Today, we bring you the story of Svetlana Winward, a Russian-born teacher currently located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Teaching at a Title I school, Winward educates children from low-income families, many of whom are immigrants struggling to adapt to the American way of life. An immigrant herself, Svetlana has first-hand knowledge of the hardships her students endure. In fact, her life’s journey up to this point is one filled with sorrow. However, she uses these experiences as motivation to help others.
Note: Title I refers to a federal education program that supports low income students throughout the nation.
Svetlana’s Humble Beginnings
Svetlana Winward was born in Nizhny Tagil, a city in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. Her father left her family when she was only 11 months old, leaving her impoverished mother to take care of her and her sibling. She describes her childhood as “hungry times,” as her family often only had cabbage to eat.
Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, people started forming businesses in Russia. Now an adult and hoping to escape poverty, Svetlana started a business of her own: a kindergarten that specialized in teaching foreign languages (English, French, and German). While she had already developed a passion for helping others, neither she nor the teachers she hired knew much about teaching.
She wrote to Hands Across the Sea, an educational program that hired American teachers to come to foreign schools and demonstrate American methods of teaching. The teachers that came to Svetlana’s school were so impressed with her that they invited her to join the program herself. She then traveled to Connecticut to share with American teachers her methods of teaching.
The Top of a Downward Spiral
Svetlana came home in good spirits. However, it wasn’t long before her optimism was devastated. Her husband had apparently moved on to another woman.
“He greeted me, and when we walked into the house, there was a different woman cooking something in the kitchen… I was devastated and heartbroken because we were happily married.”
Wanting something happy in her life, she decided to take her very young son to Disneyland. However, while on the plane to California, she fell ill. She was told that she was a risk to other passengers and had to exit the plane. It was in Salt Lake City, Utah that she learned she had come down with pneumonia. Having no health insurance in the US, she had to pay the hospital all the money she had (around $30,000).
From here, things only took a turn for the worse.
Svetlana Loses Everything
Shortly after paying her hospital bills, Svetlana learned that her kindergarten—as well as three of her other businesses—had been overtaken by the Russian mafia. Her tourist Visa was about to expire, and all her money was gone. She had no way to return to her home country.
A small glimmer of hope presented itself: Svetlana had a pen pal from Lebanon who now lived in Salt Lake City. He agreed to marry her so that she could obtain a green card. However, it wasn’t long before he revealed his true colors. He was abusive, treating his wife as a slave and constantly threatening to leave her and her child in the dust.
“My documents were supposed to come in the mail,” Svetlana tells us. “One day I saw in the mailbox a part of a letter with an address from immigration services, and I knew it was my green card. I knew that if my ex-husband saw this letter, he would take it from me, and I would end up without documents… I hid it in my clothes and brought the rest of the mail to my ex-husband.”
As soon as she and her son had their green cards, Svetlana left her toxic ex-husband, as even homelessness was better than being treated the way he treated her. She and her son lived in Sugar House Park, where they constantly starved. Still speaking little English and unfamiliar with local resources, she had no idea where to find things like shelters or food banks.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
“I thought that was the end of my life,” she explains. “I saw a truck on the road, and I was thinking that if I just took one step onto the road, it would take care of all my troubles… And then I looked at my son Dionysus. My son was smiling in his dream. The smile of my child brought me back. I woke him up. We were playing with snowballs, and all of a sudden I saw a $10 bill lying in the snow… we waited for the Wendy’s to open and went to buy hot chocolate and donuts.”
Feeling renewed, Svetlana went to the closest church and explained in broken English her situation. This church happened to have connections to Carden Memorial School, a private school that emphasizes “a classical education based on the teachings of Mae Carden.” (Mae Carden was an educator who created the Carden Method, a progressive educational program.) Within 30 days, Svetlana was teaching at this school.
“I started my life,” she says. “Maybe it was our heavenly father’s plan to put me through these things so I will understand my children better.”
Svetlana on Heroism
Having a tragic backstory like Svetlana’s is not necessary for one to become a hero. And it isn’t the story itself that makes her a hero: it is how she reacted to the negativity around her, how she used it to make positive changes in the lives of others. She has lived many lives—some good, some bad—and they have all contributed to who she is today. Her empathy and understanding make her a good role model for her students.
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In truth, being a hero is simple, and Svetlana acknowledges this. When asked what it means to be a hero, she says, “In order to be a hero, you just need to be a good person. A good person who sees the needs of other people, who is eager to help, who is eager to give a shoulder… Heroes are normal people like you and me.”
Clearly, Svetlana embodies everything that Your Everyday Heroes stands for. Some who come from a life of such pain wish to inflict the same pain onto others. However, she wishes to never have to see anyone else go through what she went through.
Your Everyday Heroes has been proud to feature Svetlana Winward. Listening to her tell her story, we couldn’t help but feel inspired. As she says, “Nobody promised us an easy life.” And while we clearly haven’t all endured the same hardships as she has, we have all dealt with tragedy. Seeing Svetlana turn her tragedy into something beautiful is something that we can all benefit from.
Teaching was something ingrained within Svetlana. As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, she jumped on the chance to start a school of her own. Between then and now, there were a lot of hurdles, but she is finally back where she was destined to be. She is a positive influence on a generation of future everyday heroes. We hope that you have come away from her story feeling inspired.