You know it’s probably time to go home when you enter the Marriott lounge and the bartender asks you if you want the usual.
On our flight home, we are exhausted, but it's a satisfying exhaustion and a time for reflection. Did we add value…absolutely. How many lives did we touch…maybe thousands through food, clothing, medical and military supplies, transportation, employment, housing, plus creating safe havens for play and education for the next generation of Ukrainian children.
Some tried to talk us out flying over saying “leave it to the professionals and the NGOs, you’ll only be in the way.” But, they didn’t know we had a secret weapon in Romania, a Ukrainian named Natalyia Lukyanova, a refugee herself. She was a very successful businesswoman who is well connected with her government back home, the hospitals, some NGOs in Bucharest, and the art scene. It appears she knows somebody in every major city in every state or country. If you want an answer to a question or need help with a project, she merely picks up the phone. She knows someone who knows someone and voila. We’ve dined and been introduced to people that it would normally take us weeks to reach. Before our arrival, she had joined several What’s App Ukrainian groups and found Facebook pages of donation and housing centers. She was a volunteer at the call center and spoke with other refugees. She was organized. For our part, we did some research and spoke with Rick Thompson.
But the NGOs we ran into aren’t nimble. It took them 3-4 weeks to get on the scene while individuals and small nonprofits hopped right in. The NGOs are doing a great job but tend to look for massive and immediate issues. They leave the crumbs for others to pick up and there are LOTS of crumbs!
Chris- We met him on Easter Sunday. He's an impressive young man volunteering in the food storage area of the World Kitchen at the train station. He hears our English and comes running out. He tells us he’s a weed wacker from Hawaii but we’re not 100% sold on the story. He’s here for two weeks and felt a desire to come help that was just too strong to ignore. He approached several NGOs before he left but it was a no-go. He came anyway and is willing to help us in any way needed. In May, he’s coming back with his wife. We exchange phone numbers.
Rick Thompson - If you’re from the Seattle area, you may have read the Seattle Times article about Rick. Rick is 62 and a retired Microsoft exec. He felt compelled to help the refugees and on March 23rd, he flew to Poland to be there in person. He rented an Avis van and is shuttling refugees from the Polish border at Przemysl to any town they desire in eastern Europe. He can have as many as 3 families with different locations in his van at any given time. We communicated with Rick a number of times, and we each understand the other’s motivation.
The first few days we listened a lot (not always easy), and took notes while Sue attempted to learn to thank you in Romanian, “Multumesc.”
A doable list began to form, concentrating on children and food insecurities. It looks like we have some definite projects and two that are under consideration. #1-3 are done.
1.) Monies to Oana for medical supplies going into Ukraine – If you recall Oana was the founder of the NGO that raised a total of $80MM to build the first public children’s hospital in Romania in 50 years. As a college student, she protested for the break of communism in 1989 – a ball of energy.
2.) Resource Center for organized play with 2 clinical psychologists in attendance pro bono and one paid assistant. Supplies, furniture and rugs are bought and assembled. (see photo above)
3.) Hired 2 full-time Ukrainian women to run the food/clothing donation center
Considering funding if food donations slow down at our center - is there a way to order online and have food delivered?
Consider funding- provide 12 months of rent, 3 Ukrainian teachers, and one administrator for the Community Play Center. Meeting with Dan and Daria Absher to review.
Our final stories;
Remember Victoria with the 2-year-old son who needs heart surgery? She met today with Natalyia and Oana. They have promised to help her get the surgery for her son.
Anna - is Natalyia’s 18-year-old daughter who believes she’s an adult. We spend a day with her and she’s experiencing eating and sleeping issues. Tears flow at a drop of a hat. She’s obviously depressed but who wouldn’t be in her shoes? She wants to quit school and run back to Kyiv to be with her dad and boyfriend.
Artem- is a friend of Anna’s from her University in Kyiv. He’s chatting with Anna and worried sick about his aunt who’s one of the civilians holed up in the Steel plant in Mariupol. The Russians have it surrounded but there are people there including 300 mercenaries from around the world that are refusing to surrender. If that isn’t bad enough, his girlfriend and her mother have been captured by the Russians when they tried to flee Mariupol. The soldier had a gun and told them to get on the bus, but they refused and he shot at her mom’s feet. He said if they didn’t get on the bus, the next bullet would be in her mom’s head. Needless to say, they got on the bus and are now POWs in Russia.
Now let’s switch back to happier news.
Our Resource Center is 80% done and will open on 5/2.
The 2 women we hired to work at the donation center are working out great. Here’s a pic of Anya (not Natalyia’s daughter) and Olesia. Note Anya’s new Brooks tennis shoes.
Four blocks from our Resource Center, we stumble upon the Ukrainian Community Play Center. It was founded by 2 local Ukrainians (Ulia and Natasha) and a master's student at the American University, Andrey. They have been open since early March and have 108 women and approximately 250 children registered at their center. Currently, they’re open 5-8 pm with classes that offer online signup. It’s 100% volunteer-run with the refugee moms handling the cleaning and Ukrainian students at the American University running the classes to get school credit. The center is housed on the 2nd floor of an old mansion owned by a baroness. She’s donated the use of that floor for 3 months. Another donor is covering the utilities. Furniture, rugs, games, and 10 laptops have all been donated by friends. Mothers must accompany their children to classes that include dance, arts and crafts, games, sports, team building, language, jewelry making, and more. Their immediate problem is space; they’d like to have use of the first floor in the mansion. If this is agreeable with the Baroness, rent will need to be negotiated. They’ve sent us an impressive business plan which, along with Dan and Daria Absher, we will review. They’d like to be open all day with 3 paid teachers and one administrator. Andrey has a list of over 200 Ukrainian women who were teachers and would all like jobs.
Iryna - She and her 2 children have applied for a Canadian Visa but are anxious about its status. Her English is “not so good”. We hop in the car and head to the embassy armed with Jamie’s Canadian passport to make inquiries. It’s being processed and all looks good. Iryna is relieved.
Jacob is our amazing 24-year-old Canadian nephew. He was in their military reserves for years and is now training to be an RCMP. He is a compassionate old soul who’s started a used military boots and camouflaged clothing drive with his troop buddies. We’ll find a way to get these items to Natalyia.
Across the street from our hotel is the new Orthodox Church which is under construction. 95% of Romanians are Orthodox but not everyone is happy about this new church. Its price tag, a mere $250M. The church yields a ton of power here. They sell liquor, tobacco, and gaming and don’t pay taxes.
We thank you for following our journey. We believe it’s made a forever, life-changing impact on us both. Some of you have inquired about donating which could be used to fund the Play Center mentioned previously and other Ukrainian projects. This conflict could go on for a long time and then there’s the rebuilding. We now have a nonprofit with an EIN number and an application in for a 501(c)93) status. Our website should be up in about a week. Dan, Daria, Jamie and I are planning a return visit to Romania this summer.
We’ll send out our website next week. Home this evening after a 25.5 hour journey door to door.
Sue and Jamie