Shepko family celebrates traditional Ukrainian culture in song, food and seasonal ritual

Halyna Shepko of Shawangunk Ridge Farm with Snowball, an Icelandic sheep. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

When you drive into the long, winding gravel driveway of the Shepko family’s 23-acre farm off Albany Post Road in Gardiner, it’s as if you were driving into another world, another time: a place where the hustle and bustle of modern life slows down a bit, where the sounds of children playing traditional Ukrainian music come alive and the smell of freshly-baked pierogies fill the air with a sense of love and comfort.

This was Halyna Shepko’s dream. Born in New York City from a Ukrainian-born mother and a fourth-generational Ukrainian father, Shepko was always immersed in the motherland’s song, language, food and traditions. “We lived in Ukrainian areas in the City, first on Seventh Street and then in Astoria, Queens,” says Shepko as she peels a pot of potatoes in preparation for the upcoming Ukrainian Christmas. “I grew up speaking Ukrainian and singing traditional folksongs. My Dad played the accordion, and we all sang and danced in our family and with our friends.”

Advertisement

To that end, Shepko wanted to impart her same love of Ukrainian culture, including the song and dance, to her five children, ages 7 through 17. Having homeschooled all of her kids (and still homeschooling their youngest), Shepko was able to provide them lessons with many local musicians. The kids learned to play and master a variety of instruments including the piano, clarinet, violin, accordion and traditional Ukrainian instruments.

Much like the Von Trapp family singers, the Shepko family began to light up the hills of the Shawangunks with their music as they began performing together in their band Korinya, then expanded their gigs throughout the Hudson Valley, New York City and Canada at various Ukrainian festivals. Two years ago they made their first sojourn as a family to the Ukraine, where they took their music to orphanages and senior citizen homes, delighting the children and seniors who were amazed to see these American-born children play and sing traditional Ukrainian folksongs and have such mastery over Ukrainian instruments.

Shepko said that they called their group Korinya because “It means ‘roots,’ and that symbolizes what’s important to us: family, tradition, heritage, being grounded,” muses Shepko. “Learning and playing traditional Ukrainian music is a way to move through the seasons, as there are songs that symbolize the different seasons. And I find that music is a way to share joy as a family; but it touches other people and moves them. It’s a way to communicate peace and love and celebration.”

When Shepko was homeschooling her children — four of whom now attend the New Paltz middle and high school and “are enjoying it immensely” — she taught them how to create puppets and a marionette show; they also became schooled in traditional Ukrainian dances. “There is a wonderful Ukrainian resort in Kerhonkson, Soyuzivka, where we perform a lot for various holidays and festivals, and where our kids can do summer camps that focus on Ukrainian dance and music. There is a strong Ukrainian community here that we’re fortunate to be a part of.”

That said, the Shepko children have transitioned smoothly to public school, where two are preparing to be in the upcoming high school musical and others are in band or choir, while some also thrive in school sports and all in academics. “They asked me two years ago if they could go to school, and I said ‘Yes.’ It was time, and I’m so impressed with the New Paltz school system and the wonderful teachers they have there. My kids are learning things that they couldn’t have learned at home; and yet they learned things at home that they couldn’t have learned at school, so it’s a perfect blend.”

While Shepko’s husband, Richard Hamilton (who works for A-Tech, a building material testing company) is not Ukrainian, she says that “Having been adopted, he longed for this type of family and heritage and sense of belonging.” She says that while he doesn’t play an instrument, “He does love to sing!”

She explains that they took in Lexi — their niece, but now their daughter — when her mother, Richard’s sister, died several years ago. According to Shepko, through fate and tragedy, Lexi became their daughter and sibling at age 8, quickly felt a love of Ukrainian cooking and learned to speak the language within a year.

It’s not all singing and dancing and playing for the children, as there are dozens of farm animals to tend to, including chickens, goats, sheep and an Icelandic horse. “They all help after school,” she says.

Having grown up in New York City and then having lived in Munich, Germany where her mother (who now lives across the street) worked for Radio Free Europe, Shepko longed for a place in the country. After living in a residential area in Gardiner, they discovered the 23-acre farm and knew that it was the sanctuary of which their family had been dreaming.

As she spoke, Shepko was constantly working, preparing for the upcoming Ukrainian winter holiday, which calls for a 12-course meal — mostly vegetarian, and one where the animals get served first. “Because farm animals are so important to our tradition and our food production, they are fed first, because we need to treat them well in order to have a bountiful year,” she explains. “There is no meat or dairy, but we kind of cheat on that,” she says with a laugh. “What’s a pierogi without sour cream?”

Then there is the traditional wheat dish kutia, which symbolizes ancestors. “Part of this holiday is bringing our ancestors together with us. We have to blow on our seats before sitting so that we do not accidentally sit on one of our beloved ancestors.”

There also have to be garlic gloves placed at the corners of the table, to “ward off evil spirits,” and hay laid down underneath the tablecloth — all as a preventative for the influx of anything evil and an anticipation of a good year to come. “The way you deal with the winter holiday sets you up for a fruitful year,” she says.

As if Shepko isn’t busy enough tending to her family, her farm animals, her ancestry, her Ukrainian traditions, her family musical group and Ukrainian community, she is also an expert herbalist, weaves her own wool shorn from her sheep and is teaching an upcoming eight-month course on herbal remedies, tinctures and medicinal properties of plants. Their family farm also produces yarn, eggs, milk, herbs, handmade soaps, creams and tinctures.

To learn more about when Korinya is slated to perform, or to learn about the Shawangunk Ridge Farm products and upcoming classes, log onto www.shawangunkridgefarm.com. ++

There is one comment

Post Your Thoughts