PART 2 | UKRAINE. Young Life Ukraine

When I went to Ukraine (May 2-8, 2022) with a team from Water for All, I witnessed first-hand why water is urgently needed in Ukraine and learned about how the war’s displacement of Ukrainians is opening the door for human traffickers. Due to war, infrastructure (including water sources) has been destroyed and people are suffering, especially in occupied areas, places of active conflict, on the front lines, and as first responders. We went to deliver filters to the people of Ukraine and to explore partnerships for deploying many thousands more in the days to come.

DONATE to provide water filters to the people of Ukraine.
$65 buys a water filter – 15 people in Ukraine – 2 years
While you’re at it, JOIN the Seeds Giving Fund.
= Make a difference each month around the world, all year long!

Just so you understand how John DeYoung and I are working together: John is the maker of the filter (through his company Vivoblu) and founder of the non-profit (Water for All). John and I are dear friends. He is a hip-hop dance artist turned business owner and nonprofit founder. He is a mighty changemaker and creative that uses innovation to care for those in need.

In May, 2022, we were on a team of 4 others – including Terry Adams, Ricky Waitman, Morgan Braby, and Matt Tatusko – who went to Ukraine and Poland on this humanitarian mission. I am the founder of a community organization (Seeds of Exchange) that has been part of raising funds for the Vivoblu filters, sharing the stories of the filter and our trip, building a network of community within Ukraine and around the world, and reporting on the increase of human trafficking due to the war in Ukraine. Learn more: Trip to Ukraine | Vivoblu Water Filter | Water for All – Community Fundraiser | Ukraine

OK, let’s dive in!! There is MUCH to this story, so I’ve broken it down into chapters. Here’s what you can expect in this post.

  • Chapter 1 | A glimpse of our time in Ukraine with these amazing Ukrainian changemakers – and now, our beloved friends.
  • Chapter 2 | Water filter deployment by Young Life Ukraine, the leaders of which, have rolled up their sleeves and turned their youth group vans into humanitarian aid delivery trucks delivering medical supplies, food, and yes – Vivoblu water filters to the places that need it most!
  • Chapter 3 | A 1-hour video of a conversation across 4 time zones, with life-long friends and brand-new ones, about the work of Young Life Ukraine and how our stories have become intertwined. Also a perspective about what is happening today among the youth in Ukraine and what fills our Ukraine friends with hope, amidst war.
  • Chapter 4 | A wonderful, simple, everyday way – a friend’s 50th birthday party! – in which we became connected with this NGO in Ukraine. This all led to a wonderful – PACKED HOUSE! – gathering of kids and adults last week in San Jose, California.

 


 

Chapter 1. A GLIMPSE OF OUR TIME WITH THE CHANGEMAKERS OF YOUNG LIFE UKRAINE

Firstly, a few people have asked about the faith-based aspect of Young Life Ukraine, so let’s start there. This is very important to talk about and clarify, especially when it comes to fundraising and delivering aid, which includes the Vivoblu water filters we provided to this organization to share with the people of Ukraine.

Personally, this brings me back to my roots as a teenager. Young Life was, for me, a way my faith deepened and grew. I was supported by energetic, fun, compassionate, and wise leaders who companioned me as I the big questions of life: “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Who is God?” This was a great gift in my sometimes-tumultuous teen years.

Young Life is, most definitely a “faith-based” organization with leaders whose daily spiritual journeys are intimately connected with Jesus. And, yet – this is important! – in my experience as a kid and what I saw, over and over, in Ukraine was this: The leaders of Young Life in no way prioritize or exclude people based on who shares their faith experience.

Indeed, I’ve witnessed time and time again the ways in which the team of Young Life Ukraine have lived – and risked! – their lives to care for the people of Ukraine, regardless of faith or creed. I believe, with all my heart, that they will continue to do so. I am profoundly inspired by and proud of the ways in which they are daily, selflessly, and extravagantly pouring out their lives with great love to care for and connect with others. (Which, lucky for us, came to include our team of John DeYoung, Ricky Waitman, Terry Adams, and me.)

