Haslam Student Helps Ukrainian Children Tell Their Stories

Nataliia Yakushko will donate proceeds from the book, Through the Eyes of Courage, to aid relief efforts for her home country

May 21, 2024

In the two years since Russia invaded her home country of Ukraine, Nataliia Yakushko, a third-year doctoral student in strategy, entrepreneurship and organizations at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Haslam College of Business, has launched numerous initiatives to help the people of her country. She’s spent her spring break delivering supplies to war refugees, recruited Haslam faculty to provide free business training for a Ukrainian company and organized a “letters to Santacampaign to ensure Ukrainian children would receive Christmas gifts. With her latest project, Through the Eyes of Courage, she wants to let those children tell their own stories of the war and raise money for relief efforts in the process.

Expressing Emotion through Art and Stories

When Yakushko delivered the Christmas presents donors provided through the Santa letter program, one child drew a picture to express thanks. Moved by the gesture, Yakushko got an idea. “I could ask kids to draw pictures, to show their emotions through drawings.”

David Gras, associate professor and Ed Boling Business Faculty Fellow in Haslam’s Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, suggested creating a book. His original idea was something that could be aimed toward kids like his own young son, with Yakushko collecting inspiring stories and artwork from Ukrainian children about what gives them hope for the future. It quickly became clear, however, that the hopes the Ukrainian children were expressing would be better geared toward an adult audience.

“They always wish for the war to end,” Yakushko says. “They wish for a brother to come back, or a neighbor to come back.” One girl she spoke to, whose father perished in the war, told her, “My biggest wish is that my dad would be the last one to die from our village.”

Gras says, “It was so emotional for us in the discussions, and we knew it was powerful, but it was very clear that I couldn’t read that to my five-year-old.”

Supporting Important Causes with Business: A Social Entrepreneurship Model

With a new vision of what form the book could take, Yakushko began exploring publishing options. Knowing that she wanted the project to raise money for Ukrainians in need, she realized that a traditional publishing model wouldn’t yield a large enough percentage in royalties to help significantly. Instead, she chose to use Amazon’s publishing service, which will earn her 60 percent of the retail price — all of which will go to Liberty Ukraine Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports a wide range of Ukrainian causes, from displaced children to frontline soldiers.

Gras notes that the book is a great example of something both he and Yakushko study — social entrepreneurship. This type of business framework draws upon entrepreneurial principles to focus on generating social, cultural or environmental change. In the case of Through the Eyes of Courage, Gras says, the benefits can scale because with the Amazon listing and other publicity, people can continue to find the book — and money for the cause could keep coming in — for years to come.

Yakushko has collected around 30 stories and 50 pieces of artwork from Ukrainian children so far and she plans to work on editing the book this summer. It will be a hardback format similar to a small coffee table book, meant to be displayed and become a topic of discussion. In the meantime, anyone interested in funding the project should visit the Kickstarter page for Through the Eyes of Courage, where they can learn more and view a prototype of the book.

Although the project is a fundraiser, Yakushko stresses that her goal for the book is two-fold: to benefit Ukrainians in need monetarily, and to let the children express their perspective on what has happened to their country over the past two years.

“We’re giving them voices,” she says. “We want to make sure people know that we still have a war. Everybody’s struggling, but especially kids. They’re so vulnerable, and they have so much to say, and it needs to be heard.” 


Stacy Estep, writer/publicist, sestep3@utk.edu