Ukraine holds special place in professor’s heart

May 25, 2022 / by / 0 Comment

Retired Army National Guard Maj. Sven Olson, speaking at the Grand Canyon University Army ROTC Commissioning Ceremony on May 6, served recently on the U.S. State Department’s Ukraine Crisis Task Force.

Story by Lana Sweeten-Shults
Photos by Ralph Freso
GCU News Bureau

The good you do comes back to you.

Retired Army National Guard Maj. Sven Olson has come to know the truth of that saying.

The Grand Canyon University adjunct professor was working as a bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine — his last assignment in a 27-year military career spanning 11 countries and four embassies — when he started volunteering for a ministry to help American families hoping to adopt Ukrainian children.

He connected those couples with translators, taught them how to ride the metro and opened his home to families who are required to live in Ukraine during those weeks (often months) of legal proceedings to ease the complicated, often costly, process.

Olson’s last post was at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Olson partnered with the nonprofit Orphan’s Promise outside of his military job, in which he spent much of his time as an engineer, in addition to his duties as a diplomat, building clinics, hospitals and other structures through the military’s humanitarian assistance program.

He never forgot the last couple he helped: Debby and Frank Mylar of Utah.

And he never forgot the last orphan adopted during his time in Ukraine, the country where he would retire from military service.

Two previous adoptions had fallen through for 13-year-old Vitalik, who was about to age out of the system.

“He’d really had his heart broken twice,” Olson said.

But the third time was a charm.

Almost 10 years later, when Olson posted on social media that he was taking an adjunct professor position at GCU in addition to his full-time job as a public diplomacy officer with the U.S. Department of State, it didn’t take him long to hear from the Mylars.

Vitalik, the last boy he helped find his way out of that Ukrainian orphanage, also had found his way to college … at GCU. He graduated this spring, moved off campus and is staying with Olson’s family as he looks for a place of his own.

“I just couldn’t believe a kid I helped to adopt would be here,” said Olson, who teared up thinking of how his life has come full circle. “He just grew up into an amazing young man of faith and great character.”

The good you do, indeed, comes back to you.

Rebuilding Ukraine

It’s hard to see the good when so many Ukrainians weren’t as lucky as Vitalik and couldn’t escape the tragedy of Russia’s invasion of that country in late February.

Although he left there almost a decade ago, Olson’s ties to that part of the world remain strong. His wife, Iryna, is Ukrainian, and because of his work at the U.S. Embassy there, he was asked to serve on the State Department’s Ukraine Crisis Task Force, which wrapped up its work in March.

The Olsons thought that if Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded, the war would be isolated to the east, where tensions have been centered for the last six years.

“But they just went straight for the heart, in Kyiv,” Olson said, close to Iryna’s family in the town of Fastiv. “It was very shocking.”

Olson received a token of appreciation for sharing his story at GCU’s Army ROTC Commissioning ceremony recently.

While he was able to help one of his employees get out of the country, “My own family, they didn’t want to leave. They’re still there.”

Little did they know the war would come so close to their doorstep.

“Last Friday, a bomb landed within a half-mile of their home – it blew the door open,” Olson said, and they could hear the machine gun fire of Russian troops about a half-mile away.

With the war so close, the family, originally reluctant to leave their home, has started the paperwork to get out.

“Everything is different for them. They hide indoors all the time. They hardly ever go out and are always hearing the sirens every day and having the bombs hit that close,” he said.

In the first few days of the war, Iryna emailed the mayor of Kharkiv. “I’m Ukrainian, born and raised, and I’m an architect. I feel like I have to contribute to rebuilding Ukraine,’” she wrote.

She is one of more than a half-dozen architects from across the United States with ties to the country who are part of the Kharkiv Mayor’s Architect Reconstruction Council.

The Olsons also started the Rebuild the World Foundation, a nonprofit whose first mission will be to help Ukraine.

