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Sunflower War 🌻 Part 1
A powerful force in the fight for peace
This special series — Sunflower War 🌻 — is a tribute to Ukrainian freelancers who either stayed or fled their country. Regardless of their geographical location, the healing and the economic opportunity of freelancers only gets better from here. The stories included in this series are actual submissions and names may have been omitted for privacy purposes.
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Today, February 24th, marks exactly one year since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine. Throughout this year, Ukraine has endured endless struggle and suffering. And the whole world has united to help Ukrainians fight against evil. Before the invasion, at the end of 2021, the intelligence services warned about the attack. Back then, only some Americans believed this was possible in the 21st century. The intelligence went to an unprecedented step and disclosed super secret information, but even after such warnings, February 24th, 2022, shocked everyone.
We spoke with Kelli Smith, an American living in Poland with her husband, David who is a professional volleyball player, and their two kids. For her, it all started even before the 24th. A few days before the war, she was literally 100 km from the border with Ukraine, and during her morning run, she saw an American military plane landing. Of course, she could not know the purpose of American soldiers' arrival at the border with Ukraine, but at that moment, it became clear that all of this could be more than serious.
Kelli posted about seeing American and Polish soldiers on Facebook, but her American friends were skeptical of her story. For people in the US, it all seemed impossible. However, when everything started on February 24th, her relatives immediately urged Kelli to come home. Poland shares a border with Ukraine, and in the first days of the war, it was challenging to assess how safe it was to be in Poland.
“I didn't feel it was necessary for me to leave and go back home.
My first response was what can I do?”
This was the beginning of Kelli's volunteering journey. The unceasing flow of refugees from Ukraine was a huge challenge for the Poles. Every person arriving at the train station of a small Polish town needed housing, food, and basic necessities. In addition, children needed computers and classrooms to continue their education, while adults needed a minimum set of things to live.
Among the European countries, Poland suffered the longest from Russia's actions. A considerable part of the population knows firsthand what a communist regime is like, as they were born under it. Now Poland is a developed country in the European Union, but bureaucracy slowed the process despite the government's effort to help refugees. Help was needed right here and right now. Anxious mothers with tearful children were already standing at the station, not knowing where they would spend their next night.
Dennis: Tell me how you were processing this separation of the Ukraine women and children versus the men having to stay and fight the war.
Kelli: Initially, it was easy to not even think about that part because you are just dealing with the people right in front of you. But then you start to realize not only what they've been through just physically to get out of Ukraine and the things that they've seen, the thing that the children have seen. But then you start to process emotionally what they are experiencing and realize that it must be almost unbearable to have their husbands, dads, sons, and brothers in Ukraine.
At the beginning of spring, Kelli and other volunteers in Poland were addressing urgent issues for Ukrainian refugees. No matter who these people were or how much money they had in Ukraine, sometimes their credit cards didn't work in Poland, and people needed money even for food. They didn't speak the language, and all had to rely on the kindness of the people around them. It was hard to imagine what these women felt, who had children but couldn't care for them.
These people were distinguished only by hope in their eyes. While the whole world thought the war with Russia could last for years, women who had left for Poland hoped the war would end soon and could return home the next day. In the summer of 2022, many Ukrainian mothers delayed filling out the documents necessary for their children to attend Polish schools until the last moment. They just couldn't believe they would have to live there through the fall and maybe the entire school year.
Kelli's first post, where she asked her friends to help raise money, appeared on March 5th. The day before, her friend told her that one Ukrainian woman needed $250 USD to translate documents and asked if she could help. "I could raise five or maybe even ten thousand dollars," Kelli recalls. But within 72 hours, she raised $17,000.
"So that triggered this idea that I think I can do more. I think I can pool resources from people in the US who know me, who trust me, and who know my heart and see if we can help more people."
People from all over the world were striving to help Ukraine. During the year of the war, the number of volunteers and the scale of their work significantly increased. This was especially noticeable in Ukraine, a country with a practically destroyed economy where many people lost their jobs or were forced to relocate.
Until 2022, fundraising was not very popular in Ukraine, but it developed to intense heights in just six months. Finally, people understood how it worked. You donate $5 and see the result on TV. As soon as well-known volunteers began to tell people that every dollar counts, they began to collect a considerable amount of money in a short period.
