Greater Good Charities’ team has been on the ground in Ukraine since March, 2022. Read this first-hand account from our Vice President of Field Operations John Peaveler and Field Operations Coordinator Martyna Maciejewska of their story of distributing much-needed supplies, taking cover from deadly attacks, and heading for the safety of the border.
It’s 1 A.M., November 16th, 2022. I’m sitting in a van on the Ukrainian side of the Polish border with my colleague Martyna Maciejewska, a short distance from where an errant missile has come down in a Polish field in the last few hours, killing two innocent Poles.
There were over 100 missile and drone strikes in this region today as Russian forces continue to unleash their campaign of terror upon Ukraine.
All cross traffic is halted for now as Ukraine deals with nationwide power outages. We are told there will be no movement until the morning, but we will be notified first since we are humanitarian aid workers. We begin to settle into the van for the night, weighing the pros and cons of sleeping in the cab of the van or the cargo bay. The cab is heated but cramped. The cargo bay is cold but spacious. We opt for the cab as temperatures dip near freezing, and we don’t want to miss any movement across the border.
With no power, the stars feel more present, more familial. I always try to remember to supplement my work with many such moments of reflection, often with a few deep breaths and an occasional sigh. This world is often dark and cold—but it is also beautiful and punctuated with life. Such is my moment on the border; darkness below and light above. So too is this war. A hateful, conquering army fighting to destroy an innocent people, backed now by all the good of the world. We’ve come to Ukraine to amplify that good.
We have one fundamental goal on this trip, which is to chip away at the list of concerns facing the victims of this war. In doing so, we focus our efforts on three categories of people:
- Internally Displaced People (IDP), those who have fled the war and reside away from their homes but inside of the country.
- Those living along recent front lines, for whom combat has become a constant part of their life.
- People residing in recently occupied areas, whose lives have been a unique kind of hell, often for months on end.
Meeting peoples’ needs in these circumstances is not simple. The logistics and the cost alone make this a difficult undertaking. Then there is the challenge of identifying what the needs are and meeting them as equitably as possible with varying population sizes.
Finally, figuring out who, where, and when to distribute things is especially complex. Months ago, we determined that the best things we could provide are basic food items such as flour, pasta, buckwheat, lentils, and much more. We package these in boxes and distribute them as carefully curated 80 meal kits. With the onset of winter and the Russian policy of destroying heating infrastructure, we have since added blankets to the kits as well. Our specific plan for this trip is to distribute 2,000 winter relief kits, which includes meal ingredients and blankets to 2,000 families.
Martyna and I facilitate this program and have come to Ukraine to oversee and document the distribution of this aid, but nothing can happen without the incredible support from Ukrainian people and entities. We work with several Ukrainian businesses and charities for procurement of goods in order to provide the best value of items while also supporting the local economy. We also rely on Ukrainian partners and local government members to manage local and individual contact/oversight of aid recipients. We additionally work with national police, local police, Ukrainian army and territorial defense personnel who act as security, guides, and labor (2,000 winter relief kits take up nearly two full tractor trailers of space. We also bring a pallet of pet food per truck). In short, we take a community approach to our work.
This distribution takes place over the course of two days. First in the larger town of Zelenodolsk in Dnipropetrowsk Oblast (governate), then the villages of Zahradivka, Orlove, Natalyne, Novobratske and Kochubeivka communities in Kherson Oblast. For each location we have excellent guides, coordinators, security, and support, thanks to our partnership with Nina Yevtushenko, founder of the Ukrainian Mriya Foundation. She is instrumental for regional contacts.
We were about to leave this location when an old man and woman on a very small tractor with a trailer also came across the river on behalf of the 46 families that live on that side. They were scheduled for pick up tomorrow, but made the journey today; so we unpacked again and helped them load the 46 kits. We walked out onto the stable section of the bridge to watch them cross the river on their way home. I know they will make it since they came that way, but it’s still jarring to watch them as they navigate the shallows on this critical supply run. They succeed. We all take some deep breaths, and in that moment I am humbled and reminded of just how much I have to be grateful for.
After our last distribution of boxes in Kochubeivka, we stopped to visit an elderly, disabled couple. They had lived under occupation for months, with Russian troops occupying the house behind them. Their house was essentially on the front lines, though that particular front remained quiet throughout. She explained that one day she went to look at the soldiers and she fainted because they were Ukrainian at last! She then excitedly showed us her map of southern Ukraine, with “X’s” penciled in to indicate liberated villages and cities. Her joy was palpable and contagious. She also explained to us that her pension as a retired teacher is about 2,500 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $62 per month. She showed us her wood pile, meager enough, which cost 7,500 hryvnia, three months of her income. She said she was able to afford the wood this winter because of humanitarian aid, which is why she was so grateful to receive our food. We leave feeling incredibly uplifted.
We head back to Lviv, driving all day on the 14th and looking forward to a half day in the city to see some sights and buy some Ukrainian gifts for friends and family. We met with one of our pet food distribution partners for coffee (we also distribute hundreds of tons of pet food in Ukraine, but that’s another story). It’s wonderful to meet her in person for the first time in a coffee shop that is as unique and vibrant as most of this old city. It’s a beautiful and brisk late-autumn day.
In the afternoon, we are about to make another lap of the tourist shops when yet another air raid warning goes off. We’ve heard them throughout the week without result; indeed no one heeds this one either. Life in the city simply proceeds. People walk their dogs, laugh, listen to street music, and generally bustle on what feels like any day in any city in the world. Martyna and I both think through what to do given where we are, on a random street in a big and busy city.
There is little time to react however, before we hear three explosions in quick succession and feel their concussive force on our skin; this is most likely air defense intercepting inbound missiles. The explosions occur outside of the city and in the air. Time moves a bit slower for a moment. A teenage girl across the street with her family breaks down into screaming sobs of terror; she is broken from the constant fear of frequent attacks. Martyna and I proceed to the nearest sheltered area and wait for an all clear.
We talk extensively about what we just experienced, wondering if we acted correctly, if our safety policies are thorough enough. We also talk about how we feel about it. Fear plays into it, but that’s not obvious in either of our reactions. We are calm when it happens and move quickly but carefully to safety. The feeling of helplessness is stronger than the fear for us. The inability to fix this problem or help anyone around us.
For me, in a strange way, I feel an even greater sense of solidarity with the Ukrainian people now, having experienced this attack with them. The combined sense of victimhood and helplessness are powerful, but there is a stronger feeling of determination. A determination to overcome, to support, to help, to be a force of good in the world. There are many, many low times for us in our efforts to mobilize in response to need on behalf of people, pets and the planet. When things get hard, we remind ourselves why we are here. It’s not to fix everything or heal all wounds; that is more than we can do. The thing that keeps us going is a persistent reminder to simply do all the good we can do, and we feel grateful to be able to do so on behalf of Greater Good Charities.
For the 30+ million people living in Ukraine, however, this epic crime against humanity grinds on. Martyna and I will spend a couple of days reflecting on lessons learned (moving faster to shelter, keeping our fuel level above half, bringing additional emergency food, and bringing warmer sleeping bags, for instance). We will also work with the entire crisis team at Greater Good Charities to plan for our future operations.
There is really so much good we can do together. However, we need your help to do it. If you are able, please consider donating to support the work of Greater Good Charities in Ukraine. Your contributions will support keeping people and pets across the country fed and warm.
Support our efforts to Amplify the Good in Ukraine. Donate today!