Ukrainian girl finds her squad among Gross Catholic cheerleaders

By Amy Weindel

Katya Kohut was only 4 when she and her mother, Elena, fled their home in Odesa, Ukraine, because of constant bombing of the port city located on the shores of the Black Sea.

After saying goodbye to family, friends and everything familiar to them, Katya and Elena arrived in Omaha on August 15, 2022. Neither spoke English. They didn’t know the culture. Thankfully, David and Kathy Bandars were waiting to welcome the mother and daughter to their new home and a new way of life 5,500 miles from all they had ever known.

Elena and Katya huddle under a blanket to protect themselves from the rain at a recent Gross Catholic Football game. COURTESY PHOTO

David has a special place in his heart for those fleeing former Easter Bloc countries. His father, a Latvian immigrant, came to America during World War II when he was 9. For more than two decades, David has been helping families from that area of the world.

David and Kathy are members of Sacred Heart Parish and have a granddaughter and grandson who attend Daniel J. Gross Catholic High School in Bellevue. Caitlin Duncan is a freshman and on the junior varsity cheerleading squad. Her brother, Colby, a senior, is the starting quarterback on the football team.

Before Odesa was being showered with bombs, Katya loved to dance and she and her mother, Elena, would watch movies about cheerleaders. Elena said Katya took dance lessons in Ukraine, but there were few cheer programs.

When Caitlin suggested Katya, now 5, attend the Gross Catholic High School cheerleading clinic this past summer, Katya met the young women who would become like big sisters to her.

Caitlin Duncan and Katya

“Katya feels like these girls are her friends and relatives,” Elena said.

Since Katya did not speak English, Caitlin put a translator app on her phone to communicate with Katya. The other cheerleaders followed suit.

While Katya was understandably shy at first, she soon became comfortable with the cheerleaders running the camp and a special bond began to form among Katya and the rest of the squad. Kathy and David Bandars even ordered cheerleading outfits online for Katya that matched the ones worn by Gross Catholic cheerleaders.

The couple invited Katya, Elena and Yurii, Katya’s father who was able to join his wife and daughter in Nebraska about five months after they arrived, to a Gross Catholic football game.

When the cheerleaders saw Katya dressed in her cheerleading outfit in the stands, they invited her to the sideline to cheer with the squad. She has been joining them ever since. Recently, she performed at the Gross Catholic homecoming pep rally.

Kristen Ewing, Gross Catholic cheerleading coach, said Katya has taught the cheerleading squad an important lesson.

“They see that there are so many opportunities to change the world,” Ewing said. “It's really beautiful when 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids see an opportunity to be a leader and a mentor and do it."

David said he is amazed at how the cheerleaders have embraced Katya.

“It’s something they are doing on their own,” he said. “No one asked them to do any of this. It’s just the girls doing it.”

And it’s not just the cheerleaders who have embraced Katya. Ewing said the entire Gross Catholic student body has welcomed the little girl.

“I think it says a lot about the kids,” Ewing said. “To have that relationship where Katya feels completely confident in our student section to cheer her on when she has a little solo moment to do a jump. It’s not just the cheerleaders. It's the Gross Catholic community. It's something you don’t see all the time from teenage kids anymore.”

And as much as Katya enjoys her time with the cheerleading squad, the girls on the team say Katya has taught them a lot.

“For me personally, I think that Katya has benefited me because hearing her story makes me want to help even more people,” Caitlin said. “And knowing her whole family also makes me have so much joy that they came to the U.S. To me, Katya is almost like a sister.”

Gross Catholic senior and cheerleader Gabby Hunter agrees.

“It gives you that warm feeling in your heart when you see a little girl just living out her dream and giving her memories that will last a lifetime,” Hunter said. “It is truly special that our team gets to be a part of that.”

Katya enjoys the attention of Gross Catholic cheerleader Gabby Hunter and mascot Freddie Cougar at the school's homecoming pep rally. SUSAN SZALEWSKI

Katya's mother said that the family appreciates all the support the school has shown her family.

“We feel the love from the families at Gross Catholic High School,” Elena said.

Katya in action

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