Petaluma educator forging long-distance bonds

Ukraine native Helen Bond’s penpal program at Miwok Elementary is a hit with students.|

Five years ago, skirting the eastern boundaries of Petaluma, Helen Bond was in disbelief. Her eyes wide and mouth agape, she had finally found what she has been missing for more than 20 years.

“When my husband drove me to Petaluma the first time, as we were driving along Adobe Road, I saw all the hills, the grass and the cows, and I thought, ‘it’s like Ukraine!’ It was all just yellow, golden colors,” Bond said.

It was as if she was transported back to her hometown in Kirovograd, Ukraine, for the first time since immigrating to America in 1996.

Even as she retold the story years later, her eyes welled up with tears. For Bond, much of her life can be attributed to those formative years in central Ukraine, which gave her a love for not only rolling, buttery hills but also galvanized her career in education.

“It’s in my family, my Mom has been a teacher all my life and I kind of grew up next to her school desk,” Bond said. “I became sort of mesmerized by her passion, by her teaching literature - which is a window into the soul.”

Inspired by her mother’s ability to use literature as a way to connect people through stories, Bond embarked on a career in education soon after studying math at university in Ukraine. In more than 15 years in the field, Bond has worked to encourage the same kind of connections and curiosity about the world that her mother cultivated in her classroom years ago.

Before moving to Petaluma, Bond ran Aleph Bet School in San Francisco for six years, an after-school and weekend program for Russian Jewish families. She joined Miwok Valley Elementary School’s after school Kids Care program in August 2015 as Side Manager.

A few months into her new job, Bond partnered with the Petaluma Kiwanis Club to create Kiwanis Kid’s Club (K-Kids). She said she wanted to create a devoted club for children to use their after school time to learn about the community, public service and give them an opportunity to step away from ever-present screens.

“When kids have free time, all they want to do is use technology, use their phones,” Bond said. “I teach them to actually look into somebody’s eyes, or take a pen and write a letter to a penpal friend that lives far, far away.”

Yet for Bond, those penpals are not nearly as far, far away to her as they are to others. Wanting to help her native Ukraine amidst a years-long, simmering conflict with neighboring Russia, Bond once again figuratively returned to her hometown. She and a group of Miwok Valley teachers established a penpal program with kids living in Perlinka Orphanage in Voynovka, further connecting these doppelgänger regions sitting on opposite ends of a globe.

“Those children are getting love and attention from across the world, while the kids here are learning how to be kind and take care of others instead of just themselves,” Bond said.

As the friendship between the kids grew stronger, the Miwok Valley Elementary students began to learn more about Ukrainian culture. Outgoing mail postmarked from Petaluma also changed, as students began to send hand-made gifts and small trinkets to share with their penpal friends.

“It really makes a difference in kids’ perspectives,” Bond said. “They realize it’s not just me, myself and I. It’s all about what they can do to help others.”

This is especially true for the club’s first president, John Caballuro, now a student at Technology Middle School in Rohnert Park. He said Bond helped him and his classmates learn how to take action when they see something they think is not right.

“She’s really engaged in the kids and in making them think about their future and getting them involved and making a difference,” said John’s mom Blanca Alas. “I haven’t seen anyone else like that, she makes a big difference there.”

Among the 90 to 115 kids in Bond’s after school program, about 20 kids participate in K-Kids Club, most of them in second, third and fourth grades. In addition to writing to their friends in Ukraine, K-Kids members also help the North Bay Animal Services shelter and undertake service projects like maintaining the school garden.

More than anything, Bond said she values the connection K-Kids Club children have formed, with many former members passing the buck to their younger siblings. Not to mention the few kids who, upon learning of Bond’s nostalgic attachment to the color yellow, bring her sunflowers.

“Petaluma became my new hometown, it took me a long time to find it here in America,” Bond said. “But, I knew I had found it.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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