Even small gifts change lives

Pay It Forward Gift Gives Ukrainian Foreign Exchange Student Hope

Described as a positive, outgoing firecracker, Danya Zubarieva was a foreign exchange student in Hawley, Minn., when Russia invaded her home country of Ukraine. At one point, she couldn’t reach her mom for nearly a month. And she knew her dad – a sailor who was in India at the time – was keeping things from her to protect her.

Not knowing what was happening to her family made it difficult to process school and her life here. Then she started raising money to help in any way she could – and her school, community and Bell Bank surrounded her in support.

“There is good in people, and we as humans can do a lot for each other. It makes me want to help people even more.” – Danya Zubarieva, Pay It Forward recipient

Bell Employees

Rick Schultz, President – Hawley
Sarah Crompton, Vice President and Branch Manager
Hawley, Minn.


Danya Zubarieva, Ukrainian foreign exchange student

The Need

For as long as she could remember, Danya Zubarieva had wanted to visit the United States.

“I started learning English when I was four,” she notes. “American TV and the American dream and everything shows you that life here is a dream-like life.”

After years spent dreaming of visiting the U.S., months taking courses and exams for a foreign exchange student program, and two more years waiting when COVID halted the program, Danya arrived in Hawley, Minn., in August, 2021.

“It’s been very interesting,” Danya comments. “It’s really not like my hometown. My hometown was half a million people.” (Hawley’s population is just over 2,200.)

In addition to Danya, her host family – Chris and Briana Leigh – also took in a student from Turkey.

“It’s really important for our kids in Hawley to have exposure to other cultures and people from other places, because they don’t necessarily get that here,” remarks Briana, who teaches civics and American History in Hawley.

While Danya was acclimating to a new culture, back home in Ukraine, tension with Russia was escalating. Since Danya is from Mariupol, which is in the region Russia occupied in 2014, conflict with neighboring Russia was not new to her.

“Since I was a third grader, I can remember us looking for places to hide,” she explains. “You’re looking for a concrete wall and then you’re going into these basements. Older kids go deeper into the basement because there’s less oxygen, and smaller ones are more outside so they can breathe well. So it’s been a constant struggle for us over the fact that there’s a war coming all the time.”

But that also meant no one really knew how seriously to take the escalating tension.

“In 2021 everyone was kind of guessing that something might start,” Danya notes. “But all of my family were like, that’s just media.”

Then February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Danya found out through a Twitter feed her fellow exchange student was following.

“They posted videos of my city getting bombed,” Danya says. “I called my mom, and I couldn't reach her because she was still sleeping. And then I started calling everyone I knew when everyone was in bed. So it was a very nerve-wracking couple of hours.”

Dayna eventually connected with her mom and was able to talk with her regularly until March 1 when everything shut down. She later found out her apartment building had been bombed. Her mom and 7-year-old brother sheltered in the basement, rationing food while outside people were killed trying to share water with their neighbors.

“It was really difficult to cruise through normal daily life,” Dayna notes. “Then I started fundraising and it kind of kept me away from thinking about it all.”

Dayna raised more than $20,000 to help people in and fleeing Mariupol.

“I think there is hope and there are ways to help – even from here,” Dayna says. “Lots of my classmates have reached out and helped out. People have donated money just because. Local churches have reached out to us.”

The Impact

Bell employee Rick Schultz heard about Dayna’s fundraiser from his wife, who works for the Hawley school district. Then he saw a news story about Dayna, and the following Sunday, she spoke at the church he attends.

Rick called the school to find out how to help and learned Dayna needed $5,500 for driver’s education and to attend a language camp. Hoping to raise enough money, he and Bell employee Sarah Crompton asked co-workers if anyone wanted to contribute Pay It Forward funds. They ended up raising $22,000.

“It brought me to tears when I saw how many people were willing to help,” Sarah comments. “Being able to help out and do good for somebody else just means the world.”

“The way the Bell family stepped forward to help somebody from another country, it just hits your heart,” Rick adds.

Danya says the donation gives her hope and makes her want to help people even more.

“It’s a really beautiful thing to help people and to offer whatever you have to others,” she remarks.

Dayna’s host parents know first-hand how impactful a Pay It Forward donation can be. They received one in 2020 after Chris was in a head-on collision with a semi and almost died.

“It personally showed me how important it is to continuously give, help out and be there for other people because all these little things, they really mean a lot,” Chris explains. “It could just be a visit. It could be a card. It could be something financial, everything, every little bit helps, and this community just really dives in and helps out.”

“You get to feel held by your whole community,” notes Briana. “You shouldn't have to go through a tragedy to experience that. But man, was it worth it to know that there are hundreds of people in our corner, and now Danya gets to experience that. You couldn’t pick a better person to invest in. She is going to do incredible things.”

Through the Pay It Forward program, Bell gives employees money each year to donate to people and causes they care about.