!” Zina recalled.
The Tkachenko family arrived in St. Louis through the Uniting for Ukraine (U4U) asylum program after leaving their home in central Ukraine in October 2022. They lived with a host family for 11 months before getting the keys to their own home Sept. 29, through the help of DePaul USA in St. Louis.
The home, named St. Michael House after the patron saint of Kyiv, was purchased and remodeled by DePaul USA for the specific purpose of housing a Ukrainian refugee family.
“When Russia invaded Ukraine, there was an appeal put out to raise money for the people in Ukraine. And here in the States, over $750,000 was raised and sent to Ukraine, and so much of that money came from St. Louis,” said Chuck Levesque, executive director of DePaul USA. “So we felt that if there was anywhere we could help Ukrainians who are displaced in the United States, it would be St. Louis.”
DePaul USA partnered with the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation, which builds and manages affordable housing primarily in New York and surrounding areas. The corporation agreed to put up the money to purchase a house to allow DePaul USA to move quickly in securing a property while simultaneously fundraising to repay the loan.
The Tkachenko family will pay a few hundred dollars in rent, and DePaul USA will provide case management services to the family, including linking them with language classes and supportive services at the International Institute of St. Louis or Welcome Neighbor STL, said DePaul USA St. Louis director Rich LaPlume. This is similar to the support that all clients receive from DePaul USA, which offers housing-first programs rooted in Vincentian values to affirm the dignity and worth of every person.
Once the Tkachenko family is self-sufficient and able to move on in coming years, St. Michael House will be turned over to another refugee family in need, LaPlume said.
On Sept. 29, Serhii and Zina Tkachenko and their 7-month-old daughter, Mia — Pasha was at school — gathered with members of DePaul USA and other Vincentian supporters to receive the keys to their new home and a blessing from Father Toshio Sato, CM. Sept. 29 was the feast of St. Michael, and the Church celebrated the feast of St. Vincent de Paul just a few days prior, noted Levesque.
“This is the week of St. Vincent de Paul’s feast day, and back in his day, it was a world of war and a world of refugees as well. And it’s sad that we haven’t moved beyond that in many ways,” he said. “This beautiful little house ... is not going to solve that whole problem, but it is a gesture of solidarity with people who have been displaced. I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, Serhii and Zina. But my sincerest hope is that you find this place to be a new home, a place where you can grow, raise your family, achieve whatever you want to achieve in your life.”
Matthew Janeczko, president of the Sisters of Charity Housing Development Corporation and SCOPE, spoke of his ancestors who came to the United States from Ukraine in 1907. “The tapestry of our nation, and in fact, of our Church, of our faith, of our God, is woven from the stories of families from Ukraine, from Nigeria, Honduras, India, Venezuela and every other nation under the sun.”
Jesus is very clear in Matthew 25 that we have an imperative to look out for people who don’t have homes, Janeczko said. “So for me, and for us as an organization, this is a clear Gospel call that we need to serve,” he said. “Especially for refugees — it’s one thing to see them on TV and say we’re going to give you thoughts and prayers, but it’s quite another to actually do something.”
Several members of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul lent a hand to DePaul USA’s effort. The “Holy Haulers” group at Queen of All Saints in Oakville, whose volunteers pick up donated furniture and take it to St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores and neighbors in need, offered their services to pick up and deliver the furnishings for St. Michael House. The response was so generous that “we were just overwhelmed with choices,” said Don Zachritz, a member of the Holy Haulers group. “It’s been a really successful response from the community.”
Don’s wife, Janet Zachritz, and Karen Gibbons organized the effort to supply the house with everything needed, down to the linens, dishes, sunflowers on the table and a pink princess play tent in the backyard. They also served as interior decorators, ensuring everything the Holy Haulers brought matched and made sense in the space.
“The furniture came together through friends, family, a call out to our churches and to St. Vincent de Paul,” Janet Zachritz said. “It was amazing — people just came out of the woodwork. The day we had volunteers here (to move in and do house projects), we probably needed like six men, but we had about 25.”
Gibbons, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Clayton, reached out to her ACTS retreat group for donations to the project. “You’re watching the news, and you can’t believe this is happening to somebody, and you feel so helpless,” she said. “And then you get to do something that can make a difference, even if it’s just one family’s life.”
After the hubbub of the house blessing and welcome, Serhii, Zina and Mia Tkachenko sat on the front porch of their new home, Ukrainian and American flags flying side-by-side from the porch’s canopy.
It’s been almost a year since they left Ukraine and landed in St. Louis. Serhii has a job in construction, and now having their own house is “the next step, the next level in our life,” Zina said. They are thankful for everyone who worked hard to make it ready for them, she added.
>> DePaul USA
DePaul USA is part of the Depaul International Group, which was founded in 1989 by three Catholic organizations: the Daughters of Charity, the Passage Day Centre and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The Group is a member of the worldwide Vincentian Family, a movement of over 2 million people inspired by St. Vincent de Paul who devoted his life to helping the poor, sick and needy.
DePaul USA has locations in nine U.S. cities, including St. Louis. In St. Louis, Project More and Project Plus are housing-first programs that serve adults who experience chronic homelessness and major mental illness. Clients are placed in scattered supportive housing, and staff regularly visit them to assist in their transition to independence. They link residents with needed social services, advocate on their behalf, and assist with finding employment and applying for benefits. Project More and Project Plus are part of the St. Louis Continuum of Care for the Homeless initiative.
DePaul USA St. Louis also runs St. Lazare House, which serves chronically homeless young adults ages 18-24. Residents live in their own one-bedroom apartments in St. Lazare House, where staff is available in the building 24/7 to provide support as the young adults work toward improving their health and wellness and eventually moving into permanent housing of their own.
To learn more, visit depaulusa.org/programs/st-louis.