But “her dream for this is much bigger,” said Olson, who choked up thinking of his wife’s strength.

She wants to turn the foundation’s focus to rebuilding other communities affected by war or natural disasters.

Olson and wife, Iryna, started a nonprofit called the Rebuild the World Foundation, whose first project is to rebuild Ukraine. Iryna is from Ukraine and is an architect. (Contributed photo)

Finding his purpose

It wasn’t a dream Olson ever thought he would share.

When he was just 29 years old, he woke up from a seven-day coma after a scuba diving accident in Panama to learn that he was blind and a quadriplegic.

Doctors gave him no hope for recovery.

But Olson, with his impossibly positive mental attitude, told doctors he would turn to his father, who was legally blind before an operation returned his sight to him at age 55. His father would help him with everything he needed to know about being blind, he said.

And having previously worked as a K-12 education technology consultant for Apple Computer, he had set up computer labs before for quadriplegics, so he knew about every adaptive device he would need as a quadriplegic.

“Most people would not be excited about being a quadriplegic,” Olson said, yet somehow he was. “I literally thought, ‘I have nothing to worry about.’”

It was when he woke up from his coma that he heard a voice tell him: “You need to work with youth.”

Olson never did like children, and he had been an absent father to his own child, his first son, Bjorn, when he accepted a position at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica that kept him away from his first wife and newborn.

“I’m a horrible father. I basically abandoned my son to pursue this dream of international adventure and intrigue in service, and I justified it every which way I could,” Olson said.

His first marriage crumbled after he later was called to serve in Iraq and was away from home for 34 months.

When he was recovering in the hospital from his accident, he would continue to hear that voice in his head imploring him to work with youth.

“Every day I said, ‘Nope! Nope! Wrong person, NOT me.’”

But tired of resisting, he finally gave in.

When Olson was in Ukraine as part of his military service, he volunteered to help American couples who hoped to adopt Ukrainian children.

“As soon as I made the decision, I had a feeling wash through my body, from head to toe. It was an incredible sense of peace,” Olson said.

Within a couple of hours of making that decision, he began to see a tiny speck of vision in his right eye that slowly grew to full vision.

Then he got a tiny spec of vision in his left eye.

And four months later, he started to get tingles of feeling in his body.

Olson would make a full recovery.

“I didn’t heal until I said I would work with youth,” he said resolutely. “I was a medical anomaly from the beginning to the end. It didn’t make any medical sense.”

But it made sense to Olson, who didn’t know it at the time but has come to know that God had a plan for his life.

He credits his miraculous recovery to the decision he made to serve youth and has dedicated himself to working with youth ever since.

He has worked with and mentored more than 500,000 students – a connection he has with children that he says is “God-given.”

And he has dedicated himself to his own children.

“I’ve had this incredible life. But I remember thinking none of it matters because I wasn’t there for my son,” he said.

He is now an intentional, present father, reconnecting with Bjorn, now a captain in the Washington Army National Guard and a master’s degree student at GCU, and with his second son, Erik. Olson adopted Iryna’s daughter, Kateryna, in 2014 and serves on the Advisory Board for WonderDads, which supports fathers in their parenting journey.

There’s also his work with students at GCU. He became familiar with the University after serving as a peer group sponsor for the Wounded Warrior Project, which meets on campus. Olson, who worked as the director of a hospice program in Tucson and as a health care consultant for the state of Arizona before joining the State Department in 2021, teaches health care administration for the College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. He also teaches program evaluation for the master’s degree in public administration program for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

And, of course, it was at GCU where he reconnected with Vitalik, the boy from the orphanage in Ukraine who has done so well. The boy is staying with him and Iryna as they continue to pray for their family back in Ukraine and as they prepare to help Ukraine rebuild.

Life has come full circle for Olson, and it’s because of all the good he has done.

The good you do comes back to you.

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Students gather to pray for the people of Ukraine

GCU Today: Doctoral learner provides medical aid to Ukraine


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