COLUMBUS, Ind. — The first time Olesya Whitfield cooked with her grandmother in Ukraine, she fed a whole crowd by accident. At that young age, she was not quite sure how much water to put into rice.
The result, though, was a hit. Her neighbors lined up around the corner.
"My first experience since then, you know I love cooking," she said.
That childhood incident where she inadvertently fed so many on her first try would become a precursor to her life in the United States. Whitfield now serves up Ukrainian and international fare for thousands at her namesake restaurant, Olesya's Kitchen.
"It's handmade everything. It's from scratch, everything. People like it," she said.
That the people of Columbus Indiana like Whitfield's restaurant is an understatement. Earlier this year, they proved loyal to the restaurant, which Whitfield runs alone, by donating thousands of dollars so Olesya's Kitchen could move into a larger space.
On the heels of a pandemic which could have shuttered the doors of the Columbus staple forever, the community rallied to provide the necessary funding Whitfield needed to get into a new space.
"The community really, really helped," she told 13News.
They knew they were also giving back to someone with a weakness for dishing out free dessert - especially to the kids - just by paying her a visit.
Food is certainly served from the heart here. But now, part of that famously generous heart is broken, because it is half a world away in Ukraine.
Whitfield's daughter, son and grandchildren all live in Ukraine. She also has many close friends in the country. As she watched the crisis in Ukraine unfold over the the last few weeks, she grieved for her loved ones now caught in the terror of war.
She worries most for her nine-year-old granddaughter.
"She falls asleep next to my daughter, she never lets her out of her sight. She is so scared," Whitfield said.
Her family is unable to give her specifics that would give Whitfield some semblance of a reprieve. It is too dangerous, and destroyed internet connections within Ukraine has made overseas communication difficult.
Now, she is relying on intermittent texts
"Every morning I wake up and just pray they are still alive," she said.
Whitfield is one of many family members across the U.S. caught helpless at the war continues to threaten the lives of their loved ones in Ukraine. An estimated 2 million Ukrainian civilians have managed to escape the country, according to UN figures.
But that's of a country of more than 44 million people. Every day, most Ukrainian civilians endure Russian shelling and bombs which the United States suspects is targeted at civilians.
More than a thousand civilians have been killed in the fighting so far. With each new update on the news she cannot look away from, Whitfield fears the worst for her family.
While she endures the grief, though, Whitfield is not alone. As the Columbus community supported her restaurant once before, they’ve shown they will do so again.
People on the street yell their support of Ukraine or make a quick stop into Olesya's Kitchen. Not only to order food, but to check on how she’s doing.
"I have so many people just stop by and give me a hug to support me with my family," Whitfield said.