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Woman thankful for opportunity at W.Va. State

INSTITUTE, W.Va. -- These days, Lili Gallagher sleeps in a twin-sized, dorm room bed on the campus of West Virginia State University.

It wasn't so long ago though -- just over ten years -- that she was sharing a twin bed with her brother and sister every night, alone in their home on a farm in Ukraine.

In between, there was a handful of other beds -- one in Texas, with her adoptive parents, and another in Charleston, with their kindly relative who helped see her through her first year of college.

"I think about this every day, and I'm so thankful for everything I have -- even something as simple as having a bed," Gallagher said.

Now, at the age of 20 and a sophomore at State, her life is full of the regular pleasures of a 20-something college student: she lives in a dorm and works with student government, goes out with her friends and spends a lot of time studying.

If anything, she does even more than a regular college student, because these simple pleasures still feel like luxuries to Lili -- she's still grateful for the good fortune that brought them to her, and feels like she has a responsibility to soak them all in.

"I think college is what you make it, and I'm going to get the full experience out of college," she said. "I'm going to be part of every single thing we have going on."

That's at least partly what drove Lili to volunteer as the manager of State's basketball team this year -- a time-consuming and labor-intensive position that puts her at all the team's practices and games, and at the gym for hours afterward, washing uniforms and readying them for their next use.

Lili was born Lubov, in Ukraine, 20 years ago. When she was six her mother died, leaving her and her younger brother and sister in the care of their father, who practically abandoned them. The kids were left to fend for themselves in their farmhouse, without any electricity or running water, only showering when it rained.

Lili took the lead, taking care of her younger brother and sister, when she was still a child.

"We were left pretty much on our own, and I was the mother figure," she said. "So I think that's why I'm so motherly now."

That's a reference to her work with the basketball team: She washes their uniforms, supplies their water during the games and feeds them vitamin C so they won't get sick.

And, unlike most other managers, she doesn't just put their clean jerseys in a bag and toss them onto the gym floor for them to rummage through. She neatly folds and stacks each player's clothes, and even uses scented products to make them more appealing.

"The first time I did that they came out with them and you could see it on their faces that they smelled it and they liked it," she said. "These are grown men sweating and usually their jerseys really smell. It just makes me feel so good that I can do these little things for somebody ... Some of these kids may never have experienced something like that before."

When she was nine, Lili and her brother were walking down the street near their home. A tour guide was taking an American woman on a tour of a local church when they saw the downtrodden children on the side of the road. The tour guide knew their family's story, and it piqued the woman's interest.

The next day, she went to visit Lili and her siblings. A day later, she asked Lili if she would like to come with her to America.

"I said, what is America, because I didn't know anything outside of where I was at the time," she said. "I had no education over there, I didn't know anything outside of where I was."

Eventually, around two years later when Lili was nine, she and her brother, Michael, got on a plane bound for Texas, where their adoptive family lives. Her younger sister came later.

"I remember I told everybody that I'm going to live in this huge house and it's going to have a pool, just the craziest stuff you could imagine, the stuff you see in movies," she said. "It just seemed like it would be so different from our life. We were so poor we would live day to day trying to get food."

In Texas, Lili didn't find herself in a mansion with a pool. She had a tough time adjusting at first -- she still grimaces when she recalls her first day of school, when the other students teased her for answering the teacher in Ukrainian.

"The first day she called on me and I didn't even know my name," she said. "I was just kind of sitting down looking at my own little table. Finally she stumbled onto my middle name and I answered (in Ukrainian) and everybody just turned around and laughed at me."

She was mortified. She thinks that's what pushed her to learn English so quickly, and to drop her accent so far -- it's barely detectable now.

The language barrier wasn't easy to overcome, though, and it made school difficult for her for years. Still today, she says, she has a tough time with her schoolwork - but she works hard at it. She's determined to graduate from State with a 4.0 grade point average, and three semesters in, she's well on her way.

Lili sees her education as a precious thing. She didn't receive any in the Ukraine, and probably never would have if she'd stayed there.

"If I were still there I would probably be married with kids to a man who is probably 20 years older than me," she said. "It's amazing that I came here because I'm getting an education. Education, to me, is very important because that's what I came here to do."

When her mother in Texas wanted her to live at home and attend community college for her first year after graduation, so she wouldn't be overwhelmed, Lili appreciated the sentiment, but resisted. She took up an offer from her uncle who lives in Charleston, a former faculty member at WVSU, to live with him her freshman year and take the bus to Institute every day for classes.

 She worked hard, and her perfect grades her freshman year convinced her parents that she could handle living on campus.

She loves her dorm room, and loves campus life: it gives her more of a chance to do extracurricular activities.

Coach Bryan Poore said Lili is a joy to have on campus, and as a part of the team.

"She always has a positive bounce about her," he said. "She comes in here just as happy as can be every time. It's just been awesome."

After she finishes her degree in business marketing, Lili wants to continue her education, and eventually return to Ukraine to help out the family she has left there.

"I want to be successful," she said. "I want to make everyone in the Ukraine proud that I got this opportunity and I'm not squandering it away." Contact writer Shay Maunz at or 304-348-4886


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