July 17, 2020

St. John’s Preschool in Newark: A little school’s big significance


Olena Makarushka-Kolodiy

The 2019-2020 class of St. John’s Preschool: (first row, from left) Ivan Savanchuk, Liliana Shea, Anastasia Pregner, Christina Melnychuk, Diana Khmelynska, Maksym Dannenberg, (second row) Thomas Romanowski, Pavlo Folk, Nicholas Howansky and Alexander Luker.

In 1988, the Rev. Bohdan Lukie, CSsR , who was pastor of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church in Newark, N.J., initiated a movement to open a community day care center.

A committee was formed that included Daria Knarvik, Linda Kleban, Marta Popovich and Terenia Rakoczy. The committee worked with Father Lukie to research the state requirements and facilitate the opening of the facility. Olga Trytjak, who was the executive education chair of the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America, joined the project with much enthusiasm. Thus, the groundwork was set.

In September of 1989, the doors of St. John’s Ukrainian Day Care Center opened. We welcomed the first group of preschool children to participate in a Ukrainian-language immersion program while parents were working at their jobs.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join this endeavor and the experience has changed my life. Because I have early childhood and Montessori teaching certificates, I decided to introduce an educational component into the day care experience for the children. I found I had to adapt to a unique style of pedagogy. For 20 years, I had been teaching in English. Switching to the Ukrainian nomenclature in the use of the Montessori equipment required research. I had to learn more Ukrainian children’s songs. Also, I was lucky enough to find didactic materials in Ukraine to teach the letters of the Ukrainian alphabet.

As time passes and more children progress through our program, I have begun to realize how important this little preschool is for our Ukrainian community. Not only do the children develop friendships early in life, but the friendships blossom and grow through the years. Children learn to socialize in a respectful and gracious manner. As each child learns to make choices and work independently, the ability to concentrate is expanded. Self-discipline and self-direction flourish. I love watching the children function in a Montessori setting. Our classroom is small, but very rich with varieties of choices incorporating practical life, science, language, art and math curricula.

I delight in seeing my former students who have grown tall and strong in their personal, spiritual and professional lives. The connection does not end when children leave the preschool. My heart swells with emotion when I see them as counselors in their respective youth organizations. I enjoy seeing them on stage performing in their respective school plays or dancing on stage at a Ukrainian festival. I enjoy seeing them participating in church services. After the service, I enjoy hearing about college applications and plans for the future. At debutante balls, my eyes tear up as I hear about their accomplishments.

When I broke my toe and was at the emergency room, one of my former preschoolers, who worked at the hospital, helped me into a wheelchair. When I had bought cold cuts at the local family meat market, one of my former preschoolers sliced the meat while her brother helped carry the packages to my car at the urging of their “babtsia” (grandma). After my father passed away, one of my students loaned to me his personal copy of “Harry Potter” for two weeks.

Some of my former preschoolers have enrolled their own children in the preschool, and I appreciate their faith in us.

When one of our first students was attending Virginia Tech during the shootings, I was extremely worried for his safety. His parents told me those were the worst hours of their lives. Now I worry about the former students and their parents who are frontliners during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic we are enduring.

I have also grieved with the children in the loss of a loved family member. This is the hardest part of my experience in the community.

St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church provides the children in our community an opportunity to form a spiritual and cultural base to form good habits for life. At an early age, children learn life skills in an affordable Montessori environment, thus helping them to succeed as adults in our working world.

I hope I have made a difference in the life of a child.

For more history and information, readers are invited to visit www.tinyurl/zaxoronka/.


Editor’s note: Ms. Makarushka-Kolodiy informs us that St. John’s Preschool hopes to open the Wednesday after Labor Day. She is planning to have only six children in a small group, and notes: “We are following the science.”