Feature Photo: Tobin James and Ermie Morones with Kolchinsky and Onyschenko families. Photo by: Mira Honeycutt

Paso Robles vintner Tobin (Toby) James, the founder of Tobin James Cellars on Highway 46 East, recently returned from Ukraine, visiting the cities of Kyiv and Lviv where he witnessed what most people see on television.

“It’s devastating to see the houses that people were raised in are gone,” he said. “We can’t even imagine what it’s like, people’s lives so upended by violence. So, I thought I could help.”

With this in mind, Toby and his wife Ermie Morones have offered their hospitality to two Ukrainian families, providing housing for them in Paso Robles for an indefinite period. The support goes beyond housing and includes food, incidentals, cars for transportation and schooling for children. 

“Our families are doing well, we are just so fortunate and blessed to be in Paso,” Toby told me when I visited him at his home in Paso’s Willow Creek District. “When you see the need, why not help?” added Ermie. “It’s the right thing to do.”

While discussing his recent trip, Toby showed me his winery mascot, the red outlined yellow star which he got redesigned with blue outline and took them to Kyiv to show his solidarity. 

“I got 4000 of these large stars made in Ukrainian colors and gave them to a local army guy I met through You Tube to distribute them as morale boosters.”

Toby learned about supporting Ukrainian families through Uniting for Ukraine (uscis.gov/ukraine), a program initiated in April 2022 by President Biden. The program provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate families fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to come to the U.S. and stay temporarily for two years.

The program stipulates that Ukrainians participating in this program must have a supporter in the U.S. who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay in this country. The U.S. government conducts a vetting process on the host family to ensure that they are financially secure.

While at Toby’s home I met with the two visiting families. The first to come to the U.S. from Kyiv via Prague in April 2022 was Dima Kolchinsky. He arrived in Los Angeles with his pregnant wife Valeria and seven-year-old son Konstantin. The family came in early September at Toby’s invitation to stay at his home in Morro Bay. In October baby Nicholas was born at the Sierra Vista Hospital in San Luis Obispo, making him an American citizen. 

The second family arrived in October. Kyrylo Onyschenko, his wife Hanna and eight-year-old Timor are staying in one of the homes on Toby’s Willow Creek ranch. 

“America is showing it can do great things,” Dima said in perfect English. “American government is doing a great job. In this program, Republicans and Democrats are together.” About 100,000 people have been helped in this program and the number is increasing, Dima added.

Dima is no stranger to America. He came on an E. Muskie Fellowship to Ohio State University in Athens, Ohio and graduated in 2004. He went back to Ukraine to work in Kyiv working with Ukrainian television as a director and television host and produced documentaries and television series for international audiences.

From 2014 to 2022 Dima worked with more than 100 western media companies and crews under his production company  fixerukraine.com

Kyrylo, who was a bank manager in Mariupol, lost his home in the devastation of that city but still has a job should he wish to return and relocate to Kyiv. “Everything is very comfortable for him here but there’s the language barrier,” Dima said, translating for Kyrylo.

What do you think of California? I asked Kyrylo.

“Finally, I can sleep quietly, there’re no jets or shelling over the house,” said Kyrylo through his translator. Eventually, Kyrylo and his family would like to go back, but for a short period they are safe here.  

“I would support them financially but they declined,” said Toby of the two families. “Basically, we are keeping them safe. We’ve got empty houses they can stay in as long as they need to.”  

As for Dima, here on the Central Coast, he is applying his language skills as an interpreter “to any Ukrainian or Russian who needs it.” But family feels more important than a career at this point so for Dima and his family, America is home now. They have no plans to return to Ukraine. “And we have Toby as a guardian angel.”