STORY UPDATE! On May 1, 2023, Lancaster County’s local newspaper, LNP | LancasterOnline, highlighted the story of LBC Criminal Justice major, cross country runner and track athlete Dana Keller (’25). Read this new article below, as well as the original article by Lancaster Bible College in March 2022.
Parents, sisters join Lancaster Bible College runner Dana Keller in Pennsylvania after fleeing Kyiv, Ukraine
By John Walk | LNP Sports Writer
Dana Keller had to warn her family of impending danger. She was 5,000 miles away on the campus of Lancaster Bible College, but Dana knew her mother, father and two younger sisters were likely still asleep inside their third-floor apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine.
She picked up her phone to alert her dad, Vitaly Keller, who awoke to a call from his eldest daughter.
“Check the news,” Dana Keller said.
Windows to the Keller apartment were rattling as Russian bombs rained down on a nearby airport and factory. Vitaly Keller, a Russian national, awoke his wife, Alexandra, a native of Ukraine. Their home countries were now at war.
Within the next 24 hours, the pair made a life-altering decision to flee with their children. But where they would go was a question mark. Desperate to get his family to safety, Vitaly Keller turned to faith-based personal connections established decades earlier and an ocean away in Pennsylvania.
“Everyone was running in different directions,” Vitaly Keller recalled of the panic that set in on the streets of Kyiv in the first hours of the war.
Customers in a nearby grocery store ran from shelf to shelf. Long lines formed at banks and ATM machines.
The Kellers returned to their apartment.
“I told my kids to do their homework,” he said. “We didn’t know what else to do.”
He realized that night his family had to leave. They could drive to western Ukraine, where he knew some friends willing to take them in.
“We were thinking we’d go … for a couple weeks and then come back home,” he said.
Before they headed west, though, the Kellers drove east to another apartment complex to pick up a mother and her 11-year-old boy they knew from church. The boy was so frightened Vitaly Keller entered the apartment and carried him out.
Meanwhile, Dana Keller had been left wondering about the safety of her family since alerting her dad of the initial Russian invasion.
“It was scary,” she said. “When I couldn’t hear from them anymore I started crying. My friends were next to me. We all started praying.
“I had this feeling of guilt,” she recalled. “I wanted to be there and help. But when I think logically, I would not have been able to help much.”
Her dad finally called her back when the Kellers made it to western Ukraine, but only after having been stopped several times on the trip by Ukrainian troops who were suspicious of Vitaly Keller’s Russian roots.
“At all the blockposts in Ukraine I would be interrogated,” he recalled. “I thought it would just be safer to go abroad. And it would be safer for our kids.”
The Kellers drove across the western border of Ukraine to Budapest, Hungary, staying for two days with a friend who had moved from Kyiv to Budapest a few years earlier.
Meanwhile, Dana Keller was back at LBC communicating through the Telegram app with families in Switzerland, where she had studied for a year before she came to LBC. It led to a church near Bern, the capital of Switzerland, taking in the Kellers and finding them a host family and later an apartment.
“I finally felt they were safe when they went to Switzerland,” she recalled.
Dana Keller visited her family in Switzerland last summer before returning to LBC in August. Wanting to join his eldest daughter in the United States, Vitaly Keller reached out to church friends in Pennsylvania he had first met more than 20 years earlier.
Connections in America
Born and raised in St. Petersburg, Russia, Vitaly Keller, now 48, came to America for the first time in early adulthood to complete a one-year seminary program as a student at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania.
With monetary support as a missionary for some American churches, many of them in Pennsylvania, he returned to Russia to plant New Life Baptist Church in St. Petersburg in September 2000. He served as its pastor until 2018, when he felt the urge to move on.
“There was an internal feeling our mission was completed there in Russia,” he said.
The family then moved to Kyiv, Ukraine, the hometown of Vitaly Keller’s wife, Alexandra. The pair met in the late 1990s when Vitaly tagged along with a team of professors teaching at a seminary in Kyiv.
“We went outside and preached on the streets,” he said of the family’s move to Ukraine. “We would then invite those interested into our home. It was more like church-planting through our house. We then built a network of house churches.”
Over the years, Vitaly Keller returned to America to visit the churches who were supporting him as a missionary. Dana Keller learned about LBC on one of these trips, during which she and her father stayed at an apartment next to Calvary Baptist Church in Montgomery County. The apartment is specifically used by missionaries when visiting the church.
The Kellers minus Dana moved into that apartment in September. While their safety was no longer in question and the family was no longer a continent apart, different challenges awaited them as they worked to build a new life in the United States.
Dana Keller’s two younger sisters, Daliah, 14, and Anita, 16, are attending Calvary Baptist School in Lansdale, Montgomery County.
“They’re just getting to know English,” Dana Keller said. “The 14-year-old is struggling. She doesn’t understand most of what is going on in school. Every time they come home, it’s homework, homework, homework. They’re overwhelmed.”
“Sometimes they’re up until midnight doing homework,” Vitaly Keller said. “Anita is OK with English. Daliah is still struggling. When she talks she’s not as brave to talk because she is afraid to make mistakes. So when she talks, she talks in a softer voice, so then we can’t hear her and ask her to speak louder, which just discourages her even more from talking.”
Faith Church in neighboring Bucks County raised money to purchase the Kellers a car, a Mazda5.
“On the weekends, sometimes my dad will pick me up,” Dana Keller said. “I also know a girl from school (at LBC) whose family lives next to where my family lives right now, so she’ll drive me back when she goes home.”
At home on the track
When she’s not in competitions with LBC’s track and field or cross country teams on the weekends, Dana Keller is with her family in Montgomery County. They’ll often spend the time together by going on long walks.
