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A Sakura Sweetheart Story: Helena and Mitch

More than 1000 couples began their story together at International House. We call them “Sakura Sweethearts” in honor of Sakura Park, which faces the South Building. Here is the story of one such couple, Mitch Hayes and Helena Dona, who had returned to I-House for a private event in February 2019.
“Ice Cream Socials” are an I-House tradition that began in the 1960’s, the brainchild of I-House legend and former staffer Herman “HR” Rottenberg. At these informal events, Residents usually look for their favorite cold flavors and toppings—not expecting to also find love. “It was a really hot summer in New York, and I saw a sign in the elevator for an ice cream social,” says Helena Dona, who had arrived in NYC from Bogota, Colombia, in August 2009 and moved into I-House North. “I love ice cream so I decided to go even though I didn’t know anyone.” At the social, she met Mitch Hayes, from the town of Warwick in eastern Australia. “I sat down by myself. He just came over and we chatted all afternoon.” Mitch had been a Resident in I-House South for about six months at that point. She recalls feeling a bit overwhelmed and intimidated because English was not her first language. “I had a really hard time learning his accent,” Helena laughs. Mitch has a ten-year-old diary from his time at I-House, and there’s a special entry inside it for the day he first met Helena. “I spelled her name wrong,” he laughs, explaining that her accent was also strong. Mitch didn’t hear the “H” — instead referring to her as “Elena.” In 2013, Mitch proposed to Helena at the same table on the Abby O’Neill patio leading to Sakura Park. “I also asked Don Cuneo [then the President of International House] for permission.” “I opened the door [of the Main Lounge] and there were two little cups of ice cream,” Helena recalls. The couple both shake their heads as they describe how Mitch couldn’t find the ring in his carry bag for what felt like five minutes. They were married in October 2014. Each year, on the anniversary of their meeting, they celebrate with ice cream. Kenneth Ingram completed the Masters program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2019. With more than eight years as a professional writer and photographer, he came to I-House with a diverse multimedia portfolio with contributions to CBC Radio, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle Herald, The Phnom Penh Post, South East Asia Globe, and others. Read more of Ken’s work on his website. (Photo by Linda Farwell for International House)
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