When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Sharon Harris of Anacortes felt compelled to help. She reached out to nonprofits, but a month went by without an invitation.

"No one would have me, so I just went," she said.

Harris flew to Poland, bought a van and drove into Ukraine. She didn't have a connection there, so she just started talking to people.

"Once you have a vehicle, you're in," she said of finding ways to help.

Throughout the next year, she found a network of other helpers and started transporting people and aid all over the country. She is back in the United States now, waiting on a temporary resident permit that will let her stay in Ukraine for a longer stretch.

Marketa Vorel, an Anacortes attorney who knew Harris as a client, started donating money to help, but felt drawn to do more. At first, Vorel didn't think a trip to Ukraine was practical for her because she's not a medic or combat veteran and didn't know what she would do. But the war felt personal to her, as she had been a refugee under Russian oppression herself as a child.

"It was like a gravitational pull," said Vorel, who eventually spent two months this year on the ground in Ukraine.

She connected with a group that needed volunteers at a refugee camp in Odesa, near Ukraine's southern coast.

When she walked into the camp this past February, Vorel felt transported to her childhood in Czechoslovakia where she spent time in a refugee camp with other youngsters like she saw in Odesa.

"They reminded me of the ragtag group of kids that I ran around with," Vorel said. "Nothing has changed; it was a time warp."

Among these "newly minted" refugees, she felt like she was with her own people.

"To me, it felt like a homecoming," Vorel said.

She was inspired by the Ukrainians' ability to focus on living their lives despite the atrocities, destruction and pain they've endured.

They are determined to "win the war and get their country back," Vorel said.

"This determination surprised me," she said. "I had grown up under that same oppression, and it felt helpless."

Even when things are destroyed, the Ukrainians come together to clean up and rebuild, she said.

"They aren't hiding; they aren't cowering," Vorel said. "They are just going to go about their lives."

The night before a performance of the National Philharmonic in Kyiv, Russia launched one of its biggest attacks, sending 84 missiles directly at infrastructure and residential areas. The aerial alarms blared all night, with bombs hitting about 2 or 3 a.m. Vorel had tickets for the philharmonic concert that same day and thought it would likely be canceled. The concert went on for a full house of people who came to listen to the music.

"To me, that’s the epitome of resistance," Vorel said. "You’re going to bomb us in the morning? We are going to show up to the philharmonic that night."

Getting started 

Helping in person in a nation under siege wasn't a simple feat. 

Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, following years of conflict. The ongoing war has already caused tens of thousands of deaths, though exact numbers are unknown.

As Harris watched the conflict unfold, she said it seemed like it would become another world war. She was in a time of life when she wasn't tied to any other place and felt compelled to help. 

Harris had worked in nonprofits in the U.S., connecting people to housing and other services, but she didn't know what to do at first. She relied on the skillset she gathered throughout her career — keeping track of connections and the logistics of tackling different tasks. 

In Ukraine, she met people who led her to groups and other volunteers. Those people linked her with work to be done. When she visited a wine bar one day, for example, the owner told her a big group of volunteers were to meet there on Friday. Harris met them and expanded her network. She kept a list of everyone she met and started connecting people who needed something to people who had it.

Harris also joined groups on texting apps that help grassroots efforts stay connected. These groups, called TT Groups because they are Tied Together, kept things moving. One helped group members learn the language, while another focused solely on information about border crossings.

With her van, Harris said her main efforts came down to "moving people out of the country and moving aid into the country."

She ended up staying in Ukraine longer than her visa allowed and now is back home awaiting a temporary residency permit so she can return.

"This war is still going on," she said.

By the time Vorel was ready to travel, some groups were more organized on the ground. Her connection to Harris gave her a starting point.

Through her work with Harris, Vorel visited many regions of the country and met everyone from military personnel and government officials to people who were just trying to get by.

At first, Vorel donated through Harris to help supply causes that included protecting a nuclear reactor site at the Kharkiv Institute of Technology and Physics that was already heavily damaged by Russian strikes.

