Wife, mother, senior class president and soccer team captain meshes American lifestyle with Slavic culture
Alla Kirilovich called home between every class.
She couldn't get her 5-week-old daughter off her mind.
"What's she doing right now?" she'd think, cross-referencing her worry with the lessons drifting in from her Big Sky High School science teacher.
Then her cell phone would go off, an urgent text message from her mother.
"Alla, ti chogo moychish."
The transliterated Russian words on the screen seemed somehow out of place, but the meaning was clear.
"Alla, why aren't you coming back?" It was a question crossing both cultures and generations, her mother's way of asking when she might be home to take care of her new daughter, do the laundry and help prepare dinner.
Just a few of the seemingly million things on a young girl's plate.
Married at 16 and a "honeymoon baby" nine months later at the beginning of her junior year, the high-achieving honor student, captain of the girls' soccer team and senior class president is learning to balance the needs of her husband and daughter with an already frenetic teenage existence.
It's a source of mystery and pride to her parents, who came here from Belarus when Alla was herself a baby. But it is this girl's very American life.
Alla's name is pronounced like the Islamic "Allah" by friends and classmates, and with a flat "a" sound, as in the name Al, by family members.
But in middle school, she was "the Russian Rocket," RR for short.
It was an honest mistake.
Americans tended to lump anybody from the former Soviet Union into one large class of people. Back then, they were all Russians.
Even the plucky immigrant from Belarus known for her speed and desire to win does it sometimes.
"I played club soccer," she remembers. "The Russian men played on Fridays and Saturdays."
The "Russian men" are members of the Slavic Pentecostal Church of Missoula, on Mullan Road.
It is the social and spiritual center for a community of between 400 and 500 people, many of whom came to Missoula from the village of Olshani in Belarus.
Missoula's Slavic community started with a few families who fled religious persecution in Belarus, which is mostly Russian Orthodox. Many families continued to immigrate here over the last 20 years, helping to grow the community at a steady pace.
The church is an extension of Alla's family, a place to worship, socialize and recreate.
"I was the only girl to really play with the men," Alla said. "They were their own referees and everyone knew who was on their team."
Alla remembers a time when no one would pass her the ball.
"I finally got it and I totally schooled these two defenders," she said.
When a girl asked her if it hurt to head the ball, Alla replied with characteristic frankness: "It doesn't hurt at all. It's soccer, you do what you have to do."
It's not that soccer is the most important thing in her life. Her family gets that distinction. But she is passionate about sports, even putting off getting her American citizenship because of soccer practice this year.
"I need to do it now that soccer's over," she said of the process of applying for citizenship, which her parents are currently doing.
Her leadership on the soccer pitch was invaluable to a squad of girls who made it to state in this, her final, year.
Alla spent the last four years with the Big Sky girls' soccer team as a player and a support fixture.
She took one season off from playing when she was pregnant, but she was on the bench for every game, often with little Valentina in tow.
At a team practice just before they left for the state tournament in Helena, Alla celebrated her 18th birthday in one of her favorite ways.
She found a place at midfield and waited.
When she saw a likely target, she darted across the field, her brown hair bouncing in a loose ponytail atop her head, her legs and arms a blur of motion as she slid in feet first to take the ball away from an approaching forward.
In what seemed like stop-motion photography, she turned and tucked the ball around her left foot and became a blur of white shirt, red shorts and green grass.
"Alla, Alla here," came the cries of her teammates as she blazed downfield.
She gives an entirely new meaning to the term "soccer mom."
"She's someone you could count on," said Alisa Dvarishkis, a teammate. "She gives us something to admire."
You can admire almost anything about her: her soccer skills, her academic achievements, her beautiful baby girl or her cooking skills.
"We always look forward to the team dinner," Dvarishkis said.
Alla promised the girls a final feast of Slavic foods if they qualified for state tournament this year, a tradition she's carried on all four years and which has opened her culture to many others.
Arriving at a team dinner hosted by Alla, Big Sky High School girls soccer coach Matt Barrett greets Alla's daughter Valentina, held by her grandmother for whom she was named.
Walk into Alla's house on a Sunday when the family gathers each week, and you'll likely smell golubtsi, small cabbage rolls filled with millet and pork; pelmeni, Siberian dumplings stuffed with various meats; or kotleta, breaded chicken better known as chicken Kiev.
Food is what brings the family together.
In a Slavic home, the kitchen table is the center of the universe, the place around which a family's soul is laid bare, a place for relationship and getting back to your roots.
