We packed the van and drove from Krakow to Lviv. How many people and organizations could we help in one day?
I used to think that life could be divided into two parts: giving and receiving and that our days were divided into these two camps, always hoping that we might be able to give more than we received. And this ability to have the time and resources to give filled me with gratitude.
It was a fine way to live, but this summer I took part in three missions to bring humanitarian aid into Ukraine to the people who needed it most. These trips changed my philosophy.
I now understand that every act is both giving and receiving. That every time you give you receive; every time you receive you give.
No wonder people get hooked on giving, it teaches you to receive.
I needed that lesson.
In this photo essay, I’m going to use photographs to share our final trip to Ukraine so you, kind reader, might better understand why I’ve chosen to spend my summer this way: the amount of receiving I have received has shifted my perspective of life.
It really is true: the more you give, the more you get.
We filled the van with 9 pieces of rehab equipment, 1 wheelchair, twenty boxes of food that would be mailed to needy people around the country, 25 prepacked bags to give out to elderly people (salt—a big commodity since Russia occupies all of the salt mines now, sugar, pasta, canned goods, and more), cases of cereal and cases of canned foods.
There were volunteers from four different countries: Luksaz—Poland, Jullia—Ukraine, Gavin—Ireland, Haley (who is an Ukrainian American and speaks fluent Ukrainian) and I—United States. Being part of a multi-national team makes these missions an international flair.
#1: Woman with cane
We saw an elderly woman walking with a cane. We pulled the van over and got out. Jullia talked to her. The woman said she would love a bag of food. Jullia and I helped her carry it to her yard. I peeked into her bag: old potatoes, maybe from last year? I wondered if someone gifted them to her.
We entered a small yard, and she asked us to put the bag on a bench. Luksaz, Gavin and Haley added additional canned food and more cereal to the bench.
She was all smiles and grateful for the attention and the food.
I’m not sure which building she lived in, but I think it was one of the small ones in the back.
She said that her husband would help her carry the packages inside.
#2: Woman with Apples
We drove on and came to a woman sitting at a bus stop.
We were a little more organized this time. I jumped out of the front to give Jullia room to go to the woman and speak to her in Ukrainian. Haley brought a bag for the woman and Gavin Luksaz and Gavin followed up with some canned food.
I peeked into the bag that she was carrying. She had a few green apples with leaves still attached. She must have just picked them. That’s one of the advantages when you are living in extreme poverty in a rural area during the growing season; you can find food.
We asked her if she would be able to carry the bag if we gave her more.
She said someone would help her.
We gave her a little more.
As we climbed back into the van, she called something to us.
I asked what she said, “Good health to you. Thank you. Thank you.”
We stopped at a store to get a SIMS card for Luksaz’s phone. It costs a fortune for Polish people to use their phone cards in Ukraine. And it isn’t safe for Americans to use their phones in country: the Russians can track and intercept the calls, and then have a target to send a strike. We all tap into Luksaz’s phone via hotspot.
We stopped at the mushroom growers and wanted to buy them out, again, but we didn’t have room in the van. It’s the first time I heard Luksaz admit that the van was truly full. The growers would be gone when we returned.
I bought some freshly picked raspberries.
#3: Girl Selling Mushrooms
Luksaz gave a case of cereal to a girl who was selling mushrooms with her mother.
Her mother tried to pay us, we refused. She insisted that we accept raspberries from her.
They were even better than the ones I bought.
#4: Woman Alone
We found another elderly woman sitting at a bus stop. Jullia talked to her and reported back to us that she was all alone. Her husband died in a car accident (Maybe he was a mechanic?) and they had no children.
We gave her a bag of food. Then added more. And more. And Luksaz gave her cash too.
Her goods filled half the bench.
Luksaz asked if anyone had an extra-large bag.
I had bought a shopping bag when I first came to Krakow. I brought it along, hoping someone would need it.
We repacked her gifts into the larger bag.
I don’t know how she was going to get the food home, but she said that with the bag someone would help her.
As we drove on, we scanned bus stops, looking for more elderly people in need.
#5: Post office
Just outside Lviv, we pulled into the postal center. We made one pile of boxes that were being sent around the country. They were so heavy; I could barely lift them.
“What’s in these boxes?” I asked.
Luksaz added a box to the pile of things to be shipped. “Food.” He explained that when he finds out about people who need food, he sends them packages.
Just that morning he found out about another family in dire need. He got more boxes, and Haley and I packed them.
We took out two of the rehab machines and let the postal company measure them to see if we could ship it to another hospital in Ukraine. No, it was far too expensive. So we had to get the machines back into the van.
Entering Laviv. Before the war 800,000 people lived here. Now there is more than a million people living here due to displaced people who have moved out of the front lines area of the war. Most of the displaced people had to leave their work, their – livelihoods. So, the city struggles to give people the support they need.
This building was destroyed two weeks ago. 13 civilians died in the attack.
