While in Poland to assist Ukrainians displaced by war, Knights of Columbus members and family members from the Omaha archdiocese shared lunch at a day camp with Ukrainian orphans now being cared for in Poland. The experience of watching the community rally around these children using a “shoestring budget” led the group to hold a second fundraiser to help. COURTESY PHOTO

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Local groups helping displaced Ukrainians bear their burdens

While the war in Ukraine may no longer be frontpage news, people in the Archdiocese of Omaha are continuing to look for ways they and others can make a difference to those affected here and abroad.

They are turning proceeds from the sale of pierogi and pastries into body armor and medical shipments. They are welcoming those who fled Ukraine by literally opening doors here in Nebraska. They are helping orphans and the displaced through fundraisers and boots on the ground assistance in Poland.

And while fatigue may be a consequence of their ongoing efforts, all the individuals involved – a Knights of Columbus council in Fort Calhoun, religious sisters in Norfolk, and parishioners of the Ukrainian Church in Omaha – said their sacrifice pales in comparison to the challenges faced by Ukrainians, especially as temperatures drop and winter looms.

KNIGHT TO KNIGHT

The Knights of Columbus Council #10305 at St. John the Baptist Parish in Fort Calhoun, along with individual members from other councils, held a dinner in May benefiting Ukraine. It netted $60,000, said Knights member and parishioner Mike Conrad.

They sent the money raised through the national Knights’ Ukrainian Solidarity Fund so every dollar would go directly to the humanitarian efforts by Polish Knights to serve displaced Ukrainians.

But it did not stop there. A small contingent from the group volunteered a week of their time to travel to Poland to help orphans, as well as women and children who fled at the beginning of the war.

Conrad served on the Knights’ international board of directors when the group established the first councils in Ukraine in 2012, he said, and they stayed in touch.

He learned the Knights leadership in Poland would welcome a small group of committed volunteers to help in their massive effort to aid the millions of Ukrainians who had fled to Poland.

Five Nebraska Knights, Chris Koenig (and wife Lisa), Conrad (and wife Mary), Conrad’s son Seth, Larry McKennan (and son Riley) all from Fort Calhoun, and Dennis Podjenski from St. Robert Bellarmine Parish in Omaha, said yes to going, each paying their own way.

No one knew what to expect, said Koenig, who said volunteering gave their donation a human touch.

“It was more of a pilgrimage to me because we went to Auschwitz because we flew in a day early … it framed the whole trip,” he said, contrasting Auschwitz’s inhumanity with the Polish people’s enormous efforts to help the millions of displaced Ukrainians in their country.

“They really opened their arms … they brought (the Ukrainians) into their homes. They’re doing whatever they can to take care of them,” he said. “You saw the goodness of people. It has been an opportunity for people to step up.”

During their week, they worked at an orphanage’s summer camp, helped sort donated clothing at a distribution center, assisted a group of Ukrainian women preparing food to sell at a Polish parish, and organized food items for distribution in Ukraine.

They learned Father Marek Bator, director of Caritas for the Archdiocese of Czestochowa, quickly converted a hotel into an orphanage because children from orphanages in Melitopol and Myrne in Ukraine were on a bus headed his direction, explained Koenig.

“The orphanage was supposed to get 40 kids,” said Conrad. “They got nearly 100.

“Listening to the stories of these kids – some were abandoned, some turned over so their parents could go fight, some were placed to get them safely out of the country,” he said. “They were told they were going on a daytrip and to pack a small bag. They never got to go back home. Some may never see their parents again.”

Podjenski said they witnessed Father Bator and his staff in Czestochowa doing everything within their power to help the kids. Koenig noted the parish secretary had become legal guardian for 25 children to help them receive medical attention.

“My great-grandparents came over on the boat from Poland,” Podjenski said. “These people are taking the brunt of the costs in taking care of (the displaced Ukrainians). Watching what these people are doing left me wanting to do more.”

“It seemed like all our conversations throughout the week came back to the kids at the orphanage,” said Conrad. “We all felt like we needed to do something more for the kids.”

So, when they returned home, the Knights began organizing a sausage and pierogi dinner for Oct. 13. So far, Conrad said they have raised $15,000, but hope to see that continue to grow before sending it through the Knights to the orphanage later in November.

“Our website (KnightsforUkraine.org) is still up and running, ready to accept donations,” said Conrad.

He said Father Bator told them it costs the orphanage 500 Zlotych (Polish currency) to house, feed, clothe and care for each child every month.

“They are running off a shoestring budget,” said Conrad. “It is a 4-to-1 conversion rate from U.S. dollars to Zlotych. The whole amount is going to the orphanage. We can do so much good.”

NEW HOMES

The Missionary Benedictine Sisters in Norfolk also knew they wanted to help the people of Ukraine but were not sure how.

