How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised $20,000 for Ukrainian Students and Their Teacher

Lexi Pendola was used to spending her Saturday mornings remotely tutoring English for other teens, halfway around the world in Ukraine — then the invasion changed everything

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Lexi Pendola.

Lexi Pendola is, by all outward appearances, a typical California teenager. Speaking to PEOPLE via Zoom in a recent interview, she recounted her weekend plans: first a trip to Coachella with friends, then college tours with her family as she gears up for her senior year of high school.

But the past few weeks have also been filled with a bigger purpose for the 17-year-old: raising funds for Ukrainian refugees — some of whom she's developed a close relationship with through her years working as a remote English tutor.

Lexi first became connected with a group of students and their teacher, Julia, in 2021 when she started teaching English via Zoom through the Meaningful Teens organization as part of its Project Speak Together.

She spent nearly every Saturday morning logging on to Zoom from her Calabasas home to connect with her kids and with Julia (whose full identity is being withheld due to safety concerns).

"Since June 2021, I have been tutoring kids ranging from 10 to 17 years old through the Meaningful Teens organization," Lexi tells PEOPLE. "It's started by teens and run by teens."

In late February, though, everything changed. The students with whom Lexi had become so close via her lessons were in increasingly grave danger as Russia invaded their country in full force.

"I started seeing news articles and updates and was shocked," Lexi says.

She used social media to keep up with some of the kids and saw them posting images and footage of sirens, explosions and the general horrors of war.

"It's really mind-blowing," Lexi says. "We were living similarly for so long. And suddenly, seeing the war ... their lives had completely changed. It was pretty hard to wrap my head around."

In some of the videos posted to social media, Lexi says, she could hear shooting and hear air raid sirens in the background. "Actually hearing and seeing what was going on was so different than just reading about it. That's when it put things in a different perspective for me."

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Lexi Pendola.

As the situation worsened, Lexi grew more determined: She had to do something.

"I reached out to some of the students via Instagram [direct messages]. One in particular who is just a year younger than me was giving me all these updates, telling me stories of kids whose parents were injured or died in the war. I was kind of mind blown. I asked, 'What can I do to help you?' She said, 'Just pray.' But I wouldn't take that for an answer."

That's when Lexi got in contact with Julia, the students' teacher in Ukraine, who said funds were urgently needed.

But gathering money and sending it to a war-torn country — particularly when Lexi is a minor — was no easy feat.

"We were using GoFundMe to raise the funds and Western Union to transfer the funds but we quickly maxed out," Lexi says. So her mom, Marcie Pendola, got involved, allowing her to raise and send even more money to Ukraine.

"We had no idea what to expect," Pendola tells PEOPLE. "When we started this, Lexi was thinking, 'Maybe I can raise $500 or something like that.' We never anticipated Julia being as amazing as she is — sending Lexi updates daily with how the money is being sent, detailed spreadsheets, photos."

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Ukrainian refugees helped by Lexi.

By March 24, Pendola's Help Ukraine GoFundMe had raised nearly $9,000. One month later, it hit $20,000. The funds have gone toward her students via their teacher, Julia, who remained in Ukraine amid the war.

Julia tells PEOPLE the money has been a lifeline for the many Ukrainians sheltering in the invasion that has already killed or wounded thousands of civilians.

"We've bought water, candies and chocolates for children in refugee centers," Julia says. "We bought a food processor and a slicer so that families could make food. We bought a washing machine for a refugee center, goody bags for children for Easter so kids can feel at home."

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Julia in Ukraine, bringing supplies to a refugee center.

She says she also meets with families each week to gather lists of items they need — medicine for children with Down syndrome, for instance — or toys, so the children won't be so scared while staying in a refugee center instead of their own homes.

The money has also been used to repair a bus transporting refugees and to buy boxes of first aid kits and medicines to send to the front lines for Ukrainian soldiers, Julia says.

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Julia with some of the refugees Lexi has helped.

"The money that we have sent has the buying power of about triple the amount [due to the exchange rate]" Pendola says.

While Lexi is halfway around the world, in California, her fundraising has made her well-known to those she's helped.

"I walk into the refugee centers each week and everyone knows me, but they also know Lexi — I'll FaceTime her and the families will send greetings and big love, and big hugs," Julia says. "And they know that when they open their fridge, there is food."

Julia says Lexi's kindness has changed her life, too — providing her with a new focus during a time when she admits she often needs a distraction.

One day, they both say, they hope to meet in person.

How a 17-Year-Old California Girl Raised Tens of Thousands for Ukrainian Refugees
Julia purchasing supplies with the funds Lexi raised.

"I would just hug her so tight," Julia says. "She has become so dear to me. Every night before I go to bed, I text her. It's nighttime for me and morning for her. So I know that every morning, she looks at the messages and sees all the photos of the families she's helped, and the receipts I've gathered, and the stories."

The feeling, says Lexi's mom, is mutual.

"We were texting last night and I was telling Julia how impressed we are by her and by the Ukrainian people and that some day we would love to visit," Pendola says. "She sent back a message saying we would always have a home there."

Though they haven't met in person, Julia describes Lexi — a teenage girl living more than 6,000 miles away — as something of a kindred spirit.

"She's part of this. We are together. We are one team. She has become a part of my family."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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