CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If you watch the Super Bowl today, you can thank a local high school graduate for the graphics. And if you’ve donated to Samaritan’s Purse, his twin brother is a volunteer speaker for that program and does graphics for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association that has the Samaritan’s Purse program, which operates the Operation Christmas Child shoebox program.
Sullivan South High School graduate Sergei Prokhnevskiy is on a small team designing graphics for this year’s Super Bowl on Fox, and his twin brother and fellow South graduate Vladimir Prokhnevskiy does web design for the Billy Graham Evangelical Association. Vladimir is one of more than 40 full circle speakers for the shoebox program.
Although they now live in North Carolina, the twins have a strong connection to the Kingsport area and western Sullivan County, where they moved in 2001 as Christian refugees from Kiev, Ukraine. The bond is especially strong to two area churches, Colonial Heights Presbyterian and First Broad Street United Methodist. The family came here in early 2000 through Bridge Refugee Services, which helps bring people persecuted for their Christianity or other faith to the United States, and intense involvement from the two local churches.
The twins’ current activities are far from their soccer-playing days at South, where they attended from 2001 to 2005, and even further from their persecution for their and their father’s Christian faith in the Ukraine. The family left the former Soviet Union a little more than 17 years ago, on Jan. 26, 2000.
“I always wanted to write in and update Kingsport Times-News on where we are now. I remember back in the day you guys wrote an update on our family after a few years living in the United States. I thought maybe you would be interested to know that we are all alive and doing well thanks to the good people of Kingsport, Tenn.,” Vladimir wrote in a recent email.
“We moved to the states with just a few suitcases and now 16 years later, Sergei is working on a Super Bowl Design Package that will air this year. Just wanted to encourage you all that dreams really do come true. Life does get better when we get better. We didn’t speak English when we moved here back in 2000, but we were so fortunate to grow up in an amazing community that invests in its residents. Thank you all so much!”
The whole family met in North Carolina for Thanksgiving 2016.
Boarding a bus to religious freedom
When Vladimir, his brother, their seven other siblings and parents left the Ukraine, it was at night, boarding a bus to an airport one person at a time. The Iron Curtain had fallen in 1991, so leaving wasn’t as dangerous as it once was, but precautions were still taken.
“In the middle of the night, we had a bus pull up in the front of our apartment,” Vladimir recalled.
Friends followed in other vehicles to be sure the family made it safely to the airport. Vladimir said he remembers looking at his parents after the plane took off and realizing they really were on their way to a new life in the United States, leaving behind a life he described as “survival mode” in the Ukraine.
“It was survival mode,” Vladimir said, recalling that he and his siblings shared shoes. “The (Ukrainian) government didn’t help us at all.”
Further complicating things was the fact that his father was pastor of an unregistered church and persecuted for his beliefs and activities.
“We had kidnapping threats from the local mafia,” Vladimir said. He still keeps in touch with some folks there and sends money.
His wife’s family shares a similar story of being persecuted Christians, although she was born in Italy before her family headed to the United States.
Vladimir said when he was recently interviewed for a job at the Graham Association and Samaritan’s Purse, he was asked what connection he had to the group. He said his interviewers were astounded when he told them he had received Operation Christmas Child shoeboxes filled with toiletries, toys and other items as a youth in the Ukraine. He’s been working for 10 months in Charlotte, moving from Columbus, Ohio, where most of his family lives to be close to his twin and work for the group that once sent him the shoeboxes.
He has one brother living in Gray, with the rest of the family living in Ohio, which has a large population of folks from the Ukraine. His parents speak little English, but he speaks it clearly, having been immersed in it at from the age of 12 when he moved to the Kingsport area.
Vladimir studied visual communication design at Ohio State University before taking a job at an advertising agency in Columbus, while his brother got his bachelor’s degree in animation at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Both attended Northeast State Community College before going to four-year schools.
Moving into a house in Colonial Heights
Through Bridge and the two local churches, the whole family in early 2000 moved into a house in Colonial Heights, and the children enrolled in public schools. Vladimir said they owe a great debt of gratitude to Joy Eastridge of First Broad Street United Methodist Church and Charles Gibson of Colonial Heights Presbyterian Church.
“It was a group effort by the whole church family,” said Eastridge, the parish nurse for First Broad who stays connected with the family on Facebook. “Refugee resettlement is just an opportunity to have the whole world come to your door.”
Gibson recalled helping find the father a job at Food City and the family living in a house owned by a member of his church for a few years. He also said he taught the oldest son living with the family, Yaroslav, how to drive.
First Broad, with First Christian Church providing a house for a year, also helped resettle the Minani family, a group of 11, from Rwanda in 1995. The mother died in the Rwandan genocide, also known as the genocide against the Tutsi. It was a genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government in 1994. The mother perished to save the children, Eastridge said. Jay Minani works at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, while most of the family moved to Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
Eastridge said the U.S. government vets refugees as OK to come into the United States and gives very short-term assistance, with local churches and other groups volunteering the rest. Vladimir said the Kingsport community really stepped forward to help his family.
“Strangers from those two churches would come to our house with food and clothes. They would take us to church on Sundays.” Vladimir said. “They would also sign us up for soccer, Boy Scouts, summer camps and pay all of our fees. Americans are the most generous people I’ve ever met. This was a community coming together to help us immigrants. I’ll never forget how it made us feel. We were loved. Kingsport, Tenn., will always be a special place in our hearts.”
The soccer worked out well for Vladimir and his brother.
“My twin brother, Sergei, and I both played soccer at Sullivan South back in 2001-05.” Vladimir wrote. “We had a blast playing for South. Both of us had school records. I had a school record in the most assists in a season and Sergei had a school record in the most goals in the season. Sergei was also named to All-State team 2005.”
He said in-person reunions haven’t worked out so far for the South Class of 2015 since most stay in contact through social media. Vladimir said he visited the Kingsport area for the first time in seven years, with his twin, in January to do an interview with the local Fox television affiliate.
Sergei has visited more often since his in-laws live in the Tri-Cities and he is close by in Charlotte, where he has worked for Fox for two years as of April. Vladimir said the two have been close all their lives and shared a bunk bed while growing up in Colonial Heights, so living close to his brother and a few hours drive from Kingsport seems natural.
“We owe everything not only to the community but to these people and these two churches,” Sergei said.
Twins take different paths in digital media careers
Although Vladimir is a newcomer to Charlotte, Sergei for almost two years has been a senior motion graphics artist at Fox Sports in Charlotte, working on graphics for this year’s Super Bowl game, which will air locally on Fox Tri-Cities WEMT, Channel 39.
“He started a successful Youtube channel called Ukramedia.com (www.youtube.com/ukramedia), where he teaches people motion graphics.” Vladimir said. Sergei has more than 32,000 subscribers and his videos have been viewed more than 1 million times. He also was featured in Adobe’s blog.
In addition, his tutorials are frequently featured on Adobe.com, NoFilmSchool.com, PremiumBeat.com and LesterBanks.com.
“Sergei and I are in the process of working on our own teaching product that will be launching later on this year on ukramedia.com,” Vladimir said. “Sergei and I live about 5 minutes apart here in Charlotte, N.C. We grew up together and we always try to stay close together.”
Sergei said their graphic interests go back to when they first came to the Kingsport area and a friend, Mike Wolfe, gave them a computer loaded with Photoshop and other graphics programs. The graphics Sergei did for today’s game entail everything except game footage, Sergei said.
“We’re pretty much a product of the community,” Sergei said.