Within a couple of months of the war’s start, they began hearing that Norfolk church communities were working to bring Ukrainian families to the U.S.

“Alone we wouldn’t have been able to move forward,” said Sister Rosann Ocken, prioress of the Benedictine community. “We were lucky because of the other churches and our friend Mike Anderson, who were proactive in this venture,” Anderson has been a long-time friend of their community, she said.

Ukrainians are not given refugee status, which indicates fleeing oppression of one’s own country, Sister Rosann said. Instead, she said they have been given “humanitarian parole” status under the U.S. government’s Uniting for Ukraine program.

“In the beginning this is a two-year stay,” she said, adding most need help starting out.

Knowing they had partners who could help navigate the governmental requirements allowed the sisters to dream big with monetary support from an estate gift they had received two years ago.

They decided to sponsor a family by buying a home, completing its repairs and stocking and furnishing it.

“We felt we could do this because we had the resources through this woman’s estate. She gave it to us knowing we would do good with that money,” said Sister Rosann. “It’s really that person’s goodness to us that we are passing on to that family.”

They purchased the home in July. Sister Rosann said the extent and cost of the home’s needed repairs have exceeded their expectations, but the Norfolk community has helped stretch their dollars by volunteering to do some repairs and helping to furnish the house.

“A lot of people have donated time and money,” she said. “We are already so amazed so many people have stepped up to help us get that four-bedroom house together. People really do care.”

After some paperwork challenges, the Vasylovych family of five finally arrived in the U.S. from Romania on Oct. 29 carrying five suitcases.

While repairs to the home are not yet finished, the family will stay in the sisters’ monastery’s guest quarters, Sister Rosann explained.

The sisters have networked to find the father, Alex, a job in town, opportunities for the mother, Maryna, to learn English, and to help Anastasiia, 14, Maksym, 9, and Evelina, 5, prepare for school. The community has made some donations to help them get started.

Sister Rosann said the sisters and other church groups are hopeful the community will join them to support this family, another 23 people who arrived in August living together in a group home and looking to set up individual households, and others who want to come but are not here yet.

“We are not finished bringing in families. There are more coming,” she said, acknowledging the millions of displaced Ukrainians and the many unknowns involved in accomplishing that.

Anyone who would like to help can contact Sister Rosann at 402-940-2130.

PIEROGI AND PASTRIES

The parishioners of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Omaha Ukrainian parish, have been aiding friends and family in Ukraine since the war began.

Whether through their personal donations and gifts or through the parish’s effort to make and sell traditional Ukrainian food items, they have sent more than $150,000 to the people of Ukraine, said Natalia Lys, a parishioner and one of the food sale organizers.

“We are just people who want to help,” said Lys, who immigrated from Ukraine in 2004. “The women do the cooking, but the men are helping with the ordering, and husbands, like mine, are staying with the kids … so we can be at the church all weekend,” she said.

Most of the women work full time and have families, she explained.

When the war started, this small group offered the Omaha community a weekly opportunity to order and buy food items with proceeds going to support Ukraine’s war effort, said Lys.

Eight months later, they still are cooking and selling the items the second Saturday of the month.

All items are preordered online by the Wednesday before Saturday pickup. A group of 12 to 20 women work all day Friday and Saturday morning preparing, cooking and packaging the items.

Pickup is between noon and 2 p.m.

They rotate options, including vareniki (Ukraine’s version of pierogi), cabbage rolls, crepes and other pastries, to maintain variety.

“It seems like a lot but compared to what’s going on over there it’s nothing. They have it very hard over there,” Lys said. “A few extra hours we spend here is a little contribution we can do for the family and friends we grew up with over there.”

So far, the group has purchased and shipped bleeding control kits, body armor, 22 drones, four shipments of medicine, and bullet-proof vests, she said. They have also sent donations to volunteer organizations in Ukraine when there is the opportunity to buy other items there, she said.

The group has a treasurer who makes sure every dollar is accounted for and optimized, said Lys, adding they have also secured a carrier who has provided on-time delivery to the right people.

“These women do everything. They are awesome,” said David Woloszyn, a deacon at the parish. “They are saving lives with those trauma kits and body armor.

“There is no red tape. It doesn’t sit in customs for months. They are in direct talk with people on the ground there.”

Lys said they could not do what they have done without the community’s generous support.

“I cannot say thank you enough to the whole Omaha community. Everybody has been and still is so supportive,” she said. “It’s been overwhelming. All this support keeps us going too.”

The next two deadlines for food preorders are Wednesdays, Nov. 9 and Dec. 7, with pickups Saturdays, Nov. 12 and Dec. 10, respectively. See the online order form at the church’s website, https://ukrainiancatholicbvm.org.