After Vorel received a personal video thanking her for her efforts, things really clicked for her. Her family started donating to the cause and soon, she couldn't resist going to help. 

While she started at the refugee camp, she also traveled throughout Ukraine, volunteering in many different ways.

"I met so many refugees who came there from occupied territories," she said. "They had given up everything, but they were so gracious and thankful."

Impact of war

Vorel spent hours talking to the people about their lives, losses and reasons they continued to fight.

She said it helped that she had such a deep personal connection to their experiences, even if Ukraine's situation was far worse than her own as a youth.

“I heard their stories about what their new normal is, which was just utterly unimaginable from a year ago," Vorel said. "They went from living in a somewhat peaceful land and lives to an apocalypse. How do you adapt to that and keep surviving?”

These people now know exactly what it sounds like when a missile is headed their way and the aerial alarms are going off, Vorel said. Even without imminent danger, the sound of alarms still causes people to wake up at night with their bodies flooded with adrenaline, she said.

The disruption and stress is a tactic meant to terrorize the people, she said.

In particular, she felt compassion for the women of Ukraine, who were often worrying about their husbands and sons on the front lines while protecting family at home with less income and much uncertainty.

"And those people are the lucky ones," Vorel said. "Those are the people not actually living in areas occupied by the Russians."

Bucha, just outside of Kyiv, was occupied by Russia for just 33 days. Once liberated, the many atrocities committed there became apparent. 

Vorel visited many small villages that had been occupied for eight months or more and what she saw was heartbreaking. These are places where schools are bombed, usually first, followed by stores, medical clinics and other buildings.

"Basically, entire cities are reduced to rubble," she said.

Even after the Russians retreat, mines are left in these villages, including in agricultural areas, so farmers going back to work are frequently killed in explosions.

Horrific stories of rapes, torture and murder just keep coming, Vorel said. Some places are still occupied by Russian troops and have been for more than a year.  

"This is what keeps me up at night," Vorel said.

Even among the ruin, she found some of the most generous people she's ever met. They took in Vorel and her fellow volunteers.

“I ended up staying there and being hosted by incredible people who had nothing and shared everything," she said.

The Ukrainian people are well-educated, articulate and show a stoic, calm resolve when facing this war, she said.

She met a teacher who spent every night working to distribute humanitarian aid, only learning later that this teacher had a husband on the front lines. She met a lawyer who sent his family to safety in Poland but stayed to fight for his country. She met a violinist who now plays seven days a week, using all the extra money he makes to buy socks, hand warmers and other items for those on the front lines. She met an economist who gave up her job to fight on the front lines, making her own rifle tripod out of shrapnel, and she met others who, having nothing left to give, gave their homes for the troops to use.

People still meet in cafes, they walk their dogs, and "old men in puffy parkas are playing chess in the park; teenagers are smooching in doorways," Vorel said. A playground hit by a missile was rebuilt, with families playing on it. They accept the risk of being hit by a bomb just as many people think of being in a car accident — a risk taken as part of life.

In a square in Kyiv, every building has new windows because the old ones were blown out by a bomb. Still, life goes on, and the city is still beautiful, Vorel said.

Harris said she met people who are just trying to live their lives. They aren't particularly political, they just want to keep living in their homes.

"They want to talk," she said. "These are people who live simple lives."

She recalled rescue missions where she had to convince people to leave their homes and pets behind. They wouldn't want to leave, even if it meant they would likely die, she said.

Moving people and aid

During missions to help bring people from their homes to a safer place, there is always a team of people, Harris said. That team had to include a driver, a back-up driver and a native Ukrainian speaker, no matter what. 

For the most part, Harris has relied on translation apps to get by. Many volunteers speak English, which made networking easier, but they also needed people who spoke Ukrainian.

As a driver, Harris took part in many missions to rescue people, including a specialized mission that included helping a family with adult children in wheelchairs, which took some planning.

