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Injured in a Russian strike, a 13-year-old Ukrainian girl runs to raise money for other victims

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(KYIV, Ukraine) — A Russian missile strike on April 8, 2022, changed Yana Stepanenko’s life forever.

She was at a railway station in Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, with her mom, Natalia, and brother, Yaroslav, when a missile hit, killing more than 60 people. She lost her legs. Her mom lost the left one. 

A tragic story of loss turned into an example of resilience and growth thanks to the Ukrainian and American doctors who treated the girl. Stepanenko, who is now 13, ran a 5K at the 2024 Boston Marathon on Saturday to show the courage and strength of Ukrainians and to raise money for a Ukrainian soldier.

After a few months of treatment in Lviv, in western Ukraine, the family went to San Diego thanks to Peter Harsch Prosthetics and The Right to Walk Foundation.

It was the most difficult year of their life, the family recalled. But thanks to the American surgeons and physiotherapists, Natalia and Yana quickly gathered their shattered selves together, and the girl even started swimming in the pool again. But, as she’s still growing, she constantly needs to change her prosthesis, so there’s still a lot ahead, her mom said.

Despite all the horrors and difficulties, Yana set a big goal for herself.

In August 2023 she came back to Lviv, to continue rehabilitation at the Unbroken Ukraine center. She became an ambassador of the clinics, raising money for the kid’s treatment. And later at this center she got acquainted with Oleksandr Riasnyi, a soldier who lost his limb in fighting.

As he aims to get back to service and start running, Yana decided to help him raise money for a new prosthesis. Part of the campaign was her own challenge — the girl registered to run the 5K in Boston.

“I never thought I would participate in such a race. I was really, really nervous!” Yana said, recalling the start of her training three months ago.

Yana was invited to the United States by One World Strong organization, which is helping people get back on their feet after losing their limbs.

The girl was persistently training four times a week, supported by her family and Ukrainian doctors.

Right before the marathon, the fear kicked in, she said.

“I was afraid I just won’t be able to even walk the whole distance,” she said.

And yet in several minutes she crossed the finish line running with a smile on her face, greeted by her mom, brother and friends.

“I’m incredibly proud! She’s a wonderful kid, a wonderful family! They are all fantastic to work with,” said Dave Fortier from One World Strong. “Yana uses movement to heal. And we set up our organization to help people to do that. So, to give them the opportunity to do things just like this, no matter where they are from in the world!”

Yana turned 13 on April 16. And she said she got the best present ever.

“We raised half a million hryvnias for a running prosthesis for Oleksandr! Now he will be able to run like me,” she said. “I’m incredibly happy!”

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