PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENDA JOHNSON / HEAVY TABLE
This story originally appeared in the Heavy Table’s Tap newsletter. To get the Tap (and the Tulip and Schooner, and Churn newsletters), back us on Patreon.
The news out of Ukraine is devastating and seemingly unending. The horrific violence and baseless Russian attempts to justify it are rage-inducing. It can make anyone feel hopeless and helpless, wanting to do something but not knowing what. And even worse is knowing that children are the collateral damage of this war of imperial expansion.
One group actively trying to help displaced Ukrainians is Alight. Its local branch is recruiting volunteers and providing support, resources, and training for groups who want to bring Ukrainian refugees into the U.S., including Minnesota. They’re connecting skilled Ukrainian workers with American companies that are short-staffed. They also help the refugees find places to live and assist with the enormous day-to-day challenges and changes the refugees face when uprooted to an entirely new place. It’s a customized process that allows groups interested in sponsorship to have access to training and ongoing support, as well as getting to know the family first to make sure the sponsorship will work on both sides.
Deidre Pope (above left) and Robyn Dochterman (above right), owners of St. Croix Chocolates, learned about Alight’s work with Ukrainian refugees when they found themselves horrified and frustrated by the war. They wanted to do something to help displaced Ukrainian refugees, but weren’t sure what that help could look like. Then the chocolatiers had an idea: Their facility in Marine on St. Croix used to have classes in their production area, something stymied early on in the pandemic. But maybe they could invite some refugee families with children who have been through much more than any child should have to go through come and do something that should be basic for kids: Have fun and eat candy.
So during the busy pre-Easter season, Dochterman and Pope arranged through Alight to have families visit several Saturdays for an afternoon of making and decorating chocolate. The sound of parents and kids chattering in their home language, giggles, and even hands clapping filled the kitchen. The older children diligently focused on their elaborate chocolate decorations while a toddler splashed colors onto a sheet of paper.
It’s heartening to see that even being forced to flee your homeland and be uprooted to somewhere far away doesn’t dampen a child’s delight in using cocoa-based paints to painstakingly decorate molds that are then lined with chocolate or to hold their breath while carefully unpeeling a silicone mold to reveal a solid chocolate hamster.
It might seem like a small event to try and offset the enormous scale of what these families are going through. But Alight’s director of annual fund Chris Kindler says: “Honestly, events like this do two big things. They help Ukrainian families build community amongst them, and those social bonds can be so important as people begin building a life in a new place. Having a little bit of home, a little of the familiar, hearing and speaking a first language in an otherwise entirely new place is a big deal. Events like these are also an incredible opportunity for families to connect to the broader community, get to know their surroundings, build connections and social capital with Minnesota neighbors.”
Besides, it’s just plain fun. “Food brings us all together,” Kindler says. “And opportunities like this to experience something new and share our own traditions and celebrations with others are cherished by everyone. Huge, huge thanks to St. Croix Chocolates for stepping up and doing this.“
Learn more about Alight and how to help Ukrainian refugees here.
St. Croix Chocolates, 261 Parker St., Marine on St. Croix, THU-SAT 11am-6pm, SUN 12-6pm, MON-WED CLOSED