She recalled some trips just kilometers from the front line, where she would be crammed into her van with those she was trying to save, during active shelling. 

Vorel said navigating around the area was difficult because it wasn't always clear where to go.  Google Maps can provide directions, but won't know when a bridge has been blown up or roads are blocked.

Harris and a team would help bring people to refugee camps or churches that were ready to help or take them out of the country into Poland. Once in Poland, she would load her van with water or other provisions to take back to Ukraine.

She also delivered tourniquets and equipment.

"Anything you could think of," she said.

She worked mostly with small groups that had little money but did some "heavy lifting" on the ground.

How to Help

Many of the big-name organizations aren't doing the work in Ukraine that needs to get done, Vorel said. They get the most donations and then they pull out of the country when shelling happens, and they aren't connecting Ukrainians with the resources they need.

That's where these small organizations come in, she said. Those involve Ukrainians helping Ukrainians,j and they connect people with help. There is a structure in these small groups to move things around the country.

To help that effort, Vorel started the Sunflower FUND. FUND stands for Funding Ukrainian Networks Directly.

In its first two weeks, the fund raised $7,000.

"We were able to fund $1,000 toward purchasing first aid burn kits, requested by an army medic from Bakhmut (Russians are bombing it with phosphorus); ... $1,000 to purchase a wood stove and food delivery for each person in two villages who are being shelled near Siversk; and ... $500 worth of materials to build a food pantry and purchase 20 egg-laying chickens for the women and children's shelter in Odesa," Vorel said in an email after the first week of giving.

Later, it gave out money for new tires and maintenance for vans for delivery of goods to the front lines, a radio and chainsaw for a brigade in the Bakhmut organization and drone repairs and photography equipment for a nonprofit that works to explore Russian war crimes, plus meat and protein for the women and children's center.

It also sent chickens to that shelter, as well as gas stoves and food supplies to recently shelled villages.

Vorel is the president of the Sunflower FUND. The rest of the board is made up of Neli Espe (vice president), Tor Fleming (treasurer), Laurence Reay (secretary) and Marjie Lines (committee chair). 

These supplies will help keep the Ukrainian forces stocked and get resources to people all over the country, Vorel said.

This is a way for people who can't go to Ukraine to make a big difference, she said.

When Harris heads back to Ukraine, she said hopes to work with a group called Parents for Ukraine, which creates modular housing units for displaced families. The war has displaced more than 8 million people, she said. These $15,000 modular homes could help house a lot of people, she said.

With her background in helping unhoused people, Harris said she hopes to help this group raise enough to start the process of finding people new homes.

The modular design means the houses can be moved and expanded later when the war ends if the family needs more room, she said. 

Many groups remain doing what they can even as global support has started to fade. These groups need money and help, she said.

The Ukrainians aren't ready to give up in this fight for democracy, she said.

"They don't mind fighting this war; they just need support," Harris said.

Puppy love

Vorel rescued a dog when she was at the Odesa refugee camp. His legs were broken, and he was the runt. She scooped him up and brought him along on her missions. The group of volunteers she worked with fell in love with this dog, who is named Odie, after the town where Vorel found him.

A nurse traveling with them has agreed to adopt Odie, who is now in Poland with a passport and awaiting final approval to move to his new home in Florida.

He is one of many dogs left homeless in Ukraine, Vorel said. Every place the group of volunteers stopped, dogs would come out of the fields, hoping for food. These are dogs who had always lived inside, and they are just scared, she said. 

She and her fellow volunteers would leave piles of food everywhere they went. Some organizations are doing what they can to rescue them and take them to shelters, including Ukrainian troops that pick up dogs and transport them.

After she worked in Ukraine, Vorel's 17-year-old daughter joined her in Poland, and they spent two weeks working at an animal shelter taking care of dogs from Ukraine.

Ukrainians love dogs, Vorel said.

"They are like fluffy antidepressants," she said.

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