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The Santa of Ukraine: UT student returning home with donated gifts for orphans and displaced children

Nataliia Yakushko is a doctoral student at the University of Tennessee. She helped create a website to ensure Ukrainian children have Christmas gifts.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A University of Tennessee student has collected more than 200 letters from children in Ukraine. They are the words and wishes of orphans and children displaced by the war, now living in camps scattered across the area.

Many letters ask for typical Christmas gifts like winter coats, toy cars and dolls. But some also ask for peace, to be reunited with their families, and to go back to their homes.

"Dear Santa, I'm asking you to make old kids in Ukraine never face this again, so they can wake up, smile, and have peace in Ukraine," read one letter.

Nataliia Yakushko is a doctoral student in the U.S. But in Ukraine, she shares a reputation like Santa Clause. She has returned to her home country every month since the war started, and she is now preparing for her December trip.

Credit: Nataliia Yakushko

It's going to be one of the most important trips yet.

"I asked some volunteers in Ukraine to go to orphanages and special places where we have displaced people and ask just for kids to write letters to Santa Claus," said Yakushko.

She set up a website to collect Christmas wishes from children in Ukraine. It functions like an angel tree. People can browse the letters written by children in Ukraine, read their gift requests, and follow a link to an Amazon registry to buy the item. 

Once the item is purchased and delivered, the child is checked off on a spreadsheet, and the child's letter is formally reserved online.

Yakushko said she will be hand-delivering those gifts to children in Ukraine.

"I really want to bring them at least one day of joy to forget about this war," said Yakushko. "I'm excited, but also, I think I'm gonna cry a lot."

People can also buy extra items to help children who were displaced or donate money to help the organization give children more gifts.

Those letters revealed some of the terrible situations families faced as a result of the Russian invasion. In one letter, a child says they left so quickly that they couldn't get their shoes. That child said they would be grateful for any gift they receive.

Within five days, she said almost 100 Christmas wishes were granted. Boxes upon boxes arrived at Yakushko's doorstep. She said they included puzzles, headphones and a lot of Barbie dolls.

Anyone who wants to donate more gifts can browse the Christmas letters and wishes on Yakushko's website, Ukraine Kids Wishies.

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