Montgomery County Leadership: Halyna Keller, Vice President, Finance at UKRFCU

Headshot of Helyna Keller

Halyna Keller, the Vice President of Finance at UKRFCU (Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union), spoke with MONTCO Today about growing up in the “Ukrainian Ghetto” of Philadelphia; losing her father when she was just five years old; having falsified working papers that enabled her to work when she was 14, and the lessons she learned from her earliest jobs.

Keller also discussed how much her mother valued education; her decision to attend La Salle University and why it was such a good choice; and what priorities she has for 2022.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Halyna? 

I was born the middle child of three and grew up in the Logan section of Philadelphia. 

What did your parents do? 

Halyna, age 4, modeling in her new embroidered dress.

My father had a degree in Civil Engineering and was working on his PhD in Math. Sadly, when I was five, my father passed away, so my mother raised us singlehandedly. She always had two or three jobs going to make sure we had food to eat and a roof over our heads. 

What memories do you have of growing up in Logan? 

Even though it was known as the Ukrainian Ghetto, Logan was a wonderful neighborhood. There were eleven Ukrainian families on our street and were surrounded by Ukrainian businesses and doctors taking care of us. 

Everybody knew each other. After school, there were lots of kids to play with outside, and if we wanted to go somewhere, we walked. We were out until it got dark or our mom called us for dinner. 

Why was your Ukrainian community in Logan so close-knit? 

I think it was because our parents and grandparents didn’t leave Ukrainian on their own but rather because they were forced to leave against their will. They fled for their lives. After spending years in DP (displaced persons) camps throughout Germany and Europe, they were put on boats and sent to whatever country would take them. My parents’ friends ended up in Argentina, Australia, or the United States. By happenstance, my grandparents ended up in the United States line. Their boat arrived in New York City on Christmas Eve, making Christmas Day in 1949 their first full day in America. 

What legacy do you carry from your grandparents’ immigrant story all these years later? 

I carry an appreciation for this County! My grandfather had just $7 in his pocket when he got off the boat on Christmas Day in 1949. The United States took my grandparents in and gave them a future, gave them a life. They lived the American dream. Their kids, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; my mother, me, and my kids – we’re living a life the United States made possible. 

Their immigration story is why I love working at the Ukrainian Selfreliance Federal Credit Union – the credit union where my grandfather was one of the founding members and its Treasure for many years. I’ve worked here for 26-years, since 1995. I remember when some of our credit union members were newly arrived and at our doors asking for a loan to launch a business, get a car loan, or buy a house. There are numerous credit union members who are, today, multi-millionaires to whom we loaned the money when they needed to buy their first truck or investment property. I see the immigrants as they come in and love helping them establish themselves and build a future in the United States. 

Did you have any part-time jobs growing up. 

Absolutely, I had falsified working papers since I was 14-years-old and worked three jobs to put myself through college! 

What lessons did you learn from those part-time jobs that you still use today? 

I discovered the benefits of developing a solid work ethic. I learned that I showed up at 7:30 even though my shift didn’t start until 8:00. I understood there’s merit in starting at the bottom of an organization, paying your dues, and learning a company and industry from the bottom up. That’s the only way to earn respect. I know it’s hard dealing with people or working at the teller window. I know because I’ve worked as a teller for several years. In fact, I’ve worked almost every job at the credit union at some point. 

What music did you listen to as a teenager? 

Abba and the BeeGees, as well as our own Ukrainian music. 

Did you play any sports in high school? 

I had a physical handicap – one leg is slightly shorter than the other- this caused back pain  – so I didn’t play any sports. 

Where did you end up going to college? 

I could have gone to Manor college since it was right across the street from my high school. However, I went to LaSalle University primarily because it was within walking distance from my house in Logan, and it was a four-year school. 

Why was going to college so important, Halyna? 

My mother stressed the value of education. Growing up, my mother wanted to be a doctor. Because her parents had to flee Ukraine, she never realized her dream. Her first job here in the United States was washing dishes in the kitchen at Lankenau Hospital. A far cry from being a doctor, but she was happy to be working in a hospital setting. After my father died, she was adamant that I get an education to have the means to support myself should something happen to my husband. 

Looking back, was La Salle a good choice for you?

Halyna (2nd from the right) celebrating Ukrainian Independence Day at the credit union

Yes! It was a Catholic school that I could walk to. Perfect for me. But it wasn’t until I graduated and started working and succeeding at what I was doing that I got over my shyness and began to come into my own. Another factor that helped me grow up and gain confidence is being forced to speak in public. I was scared the first couple of times, but my confidence grew. Now it’s no big deal. 

Who saw promise in you early on and encouraged you? 

I did! I told myself to aim high and to take every opportunity that came my way. I knew I didn’t want to be working three jobs like my mother. Instead, I knew I wanted to be a successful executive from day one. I knew that I could do it. 

My bosses all saw I was determined, willing to work hard, and always learning, and opened up opportunities for me. 

What priorities and opportunities are you focused on at the start of 2022? 

Since I’m over 60 and in a high-risk group, maintaining my health is at the top of my priorities. I’m vaccinated and already got my booster. Second, is making sure our COVID protocols are in place and my employees are healthy as well. 

Being in the financial services marketplace, I’m concerned with inflation and what might happen to interest rates as the Fed starts to raise rates this year. This time of year, we’re always focused on budgeting. The last two years have been a mess budgeting-wise, so we’re hoping 2022 is more stable. 

What do you do with your free time, Halyna? 

Halyna playing with a baby goat
Halyna playing with a baby goat during a trip with her daughter to Morocco.

I spend time with family, including two mentally handicapped cousins whom I am guardianship over. I travel to North Jersey once a month to look in on them. 

I also enjoy community and church service. I serve as a trustee at Manor College and am on the board of the Ukrainian Community Foundation. Giving back to the community is important to me. 

What excite you these days about Manor College? 

Jonathan! Johnathan Peri is a God send! As president of the college, Dr. Peri runs Manor College to develop and expand the university. He is not Ukrainian, but he has so much Ukrainian spirit in him. He understands the struggle of being an immigrant and the vital role education plays in lifting people out of poverty and helping them realize their dreams. 

What gives you hope, Halyna? 

The younger generation. Younger people are ten times smarter than my generation was. They’re not afraid of technology or change. Working with younger employees gives me hope that our community will continue to grow. 

Finally, Halyna, what is the best piece of advice you have ever received? 

It was something an old boss said. He told me if someone says something is impossible, it only means they can’t do it.  

Nothing is impossible if I keep trying. I never give up. Life isn’t worth giving up on. 

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