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Thumbs up for America Exchange: Ukrainian teen-ager enjoys stay with Cockeysville family.

Call it the Americanization of Masha.

Or maybe the Ukrainianization of Sarah.

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Either way, the budding friendship between two teen-age girls shows the very personal side of a cultural exchange that is one of the largest public school programs between the United States and Ukraine.

Maria "Masha" Revchuk of Kiev, 14, and Sarah Williams, 13, of Cockeysville, who were brought together by the Baltimore County program, have become "best buds" after living in each other's homes and exploring each other's countries. And over the past two weeks, they have shared American icons: Twister games, Elvis songs and blue jeans.

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Tomorrow, Masha will return home.

"I am sad to go," says the petite girl who speaks English in a whispery voice. "But I miss my family."

Still, the memories will endure. Seeing the ocean for the first time, at Ocean City -- "It's huge," Masha says, her expressive gray eyes wide with amazement. Ten-pin bowling at Fair Lanes Timonium. The art at Haussner's restaurant.

And visiting Kings Dominion, an amusement park in Virginia, where she plunged down a gravity-defying ride while screaming, "I love America" -- a moment captured on videotape. "It was great," says Masha, giving it two thumbs up.

The friendship began in April, when Sarah and her mother, Jill, stayed for a week with Masha and her parents in their one-level flat in a high-rise apartment complex in Kiev. They were in a group of 22 students, teachers and chaperones from Ridgely Middle School in Lutherville who participated in the exchange.

"I had never been out of the U.S.," says Sarah, an easy-going eighth-grader who likes to dance and sing. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

She brought home memories of a polite nation, where boys helped her with her coat, of elegant operas and ballets, and of beautiful museums and landmarks.

"I liked that you could walk down the street, and it would be like a normal city and then you'd see an enormous onion-topped building. Wow."

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The trip also helped Sarah and her mother prepare for Masha's first visit to America.

"I knew she liked big breakfasts, what she liked for lunch and that she would need time alone," says Mrs. Williams, a former Peace Corps volunteer who, with husband Joe, now oversees four children, a plump Chesapeake Bay retriever, two friendly cats, two guinea pigs and a horse.

Their 2 1/2 -acre property and comfortable home have been Masha's haven during a whirlwind tour that has included visits to Washington, New York City and the Inner Harbor.

At a family dinner this week, Masha eagerly learned the intricacies of making a taco, which Mr. Williams explained was like a Mexican cheeseburger. "Jill is a good cook," the Ukrainian teen said, piling up spicy ground beef, grated cheese and hot sauce.

She's amazingly comfortable amid this noisy, cheerful family, which includes Tim, 12; Emma, 10; and Molly, 7 -- considering most of them were strangers 14 days ago.

Asked how she likes being with so many siblings, Masha, whose 24-year-old brother does not live at home, answered honestly, "I like it -- but not forever."

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Everyone at the table laughed. They also kept teasing Masha about her roller-coaster bravery, having watched the Kings Dominion videotape before dinner.

"She's wild," said Sarah.

Both girls love to dance, and it's not unusual for them to break into a spontaneous routine without music -- even in the middle of stroking the family quarter horse, Fancy, in his paddock.

They also have found they have much in common, including a penchant for the Beatles and Elvis, and riding bicycles. They're shy when it comes to talking about boyfriends, although Masha admits she used to have one.

Outside, after clearing dishes from the kitchen table, Masha took turns with Tim and Molly, swooping in a tire swing. Later, she picked wild violets and tucked them in Mrs. Williams' hair.

Her affection for the American family is readily apparent. But she also has appreciated spending time with her fellow Ukrainian students on the various trips, while Sarah attended classes at Ridgely.

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"She gets tired of speaking English all the time," Mrs. Williams said.

Last night, Masha and the 78 other Ukrainian students and their American families met for the last time at a potluck dinner at Kenwood High School. In addition to Kenwood, Catonsville, Patapsco and Towson high schools, Dumbarton, Golden Ring, Stemmers Run and Sudbrook middle schools also participated in the exchange program.

Masha will spend her last day in America doing -- of all things -- work.

Sarah, who is performing today in a production of "The Wizard of Oz" at the Towson Dinner Theater, also waits on tables there. Masha has agreed to help her friend so they can spend their final hours together.

And, as her days in the United States draw to a close, the Ukrainian teen -- who plans to take home perfume to her mother and requested home-building plans to her businessman father -- knows what she liked best about the trip.

"I'm really impressed with the people," she says, smiling, with another two thumbs up.

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Pub Date: 5/04/96


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