Hi everyone! Val(entyn) Potapenko here. Thank you for finding our site and being interested in learning more. With some nudging from my wife, I am going to begin blogging a bit. Please go easy on me – English is my third language. Even professionals have editors, right? I hope this blog can serve as space to share regular updates on what I know is happening on the ground and ways your support is being put to good use.
To begin, I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart who has donated or expressed support. As a Ukrainian living in the United States while Russia invades my home country, I am sure you can understand my need to do something – more like anything and everything I can – to help those that I love and share the stories I know to be true about Ukraine. When I set the fundraising goal of $20,000 on 3/05/2022 I knew it was possible to reach, but I had no idea you would make it happen in 3 days! 3 days?! Donations have poured in from $1 to over $1000. From as local as my neighbors in Wauwatosa, WI to those I have never met in China. I have only had one Russian troll tell me the news was fake, Ukrainian are liars, and he was going to report me to the FBI. (Ok, sure. Whatever.)
I am absolutely blown away by your generosity, your trust in us to do the right thing with your donation, and to support my country’s people. As of this moment, we have raised $22,540 plus in-kind donations. As we stated up front, this is a personal fundraiser. 100% of the money raised will be used to assist my family, those we know personally, and organizations will have in the coming months.
All of the items purchased from the Amazon list will be packaged and taken to a Ukrainian shipping company (MEEST) in Chicago. They have guaranteed delivery to the Polish/Ukrainian border and will turn over the delivery of items to the Ukrainian military for distribution. MEEST is doing this for no cost.
For some of you who don’t know me, I was born in Brovary, Ukraine in 1984. My mother passed when I was 7, and I lived with my father and his parents until I was 11 years old. My father and I moved to the United States because we were lucky enough to get selected in the Diversity Visa Lottery program. (There is so much more I can and likely will cover in the future). Upon immigrating to the US, my father and I settled in Lake Geneva, WI with extended family. During my high school years, my father unexpectedly passed away. Following high school, I moved to Milwaukee for college, met my wife, and we have since settled our family in Wauwatosa.
Since moving to the US, I have returned home to Ukraine as often as possible. My most recent trip was in July of 2021. On earlier trips, I have had a chance to show off my son, and introduce my wife, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and father-in-law to the place that I am from (2017 + 2015). I am so grateful for that time and being able to offer that experience because Ukraine will never be the same. Even before the war, my son, nearing 5 years old, knew all about his family, their love, and his roots in Ukraine.
Reflections over the past 10 days:
Personally speaking, the past 10 days have been a roller coaster. Truth be told I’ve been worrying about this for far longer than the 10 days since Russia invaded Ukraine. Initially, mentally, I could not comprehend what was happening, and I was emotionally paralyzed. A few days into the conflict, a missile landed a few miles from my grandma’s house (Babcia Halia), my childhood home. Hearing there was a missile in Brovary was a nightmare. Being so far away and not able to do anything is difficult. I am so grateful for being able to visit my grandma in July of 2021 and setting her up with a smartphone and Facebook. Because of this, we have been able to call and video chat for free, multiple times per day when previously it was too costly for grandma to call the US, and it wasn’t inexpensive on our end to call her either. Additionally, her landline was unstable and we often weren’t successful in reaching her, sometimes for days. Because of her new access to modern-day technology, and she’s surprisingly savvy at it, my extended family in the US and I have been calling my grandma daily to keep connected and keep her spirits up. It’s a small thing. It’s all we can do, but it sure makes a difference.
Weeks before the initial blasts in Ukraine, Mandy (my wife) and I had a discussion about getting grandma out. This time felt more serious and credible than past threats. At her age, it’s nearly impossible to travel independently. We offered for me to travel to Kyiv/Brovary, and take her to Poland via train to renew her passport and VISA, with the ultimate goal of having her stay with us (she has spent extended periods of time in the US when I was growing up and her eldest sister, who lived in Lake Geneva, was still alive). Upon the offer, she was not fond of the idea of leaving her home – again, it was only a lingering worry at that point. Nor was she interested in going to a new country, not having family around, or knowing the language. As difficult as it was to hear, I had, and continue to have, to understand and respect her decision to stay in the home she has lived in for likely 50+ years.
Once military action began, I discussed with family ways we could help. We decided is that money would be the best because each family has different needs and expenses (we also don’t believe there is any credible infrastructure to get goods to specific people at this time). At the same time, many of my friends and acquaintances also began reaching out to ask for ways they could assist. While there are lists of wonderful and credible charitable organizations, my wife and I discussed how distant it felt to donate or direct donations in that direction when we have family, friends, and other personal connections. We came to the conclusion that we wanted to launch a personal fundraiser – one that would allow for tangible support and impact on the lives of those we love directly and within the community they live. In addition to the cash fundraiser, we have an Amazon list for the military and local hospitals.
Many people have reached out genuinely asking how I and my family are doing. I have never felt so much support in my life from individuals, businesses, and this country. I am so thankful and grateful for everyone’s personal support and support for those I love.
The Latest Information I Have:
Last night at 12:30AM Central Time (late Monday, early Tuesday), 8:30 PM Ukrainian time(KIE +8), I was talking to one of my cousins who finished building a new house in a village a few years ago. Via video chat, he was showing me around, showing me his kids who were sleeping in bed, and I said hello to his wife that I had just seen over the summer when I went to visit. They also had his wife’s sister’s family staying with them because they felt safer being away from Kyiv. As we were talking I heard a missile fly over their house towards Kyiv. My cousin didn’t even flinch, he just swore, and proceeded to tell me it will be fine. As the day went on, I got a call at noon/8 pm their time. They decided to pack everything they could and were on their way west because Russian tanks were coming into their village. They had a caravan of 3 cars of kids, pets and some suitcases. They left everything they just build in a matter of minutes. As the day went on, I continued receiving other calls from other cousins about finding a house near the border big enough for my grandma, cousins, and uncles. My grandma, aunts, and uncles again decided to stay in their homes in Brovary.
Another cousin who also went into the village is surrounded by the Russian forces. They don’t have cell service where they are, but they check in with their families a few times a day by hiking away from the house to a specific location. From what I understand it’s an extremely small village in the middle of swamps and is of no interest to the Russians. At this point, if they wanted to leave, I don’t believe they would be able.
I have many other stories from other family members, but these were today, and they are fresh. Almost all who have kids have left big cities and gone to the villages or toward the European borders. At this time, none of my family has left Ukraine. Most of the older people are staying home, with many unknowns and uncertainties. In Brovary, the pharmacies are closed because all of the workers have fled. Banks are closed, grocery stores are somewhat open but are very limited on goods.
So what is the plan? There are many ideas in my head. The money will be directly given to families as they are settling in western Ukraine or in Europe, as well as those who have chosen to stay. I am in the process of figuring it all out, but please know 100% of what is donated will be disbursed to the ever-evolving needs of families from Ukraine. The items ordered via Amazon will be packaged and taken to Chicago. From Chicago, the packages will get loaded on a plane to the Poland/Ukraine border, where the packages will be handed over to the military and they will take care of the rest.
Other ways we can help.
To close this post, inaugural post, please remember, life is short. Cherish every moment, and appreciate what you have. Life can change in a matter of seconds.
Thank you again to everyone for everything that you have done. Your words, messages, and symbols of support mean the world.
Слава Україні! / Glory to Ukraine!
Ukraine Help From Milwaukee