Joseph Arana Sanchez (center) rehearses on his guitar ahead of a benefit concert for fellow Ukrainians living in Vermont.

This Vermont couple created a home for Ukrainian refugees with a focus on children with disabilities

Theresa and Scott Cianciolo founded Agape Ministries, a Christian nonprofit that works with children and adults with developmental disabilities in Ukraine. After they stopped traveling to Ukraine due to the war, they raised money to create a home for refugees and children with disabilities in Vermont.

The World

Joseph Arana Sanchez (center) rehearses on his guitar ahead of a benefit concert for fellow Ukrainians living in Vermont.

Mikaela Lefrak/The World

On a recent snowy day in Derby, Vermont, 24-year-old Joseph Arana Sanchez pulled out a guitar and plucked out the chords to the 1960s American hit "Stand By Me."

The young man was surrounded by a group of Americans who, in one way or another, have helped more than 30 Ukrainian refugees escape war with Russia and establish themselves in Derby.

A flier for a holiday benefit concert at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, Vermont.

A flier for a holiday benefit concert at the Highland Center for the Arts in Greensboro, Vermont.

Credit:

Mikaela Lefrak/The World

On Dec. 10, many of the Ukrainians sang in a sold-out benefit concert in a nearby Vermont town. It was the most recent example of how the local Vermont community has rallied around the new arrivals and the American couple who brought them here, Theresa and Scott Cianciolo.

The Cianciolos founded Agape Ministries in Ukraine, a Christian nonprofit that works with children and adults with developmental disabilities.

The couple had adopted twin boys with Down syndrome from the city of Odessa years ago, and they have another adopted son who has autism. For years, they've been traveling back and forth between the US and Ukraine. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the Cianciolos followed the US government's advice to evacuate.

"We had to really reflect on what was next," Scott said.

"As people of faith, we just really prayed and fasted, and somebody from our board of directors had this great idea. They said, 'You need to open up a refugee center.'”

So, the couple raised about $750,000 to purchase a 10,000-square-foot property that used to serve as a nursing home. Plumbers, electricians and contractors donated their time and supplies to renovate the house and make it accessible to children with disabilities.

"It's a peaceful home, and it's a safe home," Scott said.

The UN estimates that the war in Ukraine has internally displaced more than 7 million people. An additional 6 million Ukrainians have fled to other European countries. And about 150,000 have come to the United States, according to reports by VTDigger.

Oleg and Tetiana Nadkyrnychi came to Derby from the city of Rivne. They have two sons, a 9-year-old and a 15-year-old.

The instability of wartime was particularly hard on the elder son, who is autistic, so they decided to flee. They went to two different countries in Europe before Tetiana reached out to the Cianciolos for help in getting to the US.

Scott and Theresa Cianciolo on the porch of the Agape Ministries house in Derby, Vermont.

Scott and Theresa Cianciolo on the porch of the Agape Ministries house in Derby, Vermont.

Credit:

Mikaela Lefrak/The World

They took part in a federal program that allows Ukrainians fleeing the war to travel to the US for two years, as long as they have a sponsor like Agape that can support them financially and give them a place to live.

Oleg Nadkyrnychi is now trying to get a work permit and is practicing for his driving test.

“What next, we don’t know. But people here share food and also clothes. It’s OK. We are Ukrainian. We are tough," he said.

Many of the children at Agape have special needs — including autism, hydrocephalus and seizure disorders. There is one child who needs multiple skin grafts. At the house, they have volunteer nurses and teachers who visit daily.

"It's not the things [people donate]. It's really that people feel surrounded and cared for."

Theresa Cianciolo, co-founder, Agape Ministries

"They just step in and they build a relationship, which is the most important part," Theresa Cianciolo said. "It's not the things [people donate]. It's really that people feel surrounded and cared for."

About nine more Ukrainians are expected to arrive in Derby in the coming weeks.

Related: As war rages at home, Ukrainian choir heads to Carnegie Hall to celebrate 100 years of ‘Carol of the Bells’

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