Charter High striving to bring Ukrainian teen to Vero


While final exams and summer vacation plans consume most high schoolers right now, a group of Indian River Charter High School students always have the fate of a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl, in hiding with her mother in their Russian-occupied homeland, in their hearts and minds.

The school has raised nearly $20,000 to bring Sophia Hluschenko to Vero Beach to attend classes here in the fall.

The Indian River Charter High School has long prided itself on welcoming an international student population, with roughly 10 percent of Charter’s 700-plus students coming from other countries through various exchange learning programs.

Charter’s Assistant Principal and Artistic Director of Charter’s Visual and Performing Arts Program (VAPA) Michael Naffziger said students from Germany, Spain, Brazil, France, Switzerland, Morocco, China, Japan, Belgium, Russia, Denmark and the Netherlands have studied on campus this school year.

For years, the school has actively sought young people with desire, determination and potential in some facet of the arts, from performing to theatrical costuming, set design and special effects.

“Very few countries have classes in the arts like we do,” Naffziger said. “For example, a lot of the Europeans like our sewing and make-up classes. We’ve had dancers from Finland and Poland. We get a lot of acting students from Germany, and musicians from all over the world.

“Many kids come to our school for one of two reasons: they want an opportunity in the (visual or performing) arts,” for which Charter is well known, and, he grinned, “It’s close to the beach.”

For 28 years, Naffziger has traveled the globe meeting students and families interested in Charter to determine whether the life-changing move would be a good fit for everyone. Often agents specializing in international study experiences connect Naffziger to the students, who, after indicating their interest online, fill out a detailed packet to be considered.

In September, one such packet arrived from Sophia Hluschenko, along with a video explaining her circumstances.

In excellent English, she explained that she and her mother went into hiding when Russian troops occupied their town because Sophia refuses to attend the Russian school, which is now mandatory for her former classmates who have not already fled the area. Determined to continue her studies, she takes classes online in their small living quarters.

Describing herself as a “social person,” Hluschenko said she misses her Ukraine friends and the typical life of a teenage girl. The emails she exchanges with Naffziger and other virtual friends are her lifeline as plans move forward.

Naffziger realized Hluschenko was, beyond a doubt, exactly the kind of student who’d fit in perfectly at Charter, and he decided to share her application video with the VAPA students. As they watched Sophia on the classroom’s movie screen, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

Naffziger said. “They were really moved, and, as they were leaving, kids kept coming up to me and handing me whatever money they had in their pockets. They wanted to help in any way they could. One student gave his entire week’s paycheck and, when I protested, he insisted.”

Now, although 5,697 miles and a 12-hour flight separate them, the entire school is rooting for Sophia.

“We are on a mission to change Sophia’s life,” Naffziger said. The funds raised will go toward travel, insurance, school supplies, personal needs, fees, etc. A barrier island family has graciously committed to welcoming Hluschenko into their home at no cost.

“We are in search of additional community members and businesses who would like to partner with us to get Sophia to Charter,” he said, as he works with overseas contacts to plan the teen’s escape.

In the next installment: As Naffziger works on the logistics of getting Sophia safely out of Ukraine and on her way to Vero Beach, Sophia finds a friend at Charter who shares a similar life story.

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