They have food, beds and a desire to help. They’ve flown to the Mexican border and have big dreams of converting a former hospital into refugee housing.
But a Vermont family that runs a faith-based nonprofit working with families with disabilities is witnessing firsthand the challenges Ukrainians are facing as they flee Russia’s war and try to get from Europe into the United States.
Theresa and Scott Cianciolo, who have adopted sons from Ukraine, launched into action when they believed they could bring their Ukrainian friends to Vermont by flying them first to Mexico and crossing into the U.S. from there.
The Cianciolos kept in close communication with the Shapavalova family, who were in Poland, and Theresa flew to San Diego, hoping that eight of the Shapavalovas could cross over from Mexico through a process called “humanitarian parole.”
But moments before the Shapavalovas were set to depart Poland on Thursday, their plan was thrown into chaos when their flight through London to Mexico City suddenly required a new visa.
Hours later, President Joe Biden announced his administration’s plan to bring Ukrainians to the U.S. on a more permanent basis. The changes meant Ukrainians trying to enter the U.S. through the southern border would be denied entry.
“They left their home in eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation, and they're sitting at an airport in Warsaw with kids crying and saying, you know, ‘What, what is going on?’” Theresa said of her calls with the Shapavalovas.
The more than $15,000 in airplane tickets the Cianciolos had purchased became obsolete. The Cianciolos’ plan, for now, was thwarted.
“We were really devastated,” Theresa said, calling on Thursday from a Comfort Inn in San Diego, California, where she had spent all day trying to find shelter for her friends.
Biden’s announcement on his “Uniting with Ukraine” program came a month after he said the U.S. would accept 100,000 refugees. The plan allows refugees to stay stateside for up to two years once they are granted “humanitarian parole,” the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. Refugees also will be granted work authorization.
About 15,000 Ukrainian refugees have entered the U.S. through Mexico, according to the Washington Post, citing unnamed senior administration officials. Just last week, Theresa was in Mexico working with a network of volunteers — many members of faith-based organizations — to help with exactly that.
But that process will cease on Monday, the same day the Cianciolos had planned to bring the Ukrainian family over the border.
Despite the day’s panic, Theresa said the Shapavalovas put the struggle in perspective. They were safe. They were with each other, and they were not hearing bombs.
With their nonprofit, Agape Ministries, the Cianciolos now plan to sponsor up to four families — including the Shapavalovas — through the new “Uniting for Ukraine” program. They expect to welcome Ukrainians to their home in Albany in four to six weeks, Theresa said.
Agape Ministries already sent visa applications to the four families — all of whom have children with disabilities — to prepare for the opening of the April 25 application window. If approved through the “streamlined” process, the refugees would be eligible for work authorization.
The Cianciolos — Scott, a pastor at the Free Will Baptist Church in West Charleston, and Theresa, a neuropsychologist — devote much of their lives to working with children and adults with developmental disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome. That work first brought them to Ukraine in 2014 where they adopted twin boys, both of whom have Down syndrome, from an orphanage in Odessa.
“We knew at that moment that we weren't done with Ukraine,” Theresa said. Five months later, she was back in the country and has made more than 25 trips since.
In Ukraine, the couple has worked with and advocated for people with disabilities, particularly children, teaching parents how to support their children.
During that time, the Cianciolos met the Shapavalovas, who also have adopted children with disabilities.
Months after moving to Ukraine at the start of this year, where Theresa taught child development, the impending war forced the Cianciolos to move back to Vermont.
But back in Albany, the Cianciolos could not stop thinking about their friends in Ukraine.
They spoke every day with the Shapavalovas, who lived north of the besieged city of Mariupol. The Ukrainians tried and failed three times to escape before finally succeeding, fleeing to the relative safety of the Polish border.
Already, the Cianciolo’s Northeast Kingdom community has rallied support for the incoming refugees. People have dropped off clothes and gift cards to Walmart and local grocery stores, Theresa said. Businesses, churches and Vermont EMS have also found ways to help, including by donating supplies.
“It’s been overwhelming, the support,” Theresa said.
When the Cianciolos incorporated Agape Ministries in 2004, they never imagined their work would expand to Ukraine or to helping refugees.
“We came with the vision to start a ministry to reach out to families and children and adults with special needs,” Scott said. The couple operated camps in Irasburg, working with youth with disabilities, and Theresa worked with families to advocate for children with autism and other learning disabilities in local schools.
Their home, the former Hilltop School in Albany, used to house K-8 students for more than 30 years. Eight bedrooms, two living rooms and kitchens, and more than 5,000 square feet — the space is ideal for the Cianciolos, who are always hosting guests.
“We never ever have dinner to ourselves,” Theresa said, laughing, “It’s a controlled chaos.”
After years serving the community’s needs, the Cianciolos have developed a network of supporters. Agape’s 18-member board includes three attorneys, two doctors, accountants and even Rep. Vicki Strong, R-Albany, Theresa said.
Tracey Shadday, who lives part of the year in East Charleston and is a member of the Agape board, praised the Cianciolos’ leadership.
“They both have this super amount of energy,” she said. “It's beyond human, what they're able to accomplish.”
Shadday has been in touch daily with Sasha Shapavalova — the matriarch of the family — listening to her fears and praying with her, she said. Shadday helped purchase airfare to bring the Shapavalovas stateside and has been collecting additional donations for the family.
Shadday is also advising the Cianciolos on what would be their biggest project yet.
Agape Ministries has considered purchasing the former Derby Green Nursing Home, a 23-unit facility in Derby owned by North Country Hospital. The property is for sale.
The Cianciolos would hope to convert the facility — or one like it — to housing for refugees and possibly for adults with disabilities. They have already sent multiple contractors to inspect the property, and while some work is needed, it’s been well kept while vacant and is up to code, Theresa said.
Reached for comment Tuesday, North Country Hospital said it had no contact with the Cianciolos. Spokesperson Wendy Franklin said hospital leaders learned of Agape’s plans to buy their property from Tuesday’s front page of the Newport Daily Express.
“We’re looking forward to hearing from interested parties,” Franklin said. “We just haven’t as of yet.”
For now, the Cianciolos are grateful for the support they have received. Even though they will have to wait to welcome refugees, they said they are optimistic people and have already found silver linings in the delay.
“People have been absolutely wonderful,” Theresa said. “We've created a lot of relationships in the community over 20 years, but it's been really astounding to see people step up.”