Ocean Institute to set sail with Ukrainian refugees

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Vessels sail in for the Tall Ship Festival in Dana Point Harbor. Photo by Andrea Adelson.

Gregory Hardy, an eight-year-old Ukrainian refugee living in Laguna Beach, is obsessed with the history of RMS Titanic.

A LEGO model of the notorious ocean liner was among the first toys gifted to him after arriving in Orange County earlier this year.

Gregory will join at least 34 Ukrainian children sponsored for The Ocean Institute’s Shipwreck Hunters summer camp starting July 11. The idea emerged from a text message Laguna Beach resident Susie Campbell sent to Ocean Institute President and CEO Wendy Marshall.

“We have taken in a Ukrainian woman and her son. Are there any scholarship programs for summer camp?” Campbell’s message read.

The request came at a perfect time after a recent record-breaking fundraiser for the Institute, the nonprofit’s management said.

“Our hearts are full of gratitude towards those who supported us during the challenges that we faced during COVID-19. Furthermore, it is an honor to be here and use our resources to support these families,” Marshall said in a press release.

As a charter captain who has sailed out of Dana Point Harbor for nearly 15 years, Campbell said she is thrilled to help open passage to the sea for Gregory and other Ukrainian children who have lost everything in the war that’s devastated their country.

“It’s hard enough coming to a new home, a new home, and a new school. I’m so proud of him saying, ‘I’ll give it a go,’” Campbell said.

The opportunity to attend summer camp is just as important for the parents, who have relied on charitable contributions while they wait for permission to work from immigration officials.

“I’m very happy and very grateful for this opportunity. It’s not just about Gregory. It’s about dozens of Ukrainian kids,” Gregory’s mother Nadiia Hardy said. “I can’t just go and ask people for help. It’s just very hard for me.”

Since arriving in Laguna Beach, Gregory has thrown himself into learning geopolitics, fueled partly because of his interest in understanding the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Hardy said. His mother is hopeful summer camp will help refocus his energy on topics more typical for an eight-year-old.

“Perhaps he will his passion for shipwrecks,” Hardy said.

Marshall reached out to Facebook group Ukrainians of Orange County organizer Oksana Pashko to open the camp scholarship opportunity to more refugee families. Pashko put the word out to this community. Refugee families continue to sign up and the Institute will continue to accommodate kids as space allows.

“Our camps are nearly sold out, but we are getting creative and may weave in extra sessions to accommodate this need,” Marshall wrote in an email.

Among the challenges the Institute overcame was securing translators who could speak Ukrainian or Russian with the summer campers. Gregory speaks English fluently because he attended an International School before fleeing Kyiv.

Nadiia has already enjoyed sailing on Campbell’s vessel. It’s offered some respite from news reports of the ongoing carnage in her home country.

“They have their ups and downs emotionally so anything like this is a shining light in their lives,” Campbell said.

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