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For Tina Clay, a Story of Survival Shared Amid 'Heartbreaking' War in Ukraine

Story By:
Paul Miller | Director of Strategic Communications and Community Relations
Tina Clay '22
Tina Clay's story of survival is as harrowing as it is successful, as she prepares to graduate with a degree in English.

Tina Clay’s earliest childhood memories are not garden variety.

She never knew her biological father; he ran off after learning that Tina’s mother, Olga, was pregnant, Tina ’22 says. “And my mom, she tried to do the whole motherhood thing, but it did not work for her.”

“I was two and half, three, and I remember the day my mom put a note in my pocket and dropped me off a house away from my grandparents’ house,” the Keene State senior recalls. “I remember two young girls who lived in the house next door to my grandparents taking me by the arm, one on each side, and walking me to the door of (my grandparents’) house. My mom was going to go look for my father; she never came back.”

Tina’s grandmother, Nadya, did not work; rather, she suffered health issues from years of factory work in the small village of Velikaya Znamenka in Ukraine where she and Tina’s grandfather, Vladimir, lived. Vladimir drove a truck for a bread company.

Tina’s journey as a young girl and young teen was only beginning its harrowing and hard-to-imagine spiral as she sought to escape dangerous living conditions; adjust to life on the run, in the streets and at shelters and orphanages; deal with resulting personal traumas; and simply survive.

Vladimir was an abusive alcoholic; Nadya would become an alcoholic. To this day, Tina feels, her grandmother’s drinking was a mechanism to try to tolerate and survive her husband’s abuse.

It was bleak, Tina says of her new living arrangement, as bleak as it sounds. When Tina was of school age, Vladimir and Nadya used state assistance funds for Tina; not to buy her needed clothes, books and personal items, but to feed their drinking, she says.

“It was traumatizing. I’m that young and for the longest time I’m feeling that no one wanted me.”

Unrelentingly tragic as her upbringing in Ukraine was, it remains the underpinning of who Tina is — a bright, curious, at times brash, and engaging 23-year-old about to graduate college. Tina will receive a bachelor’s in English May 7 at Keene State’s commencement.

The hardships she has overcome “are hard to comprehend,” her best friend and roommate, Emma Rico ’22, says. “I admire her ability to adapt and grow with everything life has thrown at her. I admire her ability to just keep going.”

Memoir will tell the whole story

Tina is writing a memoir, though progress has slowed. “It’s hard to focus right now, and just try to be happy with all that is going on” she says, bluntly, referring to the high-profile and deadly war in her homeland.

Her memoir is too important not to finish, Tina says. Being a writer at heart, the process will be cathartic, too, she says. Fluent in Russian, Tina can imagine working with orphanages and adoption agencies. Ideally, she would write to “inspire people to do the things that others did to change my life.”

Tina says her connection with Keene State occurred on Admitted Student Day and was immediate.

“The way I was greeted, the way the college was presented, I turned to my mom (that day), and I said, ‘I can totally see myself here.’”

From her first year, Tina has benefited from Granite Guarantee. The University System of New Hampshire program provides, in qualifying instances, free tuition for Pell Grant-eligible students. In Tina’s case, it did not have to do with her adoption, but with her financial status based on adoption, says Kevin Justice, assistant director of admissions at the college.

A war with real-life context

Though Tina spends her time immersed in study, student life, and tying up loose ends ahead of commencement, these days Ukraine is rarely far from her thoughts. Anger and despair over the ongoing conflict in her native country for Tina have real-life context. She has friends and relatives trapped in the deadly war perpetrated by Russia’s military, and she cannot help but think of how difficult life in the orphanages there must be.

It breaks my heart to watch my homeland fall apart,” Tina wrote on a handout she left with area downtown business in Keene recently, seeking donations to help support “these precious (orphaned) children who are scared for their lives.”

Since Russia’s military invaded the country more than a month ago, Tina and the rest of the world have watched civilian and Ukrainian fighters killed, cities and landscapes reduced to rubble and an unfolding generational humanitarian crisis as women, children and elderly try to outrun bombs and missiles for refuge in border nations.

More than four million Ukrainians have fled their country; 90 percent of those people are women and children, CNN reported March 31.

‘So glad they fell in love with me’

Tina’s life changed forever in 2014. It was October 31st, she says, continuing to share her life story — all of it — in unhesitating detail.

On that day more than seven years ago Tina became part of the Clay family from Amherst, New Hampshire, the sixth of eight children from Russia or Ukraine eventually adopted by Aileen and Kevin Clay, the director for student life at Manchester Community College and the owner of a prominent coffee roasting business, respectively.

