Wladimir (Wally) Kowalenko was born in the Soviet Union in 1925. A year before World War II, he was selected to train as a pilot at a Special Military Aviation School. In 1945, he was shot down and became a German prisoner of war. In 1949, he emigrated to the US, where he was drafted again, this time into the US Army. He served for two years during the Korean conflict. Upon his return to the US, he worked as a mechanic during the day and went to school at night, completing a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. After short stays at Boeing and Sikorsky, he returned to the automotive field, first renting and then owning a gas station with a repair and body shop.
Wally's wife, Valentina Kowalenko, was born in Belgrade to White Russian parents. In 1944, the Soviet Army advanced into Yugoslavia. Valentina and her parents had to flee from the communist occupation because her father had been an officer in the Russian White Army. They left Belgrade with one small suitcase, some documents and some food, hoping to return soon. Instead fate sent them to Austria and then to Germany. In Munich, Valentina went to school until 1950 at which time she emigrated with her parents to Brazil. They arrived with $8.00 each, not knowing anyone or speaking the language. Valentina worked and studied at a language school. Her knowledge of six languages gave her the opportunity to become a Brazilian tour guide at the United Nations in 1960. There she met Khrushchev, Tito, Nehru and many other world leaders. Her parents’ health forced her to go back to Brazil. She lived there for 35 years. In 1984, on a trip to the US, she met Wally and they got married.
From their start twenty-five years ago, Wally and Valentina have been exceptional Gift of Life volunteers. They consistently go above and beyond in advancing the life-saving mission they have embraced. They are always there for families of patients and ready to help at a moment’s notice. Their own upheaval and adjustment to life in other countries has helped them understand first hand the struggle families with sick children face when they come to the US for medical treatment. Wally and Valentina have a rare gift for putting these families at ease and helping them navigate their way through a very difficult and trying time. The more than 400 children they have personally assisted are a testament to their dedication and hard work. Through the medical missions that help hundreds more, Wally and Valentina are building a legacy they can be proud of for many years to come.
Everyone at Gift of Life and Wally's many friends wish him great health and happiness now and forever.