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ODU Announces Creation of Mersel Ukrainian Student Triumph Fund, the "MUST Fund"


NORFOLK, Va. – Joe Mersel is horrified when he sees scenes of Russian soldiers marauding through Ukraine on the evening news.

He has reason to be more affected than the average American about Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Both his parents, Hyman and Sylvia Mersel, came to America as teenagers after World War I from the Galicia region of Europe, now consisting of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. 

Mersel knows he can't save the world, but wanted to do what he could to help some young people in Ukraine, and, in the process, Old Dominion University.

He, his wife, Ellen Sue (Susie), and son Mark Mersel have partnered with the Old Dominion Athletic Foundation to found the Mersel Ukrainian Student Triumph Fund, or "MUST" Fund for short.

Joe and Susie made a generous donation to begin the fund. ODAF is also seeking more donors to enhance the MUST Fund. Mark Mersel, an Orange County, California attorney, and a long-time ODU donor, is also assisting.

The fund was created to help ODU's men's and women's tennis and basketball programs recruit athletes from Ukraine. Later on, it was decided to include all the nations of Eastern Europe affected by the Russian invasion, though the focus will remain on Ukraine.

As the fund grows, Mersel envisions ODU recruiting dozens of athletes from Eastern Europe. The fund will help pay for recruiting costs.

"It's a great start, but we can do so much more," Mersel said. "We can make Old Dominion a destination for Eastern European athletes.

"We're going to work with the Ukrainian athletes already here to let their friends know Old Dominion is an option. The coaches said it's an expensive process to recruit and bring players over here.

"The war in the Ukraine motivated me to do this. This is an opportunity to get these young athletes out of the Ukraine, to save some of them.

"But we can't do it without help. We need others to step up and help make this as successful as we think it can be.

"We have to have other people help to make this work."

ODU women's tennis coach Dominic Manilla has known Mersel for decades and says he "has such a big heart.

"He sees terrible events happening in Eastern Europe and he really wants to help," he added.

Those terrible events are reflected on both the ODU men's and women's tennis teams.

Yuliia Starodubtseva, ODU's standout No. 1 singles player, is from southern Ukraine. Russian troops have overrun the area in which her family lives. Yevhen Sirous, a native of Kharkiv in eastern Urkaine, plays for the men's team. 

Starodubtseva managed to put together an amazing season in spite of her family being caught in a war zone. She helped lead ODU to the Conference USA championship last weekend and compete in the NCAA Tournament in singles, doubles and team competitions.

Men's tennis coach Dominik Mueller said he will use MUST funds to travel to Eastern Europe.

"We would love to be able to recruit some Ukrainian players," he said.

Starodubtseva said she's grateful for the gift from the Mersel family.

"They are doing this to try to bring Ukrainian athletes to ODU and that's amazing," she said.

"I can't thank them enough."

If you are interested in donating, call the Old Dominion Athletic Foundation at 757-683-6963 or click below.

Donate to Mersel Ukrainian Student Triumph Fund