There’s nothing like a personal connection to make terrible news from the other side of the world hit home in such a way that the impulse is to do something to help.

“I was talking to my piano teacher Miss Natasha one day after our lesson, and I wanted to do something to help her and her country through this difficult time,” said Janet Newman, a junior at Thornton Academy in Saco. “So, I thought, through music, we could bring people together and raise money to help those in need.”

Natasha Skala, who immigrated from Ukraine 20 years ago and owns St. Joe’s café in Scarborough, has been Newman’s piano teacher for 12 years and is like extended family to the Newmans. Much of Skala’s biological family, however, is still in Ukraine. While Skala’s sister has crossed the border into Poland, arriving at a refugee camp with nothing but a backpack, other family members are trapped or choosing to serve in Ukraine. Skala’s brother is helping get food, water and medical supplies to people in need.

Meanwhile, Newman has grown up with community fundraising being part of the family business. Her mother and aunt are co-owners of Aura, a downtown Portland music venue. And the whole staff at Aura got onboard with Newman’s idea for an Afternoon for Ukraine. Less than two weeks later, and with the support of several businesses, nonprofits and more than a dozen performing artists, more than than $8,100 has been raised for humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

“I didn’t expect so many people would come and give their support,” Skala said. “I was amazed.”

When Aura opened its doors for “An Afternoon for Ukraine” on March 20, there was a line to get in. The varenuka, a traditional Ukrainian hot beverage of vodka, honey and spices, sold out in half an hour. The sports bar was serving Ukrainian potato pancakes called deruni and appetizer-sized open-face sandwiches, sometimes as a chaser to vodka.


“The verenuka is similar to a hot toddy but with vodka,” said bar manager Dickie McFarland, who found the recipe online. “Good drinks. Good food. And a packed house for a charity event. It’s good stuff.”

The show itself started with Skala playing a duet to “Phantom of the Opera” with her mother, Anna, on the baby grand piano brought to Aura by Starbird Piano Gallery. Skala’s 12-year-old son, Alex, and students Sophy Jin, Katarina Ousback and Newman followed with solo pieces.

And then the community of musicians widened to others: Aaron Henry with a call to prayer on tenor saxophone, Mark Minervino and David Jacquet with songs of peace and love, an original “nondenominational hymn” called “The Way” by Don Campbell, and – a first for Aura – a performance by harpist Mary Dunham.

The Azerbaijan Society of Maine, led by Tarlan Ahmadov, was among the sponsoring organizations and invited international pianist Emil Afrasiyab and his wife, pop singer Leyla Babayeva Afrasiyab, to perform.

“It’s so important to support freedom in Ukraine,” Ahmadov said. “We’re connected culturally. My country went through the same thing. I was 17 years old when the Soviet Union attacked my city, Baku, in Azerbaijan.”

Babayeva is fluent in Russian, though not Ukranian. Even so, she sang the Ukrainian folk song “Pidmanuka” with such conviction that the crowd was on its feet and clapping to the music. Ukrainian-born Mainers were stunned.

“That was amazing,” said Olena Pylypenko of New Gloucester, who immigrated 16 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen. “I’m so glad everyone came to support Ukraine. The world is very supportive of us right now.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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