Stanfordville couple’s fundraiser for Ukraine draws strong support
Exploring their Ukrainian heritage through music, the Ukrainian folk band Korinya offered a melodic repertoire of music that celebrated the seasons, Ukrainian traditions and the hopes and fears of the Ukrainian people.
Photo by Kaitlin Lyle

Stanfordville couple’s fundraiser for Ukraine draws strong support

PINE PLAINS — Motivated by an inspirational mix of food, music, speeches and generosity, area residents seemed more than happy to attend the Ukraine Emergency Fundraiser in support of Sunflower of Peace at The Stissing Center in Pine Plains on Sunday, June 5.

Organized by Stanfordville residents Mark Lagus and his wife Leevi, 100% of the funds raised through ticket sales and online donations went toward Sunflower of Peace, a nonprofit committed to helping Ukrainians affected by the Russian military invasion.

As his parents fled from the advancing Russian army in World War II, Lagus, a first-generation American-Estonian, said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 significantly shook him.

Leevi added, “In this day and age, for the tanks to be rolling across Europe was unfathomable to us.”

After spending the first night in shock, the couple immediately thought about what they could do to help. By early March, they became involved in community events to support Ukraine and encouraged their neighbors in Bangall to write to their congressmen.

Taking action

Inspired by local fundraisers organized by Millerton residents André Wlodar and his wife Kim, Lagus and Leevi gathered a group of friends and neighbors to start a fundraiser.

“It’s just that I worry people will get tired of the story and all the people deported and killed will become just numbers,” Leevi said. “We are trying to keep it alive, the interest and attention, even though the war seems so far away from America.”

They were able to get in contact with David Byrne, the Scottish lead singer and guitarist of the iconic American ‘80s rock band Talking Heads. Byrne was quick to get on board with the fundraiser.

“David has connections with people in the area, became aware of the event and graciously agreed to be part of it,” said Mark.

The couple reached out to the local chapter of the Ukrainian National Women’s League, who connected them to the Ukrainian folk band, Korinya.

The main event

The 5th was a lovely summer day for the fundraiser, which began with an opening reception at 1 p.m. Guests mingled over national Ukrainian dishes, drinks and a rolling slide show on stage.

A two-part live auction listed a number of local items, including dinner for four at Champetre in Pine Plains, a membership to Troutbeck and VIP tickets to see Bernie Williams & Band at the Millbrook Winery.

Stepping on stage at 2 p.m., Lagus welcomed everyone and had them rise for a heart-stirring performance of the Ukrainian National Anthem.

Leevi then reminded everyone ready to enjoy the entertainment, “We cannot dismiss and never forget why we are having this event. The free world cannot sit back and decide the war is too far or too complicated. It seems too common that the world finds it easier to get along with evil than to work against it.”

Words of thanks

Thanking the Laguses for their help and everyone for paying attention to the news, Sunflower of Peace Treasurer Olga Yasinnik said she initially anticipated 2022 as the year she’d see her family in person again after the COVID pandemic. Even after learning of the war, she remained hopeful it would resolve peacefully.

Once the shock that her homeland was a war zone wore off, Yasinnik said she became determined to help the Ukrainian people and became involved with Sunflower of Peace.

“Three months into the war, we were able to raise more than $7.5 million,” Yasinnik said, commending the nonprofit for being “a bridge for donors and volunteers eager to help send a message to the Ukrainian people that they are not alone.”

Tuning in via Zoom, Estonian politician and keynote speaker Eerik Niiles Kross said he was honored to say a few words about Sunflower of Peace.

In light of how often Russia has tried to invade Estonia over the years, Kross spoke of Estonia’s efforts to help Ukraine. He commended the Ukrainian people’s heroic efforts to fight for their freedom and spoke of how people have been drawn to their TVs and Twitter feeds, triggering a movement to support Ukraine.

“What Ukrainians need most right now is to feel that the world is with them,” Kross said. “They need to know we will not tire, we will not ask for concessions… Yes, they need peace, but they can’t have peace before they win, so what they need is for us to help them win.”

During the intermezzo, the floor opened to bids for the live auction. Korinya then took up its instruments and the band rendered its audience wonder struck as it performed an uplifting tune.

Though the language was foreign, the lyrics were captivating. The music celebrating Ukrainian traditions through song.

After the second intermezzo, which featured a special Stissing Center prize, Lagus welcomed Byrne to the stage.

The famous musician with the distinctive voice and musical style performed original pieces and songs by fellow artists and shared moments of light of laughter. As he exited the stage, the audience gave a wild standing ovation that continued until Byrne returned for one last song.

Before parting for the day, the Laguses stepped onto the stage to give thanks to their team, Sunflower of Peace and everyone from the restaurateurs and entertainers to their guests for their contributions.

“Lives will be changed by what we’ve done today,” Leevi said, before Korinya returned to the stage sing the Ukrainian song, “Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow.”

Known as lead singer and guitarist for the iconic band Talking Heads, David Byrne performed original music, familiar tunes, country hits and other songs at the Ukraine Emergency Fundraiser. Photo by Kaitlin Lyle

Known as lead singer and guitarist for the iconic band Talking Heads, David Byrne performed original music, familiar tunes, country hits and other songs at the Ukraine Emergency Fundraiser. Photo by Kaitlin Lyle

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