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To Ukraine, with Love

September 1, 2004, 0:00 2842 Author: Ellen Kanner The Miami Herald

For 2,000 Ukrainian orphans, Santa Claus is a petite woman with caramel-colored hair.

Their Santa -- Clara Pascal -- comes not from the North Pole, but from Coral Gables.

Pascal was a far cry from Santa Claus when she first visited Odessa, Ukraine, in April 1995 to film a documentary about orphanages. Shocked by what she saw -- children who were neglected and malnourished, children with serious medical problems like cleft palates -- she ended up falling in love with one of the orphans and adopting him.

"There was one little baby," Pascal said. "Everyone else was crying, sad, but he was the happy one, the survivor. He looked straight at me, and I thought, `I'm coming back for you.'"

Pascal was 33 and single. Braving Ukrainian bureaucracy and adopting a foreign orphan seemed overwhelming, '"but somehow, I knew it would be possible," she recalled.

Two months after her return, Pascal, now 40, ended her film career to become Ukrainian programs director for Universal Aid for Children, Inc. Established in 1977, the Pompano Beach-based nonprofit agency focuses on humanitarian relief efforts and international adoption.

It would take her two years to adopt her son Luke, now 8.

"The love I had for Luke catapulted me. I knew I had to do something," said Pascal, who returns to Odessa several times a year to give the thousands of orphans she couldn't adopt some of the care they need.

Her programs serve 18 separate Ukrainian institutions, offering nutrition, health care, psychological counseling, education and scholarship opportunities for orphans who are otherwise released, without resources, to the state when they reach 17.

The Ukrainian government resisted outside help, so Pascal staffed her program with Odessa locals to help break down cultural barriers.

"Humanitarian was a word I had to explain [to government officials]," Pascal said. "It's a closed culture. It's a pride thing -- you have to respect that."

Her top priorities: Providing orphans with proper nutrition and medical care. Creating emotional support, even joy, are also important.

Playing Santa

That's why Pascal looks forward to Christmas, when she gets to play Santa to 2,000 orphans, thanks to donations by individuals and organizations, including DHL and Florida Healthcare Supply.

"We try to get one present for each child. That in itself is a huge feat because there's so many of them. The sense of ownership is so big with them because they have to share everything they have." Christmas, which the Russian Orthodox celebrate on Jan. 6, was a concept these children couldn't grasp at first.

"Most of these kids don't even know their own birthdays, let alone what Christmas is. It would be like every other day, unless we did something,'' Pascal said.

The presents are basics -- sweaters, blankets and the like.

"They need everything. I can never keep up,'' said Pascal. "We try to raise $25 per child and have our staff take them shopping. They pick out what they like and have it Christmas morning. For the little ones, we take stockings and put [warm clothing] in them. It's freezing and the heat is always off there."

Pascal, who grew up in Maryland, got her leadership skills from her father, Robert Pascal, who worked in county government, and her charitable impulse from her mother, Nancy Ware Pascal Wainwright, a Miami native.

Giving Spirit

"At Christmas, we always had a family we would go help,'' recalled Pascal. ``Being humanitarian was instilled in me by my mother."

Pascal, who studied at the University of Central Florida in the mid-1980s, made Miami her home in 1994.

As Ukrainian programs director, she has received assistance from as far as California, and as close as South Florida.

Susan Macpherson, a nurse practitioner from West Palm Beach, first visited Odessa with Pascal in June 1995, during Pascal's first trip with Universal Aid for Children. Macpherson was on hand to assess the orphans' medical needs.

"Ophthalmology, orthopedics, plastic surgery, infectious disease -- really severe," she said.

Macpherson now sponsors sisters Galina and Irina Gromevnko, for Universal Aid's scholarship program.

Through Macpherson's support, Galina, 22, has completed beauty school. Irina, 20, is studying at a university and wants to be a journalist.

"I send them care packages a couple times a year, clothing, extra money," said Macpherson. 'They've become very close to me. I told the girls, `Learn English and I'll bring you to spend a couple weeks in Florida."

Since the scholarship program began four years ago, Pascal has raised $45,000, enabling 75 orphans to pursue a college education in the Ukraine.

"These kids are my mission now,"said Pascal. "All they need is the right environment and they thrive. What they overcome is phenomenal."

She wants her son Luke to meet these young people who inspire her, but not yet, not this Christmas.

''I'm still protective of him,'' she said.

Although adopted children often have problems adjusting to a new environment, Luke has taken well to his. He says he loves to play kick and catch and freeze-tag.

Like her, he laughs a lot. And like her, he senses he is linked to a world far beyond Coral Gables. He studies pictures and videos of the other orphans, and talks about his brothers and sisters in Ukraine.

"I want to go over there and be with them and help them," Luke said.

"We're all citizens of the world. We're all in this together," said Pascal. "I wish more people would become involved in a personal way, whether it's with the person next door or someone around the world. I believe goodness begets goodness. It helps us in the end, too."

How to Help

Universal for Children Inc accepts donations of money and various goods, like new clothing, which Land's End contributed last year. All donations are tax deductible.

To help or for more information, contact Clara Pascal, the agency's Ukrainian programs director, at 305-740-7279 or e-mail cjpascal [at] attbi.com.

2002 Herald.com and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.miami.com

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