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UAA volleyball player goes on humanitarian mission to help Ukrainian refugees

Published: May. 25, 2022 at 5:09 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Fans of University of Alaska Anchorage volleyball may know Talia Leauanae.

The Seawolves’ starting libero just finished her junior year, but instead of heading home to Hawaii after school ended — or to Utah where her husband’s family lives — the couple packed their bags and went halfway around the world to Poland to help out Ukrainian refugees.

Leauanae and her husband Ansel Verhaaren were invited by a nonprofit working with Ukrainian refugees in Poland. Among their positive attributes was Verhaaren’s ability to speak Ukrainian, thanks to two years he spent in the country as a Mormon missionary.

“We kind of just were presented with this opportunity and we thought it was perfect,” Leauanae said. “And him knowing the language, they thought he would be really great out there helping.”

Armed with cash donations from family and friends, the couple purchased suitcases, clothing and food. They helped with things like transportation as refugees streamed across the border.

“It depended on the individual family,” Leauanae said. “We would be like, ‘okay, what do you need’ and then we would help them.”

Among the refugees the couple ended up providing assistance to was one family who left Ukraine with nothing.

“They crossed the border with literally just the clothes on their back, and the documents that they had, like they had absolutely nothing.”

Leauanae said they got particularly close to the mother and father and their three little girls.

“We were able to get them clothes, get them food, get them somewhere to be, and then we kind of helped them find a shelter that would figure out a more permanent place for them to go,” Leauanae said.

Overall, the couple said the experience was humbling, but also somewhat positive.

“People have really come together from around the world to help,” said Verhaaren.

The couple said they would like to return but for now both have commitments, including Leauanae who will return to UAA as a senior in the fall.

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