Liberty University police officer collects donations for family in war-torn home country

With a heart full of hope for Ukraine, a Liberty University Police Department Security officer talked about growing up in Ukraine and how the recent events there have affected her.

Ilona Penner is a former Liberty student and has been working for the police department as a security officer for two and a half years now. Before she became a student and an officer at Liberty, she was an orphan in Ukraine. 

According to Penner, her mother passed away when she was 10 years old. Her family could no longer support her. As a result, she lived in an orphanage for five years.

“Before the orphanage, life with my family was really good, and everything was good,” Penner said. “But after that … there were some hard times, and it was just difficult switching from being home with family.”

At 15 years old, a family from Pennsylvania adopted her.

 “I had to really think about it because, you know, being adopted meant I was giving up everything I knew, and I’m going to another country to rely on someone, and I don’t even know the language,” Penner said.

Although she loved Ukraine, Penner knew she would have more opportunities living in the United States than staying in her home country. 

“So, I kind of had a second chance in a way,” Penner said.

Ilona Penner (Photo by Kylie Stewart)

In 2017, Penner attended Liberty as a student, where she double-majored in international business and human resources management. Through these degrees, she felt inspired to go into law enforcement. 

“When I started, it was kind of like coming and serving the community,” Penner said. “I got hired, and the Liberty Police Department provided all the training and all the different things for the job to prepare you and equip you for different situations or different scenarios. As I started working at Liberty, I have met and been great friends with many people.”

Still, she has stayed connected to Ukraine through her mission work. After hearing about the recent events between Russia and Ukraine, it has been hard for Penner. Not only is her family affected, but also the families and children she knows from visiting and doing mission’s work have also been affected by the recent events.

“It’s just been really tough, and I’ve been staying here in the United States for the past 10 years, but in these past couple years, I have been going back to Ukraine, and I’ve been doing missionary work, and I’ve been doing just VBS programs with the kids and all that,” Penner said. “I’m scared for my family more because there’s so much going on. All these people that I know and all those children that have been in contact with me that I know from Ukraine, I feel how scared they are, and it’s just been tough too.”

Penner described how her family right now is more than just her relatives. 

“My family right now is like 40 million people, like every Ukrainian feels like family,” she said. “It’s just how culture is and in a situation like that, we all kind of become like a big family in a way.” 

Currently, Penner has been receiving donations from friends and family and sending them to different organizations and individuals in Ukraine.

 “Some of the individuals have been volunteering and they’ve been helping refugees,” Penner said. “They’ve been helping military guys. They’re helping everyone. I’ve been trying to find grace to be able to support them and to help them find the funds to buy some of the supplies that they need.”

Penner said the Liberty University Police Department and the Lynchburg Sheriff’s   Office helped by donating old protective vests to those fighting in Ukraine. Penner  explained that police officers get rid of vests after five years by either throwing them away or using them for training. However, this time, they donated them to Ukraine instead.

Penner was incredibly thankful for this  donation as her cousin is fighting on the front lines in the Ukrainian army. She prays for his protection everyday.

Woolwine is a feature reporter.

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