And, most importantly, it is a place you share with others.
On the day before the team dinner, Alla prepared food with her mother until exhaustion set in around midnight.
The next day, when the soccer girls finally cleared out, Michelle Asby sat on a rug on the floor as Alla's daughter, Valentina - named after Alla's mom - paraded around the room to the obvious delight of her parents and grandparents.
"I love coming over here," said Asby, Alla's best friend since freshman year. "I didn't know anything about Russian food or culture when I first met Alla."
To share a meal in a Slavic household is to know something about the culture.
Cooking is passed down from mother to daughter, as informal a process as could be.
"My mother didn't force me to cook," Alla said. "I just watched and learned."
Her grandmother often bakes bread for family and Slavic weddings.
She's baked for up to 400 people and she doesn't use a recipe.
"She said she can teach us, but it's all instinct," Alla said. "She doesn't know how much salt to put in or other ingredients. She just does it."
These things didn't always make Alla proud.
"Growing up, it was all about fitting in, about being American," Alla said.
Clothing, hobbies, cars, houses, jobs - all were modeled after the American dream, the pursuit of the Joneses.
But it was food and family that kept the culture alive through all the trends and monumental life changes that any family goes through.
It was food that helped bridge the cultural gaps between Alla's family and her friends.
Alla sat sideways in her chair in Room 55 at Big Sky High School.
With her teal suede high-heel boots tucked beneath her, she looked both out of place and somewhat familiar, a curse and a blessing of her dual roll as honor student and teenage mom.
She moves through the day like wind.
At Environment Club, which takes up her lunch hour on Tuesdays, she discussed reusing plastics, a conversation in which she was able to bring up the issue of creating more recycling awareness at the school with anecdotes from her own daughter's life, like reusing some plastic containers as baby toys.
"She sets the bar," said Kate Linderer, Alla's science teacher.
When human biology and human experience collided in the birth of her daughter, Alla brought her baby to class as the ultimate show and tell.
"She is completely transparent," Linderer said of Alla's approach to marriage and having children while still in high school.
When a fellow student commented on how cute the baby was and how much she wanted one of her own, Alla answered without a trace of cynicism or pretense.
"She told that girl, 'No you don't,' " Linderer said.
No matter what changes occur in her life, Alla has been able to maintain a 4.0 average along with the added duties of senior class president, vice president of the National Honor Society and numerous other roles.
Instead of withdrawing from her many responsibilities at school, Alla added more after her daughter was born.
"It's a personal thing," is as far as she goes for an explanation. "I strive for a 4.0."
It was almost as if school wasn't enough of a challenge, Alla decided to add the responsibility of marriage.
Yvegny, 22, came to the United States from Olshani, Belarus, six years ago and met Alla at her church.
At 16 and at the height of her high school years, Alla met a boy at church who was visiting from Spokane.
Yevgeny Kirilovich came from the Belarus village of Olshani six years ago.
And during a visit to the Pentecostal church in Missoula, he found the perfect girl.
Dating was a process of informing the pastor and announcing their desire to date in front of the congregation.
Dating also meant always having a chaperone, which was difficult for her friends to understand.
"It doesn't bother you as much as you might think," Alla said of having a constant third wheel.
Some friends thought it was a cultural thing to marry young, and although Alla admits that she might have married young if she were still in Belarus, it was entirely her decision to wed at 16.
In her church, it is preferable to marry within a year after a couple begins to date.
"Premarital sex is a big no-no," Alla said.
"One night, my (future) husband was there with a friend," Alla said. "We were talking about proposals."
Yevgeny, who is called Zhenya, is a romantic.
"And he thought a proposal should be romantic," Alla said. "Later, he walked into my room and handed me a ring and was like, 'Alla, will you marry me?' "
"Of course I said yes," she said. "Then he was like, 'I've got to go talk to your dad.' "
Alla's parents were resting upstairs when the youngsters came up with the news.
"My mom was like, 'Nikolay, get up, get up,' " Alla said. "I think she knew what was going on."
Nikolay Sysa said, "It's her decision. She's smart," Alla recalls.
But later, he pulled her aside and asked if this was really what she wanted. He had thought his daughter was going to graduate and perhaps finish college before marriage.
"I figured if we were going to get married anyway, why wait," Alla said.
The two were married in an elaborate ceremony in Missoula on Feb. 11, 2006, with the twin themes of food and family.
Alla said they never talked about children, probably because it was school and husband that filled her mind at the time.
