Cathy Locke has always found joy in helping others.
The Barrie native has welcomed three different families since the war in Ukraine erupted in February. Most recently, she opened up her home to a family of 13 Ukrainian refugees, which arrived approximately four weeks ago.
“(I) was called and told (there) was a family of 13. My father-in-law said he was going to move out of the basement apartment … and I said 'Perfect!' I will move downstairs with my 19-year-old,” she said. “Every family has been different. They each come with different problems and I won’t say any two families are alike.”
This family, due in part to the sheer size, is unique, she acknowledged.
“Mom and Dad were both orphans themselves and that’s why they have so many children. Two biological — mom is pregnant — and the rest are all in their care. Some people think (the children) were adopted because of the war, but the last two were adopted two years prior to the war,” she said, adding there are two others who had to stay back in Ukraine to fight.
“They’re just such a giving family… they really felt (an orphanage) is not a place for children.”
Locke has seen first-hand what life in a Ukrainian orphanage looks like, having travelled to the country 15 years ago on mission work.
“I was there for 14 days and that’s the full reason why I decided that this made sense," said Locke.
"It was kind of a perfect storm. My husband had passed (and) I had a big house,” she said, adding her own family had always taken in kids over the years that needed a safe place to stay. It wasn’t something foreign to me.”
Maksym and Tetiana Zhylina left their home in Rivne, a city in western Ukraine and fled for safety in Slovakia, where they lived for four months while hoping the war would be short-lived and allow them to return home.
“Due to the war in Ukraine, we decided to move our children to a safer place. Unfortunately the war continued and we could no longer live in Slovakia, because the owner was selling an apartment and other housing for such a large family we could not find and we did not have the funds,” he told BarrieToday via email. “We began to pray that God would give a way out.”
That's when the couple met a woman by the name of Snezhana, who works with the Canada Ukraine Corporation Network, and is a foster mother who has been living in Canada for three years.
“She offered to help us with opening Visas and moving to Canada. Thus we got to Barrie, where Snezhana lives and Cathy, who welcomed our family into (her) home. also the Good Samaritan mission will help us to fly by plane for free.”
The family arrived in Canada approximately four weeks ago with their 11 children — ranging in age from six to 22 — and although they are slowly getting settled, he admits the language barrier has been challenging.
“The most difficult thing for us now is the lack of knowledge of the English language for quick communication, but we, together with our children, study it every day. All the other needs we had and challenges, God provided through new friends in Barrie: housing, food, clothing, hygiene products,” he said.
“(They) are helping us adapt and I am in search of a job to support my family. I am currently finishing the process of obtaining a full category driver's licence as we need a car that holds seven so we only make two trips not three," he explained.
Locke told BarrieToday the children are always helping around the house, explaining some were in the midst of stripping and repainting an exterior door for her.
“I don’t ask for (anything). They see a job that needs to be done, and they ask (to do it),” she said, adding dad supervises. “He’s a contractor and is hoping to find a job soon. One of the daughters just got a job at Fox’s Bakery and we are quite proud of that.”
In addition to helping out around her house, Locke said all members of the family have been eager to get involved in the community, having recently volunteered at The Kiwanis Club of Barrie booth during Kempenfest.
Locke, a long-time member of the local group said the organization has created a fund to support Ukraine Families now living in Canada, an initiative she is particularly proud of.
“I get goosebumps, because it is about taking care of those who are forgotten. I did it for the kids. I just couldn’t imagine these kids in the war. Children are children and they need to be protected. That’s where my hearts at, and (I) had to do this," said Locke, who at 62, said the couple is young enough to be her own children. “They say I am like a second mom, but I think they mean a grandma.”
While the prospect of opening up your home to even one stranger may be scary to many, Locke said she didn’t even blink, with her only reaction being that she simply needed more beds.
“I never once thought about how we were going to feed them, or about money. I knew I could sustain my mortgage for a while,” she said. “I always felt it would work out. I am a very strong Christian, and the miracles that have happened and the things that just keep falling in place … if you’re a non-Christian, you’d say it's just weird.”
Although she admits things may have gotten a tad hectic for a little while, everyone has fallen into the rhythm of a new life.
“The whole family is doing three hours of English study on their own every day. They are very disciplined,” she said, adding they also now registered at a program in Barrie to prepare them for starting school in the fall.
After losing her husband, Locke said having a house full of people again has been great.
“Somehow it all just kept making sense. I was pretty depressed my first year of him being gone. I was married for 41 years .. What do you do after that? I was struggling with what to do,” she said. “This is who I always was, so for me I guess it’s living. People should realize how great it is to help people.”