July 14, 2022  

The story behind PepsiCo’s school for displaced Ukrainian children

PepsiCo opened a learning center in Romania that has given 150 Ukrainian children an opportunity to continue their education. Sashko Morokhovskyi led the team that brought the idea to life in just two weeks.

As news of the deadly conflict in Ukraine reached Sashko Morokhovskyi, he knew he had to act. “My thoughts and my heart were completely with Ukraine,” he explains. The End-to-end Supply Chain Director for PepsiCo in Romania has close ties with Ukraine — he had spent his entire life in Kyiv before moving to Bucharest with his wife and daughter four years ago. “All I could think about was what was happening there and how we could help.”

Sashko’s manager offered not only immediate support, but a solution — Sashko would shift into a new role helping PepsiCo associates crossing the border from Ukraine into Romania. Overnight, he transitioned from calling production managers and organizing shipments to meeting with government officials and building evacuation plans. “It felt like requests for support were coming in every single minute, 24/7,” Sashko says. “I remember that time being very, very challenging.”

Soon, the effort became highly organized. Sashko led a team of nearly 40 passionate volunteers who have helped more than 900 Ukrainian PepsiCo associates and their families safely relocate to Romania. They found them shelter, food and medical care. Sashko even worked with PepsiCo Romania to place associates into roles similar to the ones they held in Ukraine. “We wanted people to feel not only safe, but also like they are a part of the community,” he says.

But Sashko continued to hear the same question: “How will we go to work if we do not have a safe place to leave our kids?”

A young girl coloring on a table with other kids

A young student colors alongside classmates at PepsiCo’s learning center for Ukrainian children, which opened in Bucharest, Romania in April.

Creating a school for Ukrainian children in two weeks

The solution was to offer a sense of normalcy, in the form of a school. In April, PepsiCo met that need, opening a learning center in Bucharest where 150 children of Ukraine associates, ages 3-17, could continue their schooling five days a week. PepsiCo provided $360,000 in funding to make the project possible. Sashko was a driving force behind the fast-acting team effort that turned the idea into reality.

“To see those kids smiling and telling you they love the school and genuinely thanking you for setting this up for them, it’s a priceless feeling,” Sashko says.

But before classes could begin, there were many hurdles Sashko and his team had to overcome. While the Romanian government did open the country’s public schools to Ukrainian refugees, the language barrier presented a significant obstacle. Parents wanted a place where their kids could continue to learn the Ukrainian curriculum with Ukrainian teachers, and Sashko and his wife, Uliana Morokhovskaya, knew from their own experience with their daughter that no such place existed in Bucharest.

Good fortune struck when the owner of a three-story villa near the city center offered Sashko’s team use of the space for its relief efforts. As he toured the building with Uliana, she had a vision for how PepsiCo could create its own learning center for Ukrainian children there. “We just needed to figure out where to start,” Sashko says. “It’s not like we had any experience with this.”

They tapped into the aid network they had built in Romania to find someone who did. That’s how they met Adina Stoenescu, co-founder of the Private School Association of Romania, an organization with 20 years’ experience operating more than 260 schools. Normally, she told them, it would take months to get a project like this off the ground. “But Sashko, Uliana, the entire PepsiCo team — their energy was tremendous,” Adina recalls. “They knew these children needed stability right then and there.” Within two weeks, the learning center opened its doors.

Sashko Morokhovskyi and Uliana Morokhovskaya standing outside the PepsiCo learning center

Sashko Morokhovskyi and wife Uliana Morokhovskaya stand outside the PepsiCo learning center they helped create in Romania.

Pulling hundreds of resources together

So many elements had to come together within those two weeks to bring the vision of a learning center to life. The process began with Sashko writing down a list of approximately 250 essentials he thought they would need, which he shared with colleagues and aid partners. One by one, countless contributors worked together to check all of them off. “The support that we received was just amazing,” Sashko says.

PepsiCo’s funding covered staff salaries and the cost of school supplies, including 73 laptops. Teams within the company pooled their resources to help — the IT department built a WiFi network, and Marketing donated backpacks and beanbag chairs. Sashko was able to secure desks, chairs and other furniture from a nearby PepsiCo headquarter location. Adina and the Private School Association handled the logistics of making sure the school was accredited and had a proper curriculum.

The biggest challenge they faced was finding Ukrainian-speaking teachers on an accelerated timeframe, Sashko says. That’s where Uliana’s expertise in human resources and recruitment proved invaluable. The job postings she shared on social media garnered more than 200 applicants. The team hired 25 teachers, assistants and other support staff for the school (13 of whom are partners of PepsiCo associates) in a matter of days.

“What this learning center is doing is so great,” says Alina Kavalenko, an English teacher from Irpin, Ukraine, who escaped to Bucharest after the conflict began. “In the very beginning, children were scared. They weren’t sure what to do. They didn’t have normal schedules. But they are much more relaxed now. I think they feel safe here.”

That, Sashko says, is what matters most of all in the face of the tragedy in Ukraine. “The kids are learning and having fun. Their parents are working in the factories. And they’re able to meet tonight for dinner and discuss, ‘How was your day in school?’ ‘How was work?’” Sashko says. “It means so much for us to be able to provide them with a sense of normality.”