“Ukrainians walk a lot,” Vitaly Keller said. “We go to different parks, trails. We are always walking somewhere.”
The active lifestyle is ultimately what led Dana Keller to take up running at LBC, where she’s become a standout distance runner.
“With her, the longer the better,” LBC track and field coach Melissa Baughman said. “She loves anything where she has to push the limits.”
In turn, Dana Keller has found an outlet when school and life become too much to handle.
“When I feel bad I tend to go running,” she said. “It’s a good stress reliever.”’
While she is attending LBC on a student visa, the rest of her family is living in the United States through the Uniting for Ukraine program, which provides a pathway for Ukrainian citizens and their immediate family members to stay in the United States for a two-year period.
Vitaly and Alexandra Keller, 47, work as janitors at the school where their younger daughters now attend.
Asked if he feels like his ministry has been put on pause, Vitaly Keller said, “No. The ministry continues. In the morning I work connecting with everyone from our home churches back in Ukraine who are now spread to different countries,” he said. “We also have house churches and Bible studies here. And we are connecting with other Ukrainians here in the United States.”
He’s also connecting with family back home in Russia, although those conversations have become more complicated due to the war.
Love and war
Vitaly Keller has a sister who lives in Russia. That sister has a son, his nephew, who is fighting for Russia.
“Every day I speak to different Russians,” he said. “They don’t understand. Their minds are full of Russian propaganda. … I’m supposed to love them but I don’t know how to talk to them lovingly if all they want to talk about is the war.”
Meanwhile, the bond between the Kellers has grown stronger.
“I can’t take everything that happened as very bad,” Dana Keller said. “There were good parts of it. The good part is now my family is here.”
She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at LBC, a passion that partly stems from her enjoyment of crime shows.
“I’m leaning on a sphere of policing but I’m not sure yet,” she said of her career choice. “I want it to be as active as possible, physically.”
While Vitaly Keller has expressed interest in returning to Ukraine, his daughter isn’t sure of the future beyond her graduation from LBC in two years.
“I don’t know if there will be something to go back to,” she said. “It’s going to be so ruined. I don’t know if there’s a future in Ukraine.”
Read LBC’s March 2022 feature on Dana below…
She Came to Lancaster Bible College from Ukraine, Now Her Family Has Been Forced to Flee to Safety
By Amy Mongiovi, MA | ECHO Magazine Managing Editor
At any given moment in time, typical college students have at least a short list of stressors affecting their life: the next big exam, a tough practice, constraints on time or apprehension about the future.
At this moment in history, Lancaster Bible College student Dana Keller (’25) also takes the typical college worries to heart, but even more significant concerns are currently front and center.
Born in Russia to a Russian father and Ukrainian mother, Dana lived in Ukraine for the three years leading up to her time at LBC. With a war raging in her home country, her family has fled Ukraine for Switzerland in search of safety, as upwards of 10 million others have done, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and BBC.
While it can be difficult not to focus on the potential dangers facing family and friends, Dana, who speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, works to concentrate on her studies as a Criminal Justice major and on her role as a member of two Charger sports teams—all while keeping her faith at the forefront. This fall, Dana joined the LBC field hockey team, and her teammates rallied around her long after their season ended.
“We may be limited in what we can do to help those affected by the war in Ukraine,” said field hockey head coach Becky Elliott. “However, what we can do is pray and be there for our teammates. We were blessed with Dana joining us in the fall, and she is a member of our LBCFH family. We are grateful that we are able to pray with her, pray for her and her family and spend time together with her.”
She also plans to run long-distance track events this spring, and is immensely enjoying her Criminal Justice courses, especially those taught by Criminal Justice Program Director Dr. John Churchville. She also called her first Bible course on campus “amazing.”
Churchville said he’s been encouraged to see Dana’s friends and classmates regularly pray for her and her family, invite her to meet their Ukrainian friends at church and check in with her routinely after class.
Dana’s long journey to Lancaster Bible College—4,700 miles from Kyiv, Ukraine—began with her father, who today serves in missions. While living in Russia before she was born, her father longed to learn English and did so from a missionary who taught the language through Bible lessons. He then attended a now-closed seminary in Lansdale, Pa., where he met several professors who ultimately began teaching Lancaster Bible College | Capital Seminary & Graduate School.
Every four years or so, the Kellers visited churches in the United States to speak about their ministry and form supportive relationships. Dana first encountered Lancaster Bible College on one of those visits, and it was her father who pointed out LBC’s Criminal Justice major. Even with that connection, Ukraine and Lancaster may seem worlds apart, not only in distance but also in culture and language.
“I always wanted to study in America,” Dana said, “but it was always a dream. I wasn’t sure it would come true.”
That dream did come true, and Dana is thriving as a student and athlete, even though current global events may be affecting her much more personally than many college students. As news began to circulate about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February, Dana’s friends began reaching out. Because of seemingly constant rumors of unrest in that region, Dana wanted to confirm the news herself. Once she did, she immediately called her father at 5 a.m. his time, then breathed a sigh of relief when he answered at that early hour. Her father, mother and two younger sisters were preparing to flee over a thousand miles (1,700-plus kilometers) to Switzerland to stay with extended family members. Dana had also spent time in this central European country during a gap year between high school and college.
Dana’s mother’s family is from Ukraine, and several aunts and uncles still live in Kyiv. In fact, one aunt made the decision to stay behind in the war-torn city to evangelize.
With so much uncertainty for the people of Ukraine, Dana knows one thing for sure—she is committed to seeing her family this summer, whether at home, in Switzerland or perhaps even in the heart of Pennsylvania in Lancaster County.