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Area couple ready to open their doors to war refugees

“Home is where the heart is” — that’s not just needlepoint on a pillow for Hilda Heady.

In fact, the retired WVU social worker and rural health administrator wants to make the above adage a real-world address for a Ukrainian displaced by war sometime soon.

Heady and her husband, Dennis G. Zahradnik, a retired high school principal, say they are ready to open their Morgantown area home to a refugee family — once the U.S. opens its immigration policies more.

“That’s what is frustrating right now,” she said Wednesday.

“And we’ve been in contact with a lot of people who just don’t want to leave.”

For now, she said, they’re watching and waiting. President Biden vowed to open the U.S. to 100,000 refugees, but bureaucracy doesn’t rocket off the line like a drag racer.

The couple is also in contact with the Ukrainian community of Morgantown, while signing on with several sanctioned faith-based agencies, such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the World Church organization.

There’s Catholic Charities of West Virginia, also, she said, and any number of similarly grounded efforts, she said.

“You’ll want to be careful,” she said, “because there are a lot of scams out there.”

She and her husband see the misplaced Ukrainians as family, she said, and not just symbolically.

Connections of heart (and homeland resolve)

Zahradnik, a New York state native who came to Morgantown to attend WVU and never left, has an eastern European lineage.

He’s of Czech, Polish and Hungarian descent and his great-grandparents followed their American dream across the Atlantic in the early 1900s.

Her educator husband, she said, began casting a keen eye across that ancestral time-bridge when Vladimir Putin began amassing troops at Ukraine’s borders weeks ago.

The invasion began Feb. 24 and hasn’t let up since — even with surprisingly strong opposition from Ukrainians on the ground.

While Heady was talking about opening doors Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was talking about digging in.

His country that day braced for a new offensive in the east — even as it railed against what it said was another spate of war crimes against civilians.

Some 60 bodies, children and the elderly among them, had just been gathered at Bucha, a heavily shelled town near Kyiv, and Zelenskyy vowed his country will keep pushing back — just as it has for the past six weeks of missiles and tanks.

“We know what we are fighting for,” he said. “And we will do everything we can to win.”

On the other side of the globe in Morgantown, a husband and wife reiterated that pledge to do everything they can do, as well.

The matriarch has her say

Blame it on Mamaw Ruth, Heady said, with a chuckle.

Like her husband, Heady landed on campus as a WVU student, only to become a West Virginian after the fact.

She hails from northern Alabama. She grew up on a farm near Huntsville, an industrial city transformed into a teeming tech-town with its eyes on the stars, during the height of the Cold War space race with Russia in the late 1950s.

One of her aunts, in fact, served as Wernher von Braun’s personal assistant.

Meanwhile, Heady earned a master’s degree in social work from WVU in 1973, and, unbeknownst to her, Mamaw Ruth had launched herself onto a bus for a journey to Morgantown on roads not yet fully connected by an Interstate highway system.

She wanted to see her granddaughter turn her tassel.

When Heady was talking about taking a break, rather than immediately seeking employment, the matriarch grew silent. Then, Mamaw Ruth dug in, Heady recalled, chuckling.

“She said, ‘Hilda Ruth, you do not have the right to deny folks what’s in your mind.’”

Translation: Get out there and use your training. Get out there and be a social worker, so you can help people.

“She told me it was my responsibility, and that stayed with me my entire career.”

It stayed with the family as well.

One relative founded a volunteer fire company.

Another started a community library.

And her physician brother is nationally renowned for his practice of rural medicine in north Georgia.

“My husband and I have been blessed with resources,” she said.

“Helping is just the decent thing to do.”

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