At Gaido's in Galveston, a Ukrainian love story helps raise thousands in aid for the war-torn country

Russian troops have the city surrounded and have shut residents there off from the outside world. Cell towers have been shut down; water and electricity are cut off, Kateryna's relatives told her. The grocery stores have been reduced to rubble, and people still stuck there have quickly run out of the food they had left in their home, Kateryna said.

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“And at the same time, they are bombing the city 24/7,” said Kateryna, soft-spoken, with tired eyes. She fears her family is among those who are victims of bombs or dehydration.

On a sunny afternoon during spring break at Gaido’s restaurant in Galveston, Kateryna’s piercing blue eyes drift to a nearby window as she speaks about her family. She’s exhausted and stricken with worry as she recounts how her life has been turned upside down as most of her family fights for their lives on the other side of the world. Her two children, James, 7, and Lily, 4, are bright-eyed as they prance around the table where she’s sitting.

“I feel like I have put my whole life on hold for now. Keeping up with all the news and trying to contact my family has taken my whole time so it’s been hard to even take care of my kids to be honest,” she said. “I don’t shower, I barely eat and I barely sleep.”

Some luck has been on her family’s side, though. Her 51-year-old mother, Olena, and 13-year-old sister, Anna, have safely made their way to Lithuania after fleeing to Poland. They spent the first 12 days or so of the invasion hiding in their bathroom before moving to an underground parking lot. Every time Kateryna was unable to reach them by phone, her heart would start racing. Are they alive?

“You always imagine the worst,” Kateryna said.

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Now that she knows they are safe, her new focus is to help them start their lives over. She’s trying to find an apartment and made sure to find Anna a ballet school where she can continue her passion for dance. Helping them get any semblance of the life they had before is worth the hours she spends on the phone, tracking down help and speaking with officials from the U.S. Embassy, she said.

“It’s really sad, as much as they are happy to be in a safe place, it is heartbreaking that you have to leave your whole life, your home, and just go somewhere and set up a new life,” Kateryna said. “And also, a lot of people just don’t have any money to do that, because everything they had was just all destroyed and taken away.”

A destined love story

Nick Gaido remembers the first time he laid eyes on his wife.

At Gaido's in Galveston, a Ukrainian love story helps raise thousands in aid for the war-torn country

It was the summer of 2011, and Kateryna was sitting in a hospital bed at UTMB in Galveston in a neck brace after she was hit by a car while riding her bike. She had come to the island as part of a work-and-travel-abroad program to work at Gaido’s, while Nick at the time was working at his family’s other restaurant next door. She had no family with her, so Nick was asked to stop by and make sure she was OK. He comforted her and showed her a few photos of his dog, trying to distract her from the scary beeping noises of a hospital in a foreign country.

“It was so bizarre…I walked into the hospital and saw her and that was it,” Nick said. “It’s corny to say that…but it really was (love at first sight.) It was just like it was destiny.”

Kateryna felt the same way.

“It was like OK, that’s my husband. It felt kind of weird and I felt silly those thoughts were going through my mind, but it really felt like that,” Kateryna said. “When he walked into that room it felt like my mom walked in.”

When the summer ended, their romance continued as they maintained their relationship long-distance over Skype. She applied for a fiancé visa, and 90 days after she returned to Galveston the two were married.

Ten years and two kids later, the pair had been keeping themselves busy running one of the island’s mainstay restaurants and overseeing a major expansion and remodel of Nick’s, the restaurant next door. Now they have shifted their efforts to helping Ukraine, the country that brought them together and has a stronghold on both of their hearts.

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“This is a monumental event, and it’s difficult I think for people to grasp that because they don’t have friends and family there,” Nick said. “She’s got people everywhere. It’s heartbreaking for her. There’s no going on with life, we don’t just go out to a restaurant, go celebrate, go on vacation -- our complete world right now has just stopped. All we are doing is focusing on Ukraine.”

Donations pouring in

A fourth-generation Gaido, Nick, 35, has steered the restaurant through some of its most difficult days during the pandemic shutdowns and has now shifted his energy to helping his wife’s native country. The pair decided to start raising funds to donate to humanitarian groups and have raised about $50,000 so far.

“The phone has just been ringing off the hook,” Nick said. “To be honest, we were so busy with the activity with Ukraine, talking with her family and getting people help, that we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone. We didn’t even have time to celebrate.”

Reminders of the couple’s efforts to help Ukraine are sprinkled throughout the restaurant, filled with spring breakers by mid-afternoon. Blue-and-yellow pins and T-shirts are being sold in the restaurant’s gift shop; markers with QR codes to their fundraiser website sit at every table; staff, some of whom are Ukrainian and Eastern European, are donning blue-and-yellow ribbons. The restaurant’s marquee sign outside reads: GLORY TO UKRAINE. GLORY TO THE HEROES. WE STAND WITH UKRAINE.

LEFT: Jesse Sawyer, a server, talks with diners Tuesday, March 15, 2022, at Gaido’s in Galveston. RIGHT: A sign on a table encourages guests to donate to help Ukrainians on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, at Gaido’s in Galveston. (Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)LEFT: Jesse Sawyer, a server, talks with diners Tuesday, March 15, 2022, at Gaido’s in Galveston. RIGHT: A sign on a table encourages guests to donate to help Ukrainians on Tuesday, March 15, 2022, at Gaido’s in Galveston. (Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer)

Nick posts regular updates to social media letting contributors know where their donations have gone, which include the Ukrainian Red Cross, Unicef and Mission 823.

“We keep close track of every single penny,” Nick said.

“If we just ease the pain for anyone in Ukraine, it’s a victory. If it’s a cup of soup we are able to get to someone, a pair of shoes, socks, anything that could help,” Nick said. “It not only eases the pain for Ukrainians, but it also eases the pain for us, for my wife. It’s been extremely difficult for her, to say the least.”

Kateryna’s next step is to arrange for her mother and sister to be able to come visit her in Galveston for a reprieve from the chaos. Until then, she has a flight booked for Lithuania this weekend and is eagerly standing by the phone in hopes she will hear from the rest of her family.