But her faith, like many others, prohibits the use of birth control.
"I wasn't too worried," Alla remembers. "But we never discussed it."
Valentina was born on Oct. 30, 2006.
"People told me I wouldn't make it," she said of the doubts that some people cast on her ability to balance school and family.
Those people weren't her family, especially not her mother who watched her little namesake while Alla was at school, or Zhenya, who worked a full-time job and kept Valentina entertained while Alla studied at night.
In the midst of studies and diaper changes, being late for human biology class every day because she chose to go home to breastfeed her baby at lunch, Alla maintained her life with a ferocity she can only attribute to wanting to make her parents proud.
"My friends were like, 'Alla, you've got a wet stain on your shirt. It's all right, we've got your back,' " she said.
"I want to be a physician assistant, and maybe a doctor someday," Alla said.
She knows that doing well in high school and winning scholarships will factor heavily into the outcome of her dreams.
And even though her thoughts strayed to her baby continually, she maintained her grades, her housekeeping duties and her leadership on the soccer field as if she were three separate people.
"I thought about her all the time," Alla said. "My mom would text me in Russian words with English letters."
The messages were meant to reassure Alla, but they could be scary at times, like when she received this one:
"Nesla pushky da upala na ee."
"She carried a box and fell on it," is what her mother typed, accompanied by a photo of Valentina with a black eye.
It's not all bad news - Alla's mother also sends her Bible verses as a way of encouraging her daughter through the tough times.
The Sysa house is filled with people murmuring in the soft and rushing tones of the Russian language, a smattering of screeching children and a pile of presents.
A donkey-shaped pinata is positioned on a wall that divides the family room from the kitchen.
Little Tinka, as her family affectionately calls her, knows it's her birthday.
Every time somebody says "Birthday Girl," her head whips around with an air of recognition.
Nikolay Sysa, Alla's father, bounces Tinka on his knee, humming the Russian nursery rhyme "Ladushki, Ladushki" while Alla organizes the games, dishes up food and keeps an ever-watchful eye on her daughter in a blur of constant motion.
Alla speaks in spitfire Russian punctuated by English endings, a habit that helps English-only friends pick up bits and pieces of the conversation.
"She speaks some Belarussian, some Russian and some English," Nikolay jokes about the family's linguistic goulash.
At one point everyone is asked to stand as Alla's grandfather, Ivan, prays. A melodic murmur fills the rooms as the entire family joins in the prayer, with Ivan's voice rising just above the others.
Then a chorus of amens fills the room, after which everyone says The Lord's Prayer together in Russian.
Nikolay carefully takes down the pinata and positions it at a height the kids can reach.
One of several Ivans in the room swings a small stick and candy spills out onto a woven Belarus rug of red and white.
Pizza, another family favorite, is served and Tinka unwraps her presents: clothes, a baby stroller, a piggy bank and fur-lined boots.
"This girl's got a shoe collection like her mother," Natasha Shved, Alla's older sister, said.
Alla loves high-heeled shoes, though she claims she's never paid full price for any of them.
"I spend my money wisely," she said.
Alla said she learned the value of money from seven years of delivering the newspaper with her family, of waking at 3:30 a.m. and finishing just in time to prepare for school.
After the action of the evening, Alla and her husband, Zhenya, sit on the couch, their knees touching slightly, evidence of their affection despite the respect they show to their parents, with whom they live.
Zhenya is quiet, reserved and attentive to his wife and daughter. In fact, he's the exact opposite of Alla, but she said he likes to play soccer too, something they do together for fun when they can.
He'd like to play soccer with the other men at the church, but he works on Saturdays.
Zhenya works as a mechanic at Missoula Freightliner alongside his father-in-law.
Alla's classmates filter out early. It is a school night after all. And eventually the relatives gather their young and say slow and drawn-out goodbyes on the steps leading to the front door.
"One down, a million to go," Alla said of the cycle of life as represented in a child's birthday.
For once that evening, Alla is still and settled.
"How do you do it all?" someone asked Alla as she grabbed a roll of tulle for a costume she's making for her friend, Michelle, despite the fact that she doesn't celebrate Halloween herself.
"I don't do it all," she said flatly. "I've been trying to get my hair cut for four weeks."
The laughter in the room subsides to a comfortable silence.
"Tomorrow," her father, Nikolay, said with a proud smile on his face. "You can always do it tomorrow."
Reporter Tim Akimoff can be reached at (406) 523-5246 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Reach photographer Linda Thompson at (406) 523-5270 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.