Wilton resident travels to Poland to assist Ukrainian refugees

By KEN JACOBUS

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 01-11-2023 2:41 PM

In March of 2022, I took a leap of faith and booked a flight to Poland from Boston with little more than a vision to try to make a positive impact. I had never been to Poland, nor did I know anyone from Ukraine. But I wanted to see how I could help some of the thousands of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war with Russia.

It was really an act of self-preservation, as I simply couldn’t bear reading the terrible news about the war anymore without at least trying to do something to help.  It would turn out to be a defining moment in my life and one that now impacts each day of my life even when I’m back in the United States.

On that trip and three more, I was able to help several thousand people from Ukraine. I picked up dozens of people crossing the border from Ukraine into Poland and drove them to safety in Warsaw. Through the relationships from that experience, I became known in some grassroots volunteer circles in Warsaw. Through these groups, and via the financial sponsorship of my New Hampshire business, Good Start Packaging, I was able to help well over 1,000 families. We provided them with temporary housing in hotels and hostels in Warsaw, Poland as well as in Kyiv, Ukraine. We also provided food, plane tickets and personal care products to many more people.

With over 2 million Ukrainian refugees in Poland alone and many more millions displaced within Ukraine, I knew there was no way Poland could do it alone. My team couldn’t help everyone, so we focused on the most-vulnerable people. These included mothers with young children, the elderly, people coming to Poland for medical treatment and people suffering from severe psychological distress.

Along the way, I’ve met some extraordinary people. The generosity and compassion of the people of Poland is incredibly inspiring. I’ve witnessed hundreds of everyday citizens from Poland taking weeks off from work to volunteer their time, while many others have donated money, food and their homes to help their neighbors from Ukraine. I’ve also met many people who are now dear friends from Ukraine who are in my thoughts from the moment I wake up in the morning to often late into the night when I hear from them via text.   

I always return from my trips to Poland a bit drained, but also feeling alive having experienced so much raw humanity. Within days of getting back to my work routine, I really miss the work and connections in Poland. I wanted to end 2022 by doing a little more volunteer work with some of my favorite humanitarian organizations, while also reconnecting with Polish and Ukrainian friends I’ve come to know who are now living in Poland. So on Dec. 26, I left Boston for what would be my fifth trip in less than a year to Poland. 

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This time my destination would be Krakow, a beautiful and vibrant city in southern Poland. People ask me sometimes how I find opportunities to help. You don’t have to look very hard once you show up in Poland. I went on a guided walking tour of Krakow on a visit in the summer. A line of people outside the Jewish Community Center standing under a Ukrainian flag got my attention as we walked by, so I asked our guide about it. He told me about how the Jewish Community Center was attracting visitors (Jewish and non-Jewish) from all over the world to help in the effort to house and provide food for Ukrainian refugees in Krakow. So I called the JCC and offered my help. They were glad for the help, especially as many Polish volunteers from the summer have had to go back to their regular day jobs.

I spent several days in December volunteering on the food distribution team at the Jewish Community Center, as I did over the summer. The JCC buys about $8,000 of bulk food per day, and volunteers break it down into smaller quantities to serve more people. They distribute it to about 400 Ukrainians who rely on a once-a-week allocation of food from the JCC. With government aid mostly depleted, and rents, utilities and food prices having increased dramatically, life for Ukrainians trying to get established in Poland has been very challenging. Our food supply was sparse and depleted quickly each day. So I often stopped at Makro, Poland’s version of Costco, and loaded up my car with additional food and other supplies that I donated to the center. The volunteers in our shop, many of whom are Ukrainians themselves, always greeted me with sincere gratitude, so that was a great way to start to the day. 

The JCC volunteer opportunity connected me to another organization, Voice of the Wilderness. This is a Krakow-based nonprofit that has been sending monthly van loads of food and supplies into Kałusz, Ukraine, to a partner agency there that is highly skilled at getting it to the most vulnerable people. So we’ve been funding their efforts, and it has made a big difference for a lot of people. I had a chance to meet up with two of the managers at Voice of the Wilderness, Joanna Stanisławek and Waldemar Zwawa, during this December trip. We had lunch in downtown Krakow, during which they updated me on all the work they were doing to help people in Ukraine get food and warm clothing. I told them we would support this month’s truck of supplies. 

I’m in touch daily with many of the Ukrainians I’ve helped this past year. It’s so meaningful when they just reach out to express appreciation and let me know how they’re adjusting to life in one of the many countries hosting people from Ukraine. One example is a text I received from a family with very young children that I helped early in the war. They had survived 12 days in a freezing-cold bomb shelter. I received the text on the July 4 and was struck with the fact that people from other countries understand the significance of that date to Americans, while many of us understand so little about important historical dates in their country.

“Good afternoon Ken!” they wrote. “Congratulations on the Independence Day of the United States of America! USA is a great country! Americans are a great, hardworking people! And most importantly - you have a big heart! Our family is immensely grateful to you and your friends for the help we received in Poland, March 13, 2022! We wish you and your loved ones good health, happiness, great luck and a peaceful sky!”

But I’m also reminded daily of the millions who are not as fortunate and find themselves still in Ukraine with no electricity, heat and having to respond to air-raid sirens each morning. It’s heartbreaking hearing from some of them directly and realizing I can’t help all of them. But we’ve made a good start and are making sure they know we will not give up showing our support for them. 

I have an apartment now in Krakow, so I have a home base when I come to volunteer. I’m looking for a longer-term, part-time home there as I love the people and the work there. I see a long-term need to help in the rebuilding in Ukraine and hope to be part of this. I’m fortunate that I have a job in the United States that offers remote work and provides funding for this effort. I’ve come to see my role there as not just practical – thousands of hands and a lot of money are needed daily to support the innocent people wrongfully displaced from their homes and livelihoods. But I’m also a representative of the United States who I hope offers Polish and Ukrainian people a belief that we are all in this together. I want them to know there are people on the other side of the ocean who care deeply for them, not just with our money and weapons, but with our hands and hearts. Maybe that will give them some inspiration to keep going.

To donate to the Jewish Community Center to help Ukrainians in Poland, visit friendsofjcckrakow.org/ukraine, or donate to Voice in the Wildnerness at tinyurl.com/projectmedyka.

Ken Jacobus is a resident  of Wilton and CEO of Good Start P ackaging.

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