Imagine you are 19 years old, your apartment has been destroyed by Russian bombs, and you have left your family and friends behind in Kharkiv, Ukraine. Now, nine months later you find yourself in the bright lights at The National Dog Show in Oaks, Pennsylvania, with an affable 3½-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Quentin beside you.
That’s the 2022 whirlwind adventure Yuliia (July, pronounced Julie) Kalyta has traveled this year.
Under the Bright Lights
Now, living in a farmhouse (circa 1860) on four acres in Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania, with her U.S. host Linda Apuzzo, a 30-year Chessie owner/breeder/handler, Kalyta found herself enriched in a mix of doggy dynamics and friendly faces at America’s only 2022 benched show on Saturday, November 19.
The classic Thanksgiving Day dog show airs noon on November 24 in all time zones on NBC. The prestigious event lists 1,847 entries, including 43 Chessies, the second largest breed entry behind 65 Golden Retrievers.
That’s more dogs than Kalyta has ever found herself surrounded by, she admits. “I have not been to an exhibition in Ukraine, but small dogs have grown up on me. Mostly the Spitz-type breed.”
Surrounded by a large crowd, Kalyta was admittedly “a little uncomfortable at the beginning, but then everything was fine.”
But her nerves weren’t apparent to the onlooker. “She had a great time and showed like she had been doing it her whole life,” Apuzzo says. “The bond between her and Quentin was so clear.”
Kalyta says that the 82-pound Chessie makes her smile and responds nicely to my commands. The two are still building a nice relationship throughout her time in America.
Escaping War and Tragedy
Apuzzo learned of Uniting for Ukraine (U4U), a simplified program for Ukrainian citizens to obtain “humanitarian parole” in the United States, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022.
“I am a student of World War II history and as such always wondered what I would have done had I lived in Europe at that time,” she says. “I saw this as my chance to do one small thing in helping her escape the war zone.”
The launch of the U4U program was quite informal with people posting in Facebook groups and making connections themselves. Now, although many people find sponsors via that means, there are also groups which match people.
Apuzzo saw that Kalyta posted a picture saying she wanted to come to the U.S., and the two began corresponding through Facebook Messenger. Apuzzo took a video of her property and animals, and they discovered that they both loved the outdoors and photography.
The two continued talking while Kalyta was in Germany and had to wait for her passport, as she lost everything when her apartment was bombed
“She told me she grew up with a small dog and a cat,” Apuzzo said. “Over the next few months, we corresponded, and I sent photos of the dogs.”
But making sure the match was a good one didn’t happen overnight. It took plenty of resourcefulness and resiliency at both ends.
All their contact was via Facebook Messenger, but it was “pretty much a leap of faith,” says Apuzzo. “After she arrived, I realized that she was super smart, super funny, and we had a whole lot in common. She is a really deep thinker, which is why I am looking forward to the days when she can express her thoughts more clearly.
“It is like she has an old soul for someone so young. She compartmentalizes about the war the things that she needs to. She knows what she can change and what she can’t. I have never met a 20-year-old whose head was in the space that July’s is in.”
For a successful pairing in an organization like U4U, Apuzzo says it’s critical that the sponsor and refugee are honest with and respect each other for there is a lot to be done once they arrive. The sponsor also needs to be willing to help arrange things such as Medicaid, food stamps, temporary financial assistance, and health testing.
Apuzzo chairs a Supported Entry for Chessies at the Delaware County Kennel Club show every March in York, Pennsylvania, and this spring saw an opportunity there to help raise funds (approximately $3,000 from a raffle) to help animals in Ukraine.
From Ukraine to The National Dog Show
Once the Chessie community heard Kalyta was coming to stay with Apuzzo, they embraced her and donated funds to a GoFundMe account to help pay her expenses to travel to the U.S. on September 10.
One individual contacted her church, which donated a car. Last week Apuzzo and Kalyta learned of a Lithuanian Chessie owner who is making trips to Kharkiv with supplies. When Kalyta heard this, she messaged him about helping get some supplies to her parents on his next trip.
Kalyta has started working at Walmart and hopes to apply for IT jobs when her English improves, as she has a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. Connections from the dog world are already attempting to get her a programming job where Kalyta’s ability to speak German, Russian, Ukrainian, and English would make her an asset.
Kalyta’s fast-moving new life has been centered around dogs from floor to field since arriving in the U.S.
Six days after landing, she attended her first dog show hosted by the Pocono Mountain Kennel Club in Macungie, Pennsylvania. “She really enjoyed the experience walking around with Falcon [a Chessie],” Apuzzo says. “A few days later she asked me about showing one of the dogs.”
Already planning to enter The National Dog Show, Apuzzo decided to let Kalyta take on the challenge, and preparing Kalyta’s handling skills for the show has been the pair’s focus the last month. “July’s a natural with dogs and Quentin is an easy boy to handle,” Apuzzo says.
During the show, Apuzzo let the steward know that this was her first show and that she didn’t speak English that well to pass that information on to the judge. Other Chessie owners in the ring were ready to help her if needed.
“We watched the other classes before us for her to see where the judge had them stand when they came into the ring,” Apuzzo says. “She knew that after he examined Quentin, he would ask her to go down and back, then proceed around the ring.”
As she went around the ring amid applause from all the Chessie owners and won the Hunting Dog Class, Kalyta found a place in the hearts of everyone there and a new sense of home.