Both work as volunteers for Open Hearts and Homes for Children, a non-profit Christian organization that provides vacations for children who live in orphanages in eastern Europe. Some of these six-week vacation experiences the Clays had with these children turned into permanent adoptions.

“We responded to a group in Nashua looking for host families; it was not about adopting,” Aileen says. “Our motto at the beginning then was ‘We can do anything for six weeks.’ But until you look an orphan in the eye, like any real child, it is different. We did not set out to have eight adopted kids, but then you see who they are, and you reflect on your ability to provide and how you want to live your life and spend your resources.”

Tina’s siblings, in order, are Alec (biological son of Kevin and Aileen); Vladimir (adopted from Russia); Anya (adopted from Russia and is Vladimir’s biological sister); Oksana (adopted from Ukraine); Sergey (adopted from Ukraine); Nikolai (adopted from Russia), Tanya (adopted from Ukraine) and Kolya (adopted from Ukraine and is Tanya’s biological brother).

“I’m truly grateful,” Tina said of becoming part of the Clay family. “I did not come here thinking I would stay; that was not their plan. But I am so glad they changed their minds. I am so glad they fell in love with me.”

A journey walked, a burden felt

Tina was a typical young teen, but she has always been confident and honest, Aileen says.

“As parents (of adopted children),” Aileen says, “what we find is when they feel comfortable and safe, we see more layers peel off. You know they are healing when they start to open and share stories, their past. Tina has always written journals; she has always been open. She has a God-given gift to write. If she can use that voice in the future to make a difference, she is going to go far.”

Aileen adds: “We don’t take any credit for our kids, for the life they are creating. When you understand the trajectories that children growing up in an orphanage can take, that are more common, and you see this trajectory playing out, you know she has potential. Each child chooses a trajectory. They need to walk that journey.”

Tina admits to certain and real burdens that she sees as inherent to her journey.

“All the opportunity I’ve gotten to get here,” she says, “that’s pressure that I feel. Because I have this chance, this second chance that not everyone gets. I look at it like I don’t have an option to fail.”

Tina says she did reconnect with her mother over time and on rare occasions up until age 11. Olga showed up on her daughter’s birthday when Tina was in the eighth grade. “(Olga) told me about living with a man in this beautiful home on a mountain and being happy. I only remembered the name of the village.”

The next morning, a small bag packed and feigning that she was school-bound, Tina walked away to find her mother; the lovely, perched home; and the contentment, she says. “I didn’t even know which way to start walking. I got to a point where it was too late to turn back. One stranger, a guy, gave me a ride.

“Those 24 hours, trying to find my mother, was the scariest time of my life. I knew the town was Ushkalka; that’s all I knew. I didn’t know if I would live to get there.”

She found the home, only to find Olga “passed out drunk,” Tina recalls. “I stayed about two weeks; no one knew where I was. But the police and child services were looking for me, and eventually knocked on the door where I was with my mother. My grandmother was with them.”

Her life came to a new head. Authorities relocated Tina to a shelter in Melitopol and one year later placed her in an orphanage in Zaporozhie, about four hours from the small village outside Energodar where she was born.

“For the longest time,” Tina says, “I had hopes that my grandmother would come to save me.” Nadya did not come to save her but in time the Clays did.

“Her dad and I are incredibly proud of Tina,” Aileen says. “Her strength and tenacity as a young teen showed up. Keene (State) really helped to funnel that fire, that headstrongness into not only developing her writing skills and her academic skills, but being able to manage an apartment, finances, having a job.

“She was able to dig deep into those challenging early life situations and use them to draw strength and become her best self.”

A metaphor for better times

When Tina began running away from the toxic situation at her grandparents’ home, she very much considered herself an orphan. She stopped showing up for school, hung out with “kids who were not a good fit for me,” and was at times considered missing, she says.

There was no street code, Tina says, not for a young girl of her age. She survived, in large measure, she says, because good fortune was on her side and her savvy belied her age.

More than anything, Tina says, she remembers how dirty her fingernails always were, how messy her hair seemed always to be.

Today, when someone meets Tina, they are apt to notice first her long dark shiny hair, and her meticulous, brightly colored nails, often pink.

Tina Clay is a long way from the streets of Ukraine. She is no longer a child trying to get by on her own, against terrifying odds. She is a young woman, strong and sure. And it is a good bet that her hair and her nails will never again appear anything less than what she wants.

Tina continues to seek donations and says she is considering making Ukrainian bracelets to sell for that purpose. Meanwhile, she asks that anyone wishing to donate directly to help the orphanages in Eastern Europe, that they do so by going to

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