We picked up Christina, a woman who knew about a hospital that needed supplies and as we drove there, we passed several tanks and a rocket on a launcher—ready to go. I heard the words in my head, “This is not a test.”
Christina explained in Ukrainian that was translated for me: each town and city has so many soldiers returning who need help rehabilitating from wounds they received on the battlefield.
When we arrived, there were fourteen people standing on the front steps of the hospital. This building is still a general hospital; parts have been converted into a rehab center. I thought it would be funny if they were all here to greet us.
This was a celebrity welcome. Even the mayor from this district in Lviv was there with words of welcome and a gift for Luksaz (which he later gave to me. A notebook, a pen and a mug along with some literature on the district--in Ukrainian).
My eyes teared up before we unpacked. The need was so great that they all came out to make sure we felt welcome.
We started unpacking the van; they took over, elated to have so many old pieces of equipment that would work perfectly for their needs.
When you see all of the equipment in the parking lot, you’re left to wonder how it all fit into the van—along with all the other stuff we brought.
They invited us inside.
I studied the rehab unit. Most people have more equipment in their home gyms.
This former basement now had over 400% more equipment than it had before.
They asked us to put on yellow protective layers. And then they brought us into rooms where soldiers lay.
I will write more about this tomorrow.
One soldier offered to pose with Christina for a photo. They connected on a social media app.
On the way out, they gifted us with pizzas and chocolates.
See, there you go again: giving and receiving are the same.
We brought our guide home. Luksaz tried to gift her with supplies, she was insulted and said she didn’t need it. He asked if she might give them out to people who needed help.
Haley and I walked her ten-year-old son up to the apartment with the supplie.
Inside I took off my shoes and ferried the food into the kitchen. If you ask me, they could use the help.
On the way back to the van, Christina pointed to some windows. Haley translated: the building next door was attacked. Here are the broken windows. They have been repaired.
Later Christina sent a message thanking us for the supplies. She said that her children loved the pizza: they haven’t had pizza in a long time.
She worked in tourism and hasn’t had any work for over a year.
#7: Giggling Women
We saw two older women walking along the side of the road with a girl who might have been eight.
The van pulled over. We may have resembled a clown car or maybe synchronized swimmers: but our coordinated efforts made the women giggle.
Jullia, “We have food for you.”
Gavin hands them food.
Luksaz talks to the girl for a moment.
Old women continue giggling.
Luksaz hands the girl a case of cereal.
They giggle and thank us and watch the van as we pull away.
We met this animal doctor on the last trip to Ukraine. Haley translated as he apologized at being hard to reach, he was out of town helping pets.
He pointed to a black and white cat that walked along the curb and told us that he already knew about that cat. It had lived in the area for many years. He gives it any treatments it needs several times a year.
We gave him almost twenty bags of dog food.
We parked close to Lviv’s center so we could walk around for a few minutes.
Luksaz notice an artist selling sketches. We gathered around and each bought at least one sketch, and each overpaid the selling price.
We walked around the main square in Lviv.
Gavin, Haley and I split off. I took them to my favorite bookstore to have a look around and then to a place for Gavin to buy some of the best coffee to take home to his partner. We found a place for a drink, then met back at the corner so we could head home.
#9: Flower Sellers
Anyone working at 9:30 PM wasn’t working for fun. We pulled over and gifted each of the sellers a bag of supplies. A woman walking by asked if we had any more. Yes, we do. Gavin handed her a bag.
We continued towards the border. We had one bag of supplies left, then two more bags of random food stuffs.
#10: A Ride
We stopped at the grocery store to get drinks and some food for dinner.
Luksaz let us know that there was an elderly woman who needed a ride back into Poland so she could see her son. She would ride with us.
She sat in the back next to Haley who was able to translate.
The woman had always named her pets with American names. She had two beloved pets at different times, Ron and Jack. Her heart was broken when Jack died, and she decided to never have another pet. And now she was riding in a car with two Americans.
We laughed with her.
We stopped to get a little bit of gas to make it over the border. The attendant who pumped the gas was in his 70s.
Luksaz gifted him one bag of food.
He was shocked. Delighted. Surprised.
He thanked us with a big smile again and again.
We returned to the van while he washed the windshield.
I was thinking about what a nice man he was and wondered how any people he had to feed.
Luksaz asked us if we agreed to the idea of gifting this guy with the rest of our food.
Yes. Unanimous yes.
We got out of the van and set the bags next to the bag we already gave to him. We tried to be quiet about him receiving gifts while pumping gas.
When Luksaz told him we had more for him, he looked into the bags, smiled the biggest smile and clapped his hands together. He looked through the bags and clapped again and thanked us again and again.
As we drove away, Luksaz said, “He was so happy.”
“Yeah.” I said.
Miles down the road I added, “The way he clapped his hands.”
“He was the best receiver.” Luksaz said.
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