Come Back Alive is the foundation providing competent assistance to the military. They were able to raise more funds in a year of war than in all the previous years combined. Raising $6,200,000 for a secret Military Intelligence Directorate (GUR) project took only one month. This is only possible with a high level of trust in the volunteers. People didn't even demand explanations about where the money would be spent.
Kelli didn't have the same online audience as the intelligence service or top bloggers, but her family's passion for sports provided a large circle of contacts. And it produced tangible results. Kelli and her team took on the task of helping refugees directly, understanding that city authorities could only react slowly. Women arrived with literally just one suitcase, and they needed food, clothing, and essential items right now.
From the first days, Kelli and her partners launched even more ambitious projects. They set a goal to equip classrooms for children of all ages so that they could continue their studies. They also planned to create a kindergarten so mothers could have time for rest or job searching. Everything that seemed important and urgent to Kelli's team was addressed first. The range of assistance was huge. They had to solve problems quickly and act efficiently.
Dennis: What have you discovered about people as a result of raising these funds?
Kelli: I've been blown away. I first realized that the people in my life are amazing, and they trusted me. And that's huge to know that people believe in you and trust in you and what you are doing.
Kelli's friends passed information about the fundraising campaign to their friends, who passed it on to theirs. At the beginning of the invasion, most Americans who wanted to help Ukraine could only donate to large funds. But it takes time to track the results of their work. And if you send money to Kelli, you can see where it's spent as soon as tomorrow. Kelli regularly posted on her social media pages to inform donors how their money was being spent. Numerous posts and stories with photos of children who finally felt safe showed that every dollar was going where it was intended.
Soon, the kindergarten, elementary, and junior high classes were running. Additionally, 20 laptops were purchased for teenagers who were studying there. Food distribution was going to the next level. A big challenge for the team was repairing and furnishing houses for refugees and organizing Polish language classes for faster integration of Ukrainians into Polish society. But everything worked out!
After two months of hard work, the whole town knew what Kelli was doing. The small town, with just 55,000 residents, had been actively helping refugees from Ukraine for several months. The more people learned about the volunteers' activities, the more useful contacts Kelli had, and the opportunities for help expanded. An article in the local newspaper gave a new boost to their visibility.
"I wasn't looking for that, but for me anything that can help open door to helping more people is worthwhile to me," Kelli recalls her feelings after that article, "for me is more important to move quickly and get these people comfortable, give them the things that they need because they are going through enough, they don't need to worry about food and about the most basic of things."
One of the brightest and most memorable moments was the arrival of a family who had escaped from the suffering city of Mariupol. One of the children had a birthday that day, and Kelli and her team bought him the biggest cake they could find. "I just can't imagine being in their shoes, and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing. It's those little things, those little moments, that let people remember that they matter and that they are important and that just because they've been displaced from their country doesn't mean that they can't have things that they like and things that they want. There's nothing wrong with that," Kelli recalls.
At the end of our conversation, Kelli shared her new tattoo. The war changed all the volunteers, and Kelli was no exception. In memory of her personal experience, she decided to tattoo a sunflower. As Kelli told us, "The sunflower is an icon of Ukrainian resistance and hope." Kelli remembered a video she saw at the beginning of the war, where an elderly Ukrainian woman fearlessly threw sunflower seeds at armed Russian occupiers. She said the seeds would sprout when a Russian soldier died on Ukrainian territory, and something beautiful would grow there.
In a year of volunteer work, Kelli and her team raised close to $100,000. For comprehensive assistance to Ukrainian refugees, Kelli has been granted the GOATS OF BUSINESS 2022 award in the category of SOCIAL ACTIVITIES OF THE YEAR 2022. As she says, she just happened to be in the right place at the right time and had the opportunity to do what she did, but we understand that this is not enough. You need to have a huge heart and an incredible ability to empathize with someone else's grief to do as much as she has done.
Kelli's story shows that one person can achieve a lot. By rallying empathetic people around them, they can become a powerful force in the fight for peace in the world. The world is held together by people with such kind hearts, and they bring our victory closer. Thank you, Kelli, for everything you have done and will do for these people!