CODY, WY - At Sleeping Giant Ski Area in the Bighorn Basin you’ll meet some old-timers.
You’ll meet some new faces there, too. Several families from Ukraine who fled the Russian invasion of their country are finding refuge in Wyoming, and respite, at a ski resort.
“This ski hill is actually a beginner's ski hill, really, so a lot of people have learned to ski out here that are a part of the community. We actually have four generations of skiers on the mountain right now,” said Sleeping Giant general manager Elizabeth Wells.
Refugees are working at the ski resort through the State Department’s United for Ukraine refugee sponsorship program.
Galina Matsyakh left Kiev after the first attacks last February. She took her daughter, Dasha, with her to Poland first, then Bulgaria, before arriving in the U.S.
She said she had not skied before arriving in Wyoming. She now works in the lodge at Sleeping Giant.
“But here, I am trying a snowbike, that’s cool. First time, that was scary, but now it’s good,” she said.
Matsyakh owned multiple salons in Ukraine. She said their new life in Wyoming is much different, but she feels good about it for now.
“Here we just feel like, at home. Why? Because it’s quiet, a lot of kind people who want to help us, really, it’s important for us. And here…safety,” she said.
She said her other job is spending time on the phone with friends and family who are still in Ukraine to offer support as they weather the constant threat of Russian attacks.
Matsyakh got the job at Sleeping Giant through Nick Piazza. He is a sponsor through the United for Ukraine program, which allows people to come to the U.S. and work for two years. He is from Cody and closely tied to Ukraine through family and business.
He bought the ski resort several years ago to keep it open for Park County residents.
“It’s been a labor of love. This is our third season, and we’re learning a lot, but ya know, we’re trying to make it fun. We try to make it a space for everybody,” Piazza said.
Piazza added live music, night skiing, tubing, and snowbikes to the activities you can do at Sleeping Giant.
“When I graduated from college, I went to Europe, I thought maybe for six months, and it ended up turning into about 20 years,” said Piazza.
He met his wife Yulia in Ukraine. Yulia is from Kiev.
They have two children and have been splitting their time between Kiev and Cody for several years.
He invests in multiple industries in Ukraine and across eastern Europe, and when Russia invaded he worked to support his friends and employees.
“The men were unable to leave for the most part, but what we said was, ‘Look, if you want to get your families out, ya know, we’re here.’ It was an emotional time,” he said.
The Piazzas have now sponsored 10 families to come to the Cody area through the United For Ukraine program, and two families elsewhere in the United States.
He says things will never be the same.
“We just see it even when we’re talking to like friends over there right, their world has changed so much. We had friends at the beginning of the war writing our addresses and phone numbers on their kid's chest with markers because they weren’t sure if they were going to lose them at the border. I don’t know how you come back from all that,” Piazza said.
He says he finds it therapeutic to ski.
Sleeping Giant is offering free passes to anyone from Ukraine, so they too can find some peace.
Information for people who are looking to help out Ukraine residents
- Nova Ukraine: A Ukrainian NGO that provides humanitarian aid from food, to hygiene products, to clothing to people in need throughout Ukraine. https://novaukraine.org
- Ukrainian Red Cross: They provide humanitarian work around Ukraine including providing food and supplies to people, handling and coordinating blood donations, providing medical support to remote areas and displaced people. https://redcross.org.ua/en/donate/
- UNICEF: They are providing emergency response for children and work on rebuilding schools. https://www.unicef.org/ukraine/en/donate-now [unicef.org]