I’ll share more below about how my friend’s 50th birthday party connected our team to this remarkable organization. But, first – let me introduce you to the people and work of Young Life Ukraine, day by day. Consider it an “armchair travel” or “virtual road trip” story. (Buckle up … what an adventure it was!)

MAY 2 | While on the road, today, I was able to connect with the US Coordinator for Young Life Ukraine, Carrie Fraser, who connected me with Young Life Regional Director Sasha Utkin, and his wife, Iryna. Carrie also connected me with a Young Life leader named Kristina Kononuchenko who had to flee Ukraine when the war broke out and is who is now working with her family at a border refugee camp of 2,500 Ukrainians in Poland.

From the start, the sense of collaboration between Carrie, Iryna, and me has been strong, and truly delightful! In no time, Iryna and I began to talk about and explore the possibility of our team of four going into Ukraine. I shared with John (founder of Water for All and the leader or our team) the possibilities discussed for the Ukraine trip and he agreed there was potential to explore. (Yes, we are both excited!)

MAY 3 | Today, Iryna and I talked and texted often to explore the security situation, ways our team could be of service should we enter Ukraine, and understand more fully what are the needs of the Ukrainians being served by Young Life. Iryna told me that Young Life in her hometown of Chernivtsi, in the Western part of Ukraine, is providing food and lodging for more than 1,000 refugees from the war. They are also deploying aid throughout Ukraine – including to the front lines and to occupied territories. I came to learn that due to the war, Iryna is currently in the Czech Republic with her two daughters, along with several other Young Life Ukraine women and their children.

Tonight, I had a tele-health call with Kristina and her family, along with my dad (Pat Tracy), a family medicine doctor. Kristina and her family have had to flee Ukraine into Poland and while they themselves are refugees, they want to be of service, so they are working with young children in the refugee camp. But, they’ve all come down with colds and respiratory illnesses – so my dad did what he does: listened well and offered medical care. It has been a beautiful night of connection across the world … with my dad, a new sister, and her family! My dad recommended some medicine for Kristina and her family, which our team will pick up tomorrow for Kristina and her family.

MAY 5 | While driving to Przemyśl today, I worked to gather as much information as possible about going into Ukraine. Who would we work with, what was the risk level, how many filters are needed, and where would they be deployed? In conversation with Iryna, we came to understand that it would be helpful – and possible – to make our way to Chernivtsi, Ukraine, and deploy filters through Young Life Ukraine.

Continuing our call and text communication – me from Poland and Iryna from Czech Republic – Iryna suggested we meet a woman by the name of Nadia Gordynsky, founder of Save a Life International, while in Lviv, Ukraine. (See more about Nadia’s work in these posts: Trip to Ukraine and The Rise of Human Trafficking in Ukraine.)

Iryna helped us determine the safest driving route, who would drive (her husband, Sasha), and the logistics of gas, food and travel. We decided it would be best for our team to drive to the border, walk the filters over, meet Sasha (Iryna’s husband), and drive to Lviv to meet Nadia. We would then proceed to Chernivtsi. (At this time, this is one of the only major cities and regions in Ukraine that has not been attacked.)

On the way, we will stop in another town and deliver water filters to civilian-soldiers (another AMAZING community connection! Story is coming soon – will post link here). The leader of this group is a man by the name of Roman. We were put in touch with him through Vivianne, a friend of my mom’s in Washington state.

Our path to Ukraine is taking shape.

Tonight, we met as a team and made the unanimous decision to go into Ukraine. I will set up a text thread with Iryna and Sasha, who will be our connection to our team’s spouses / partners, as we have been told that we need to go “dark” and not utilize our cell phones while in Ukraine, due to security concerns.

MAY 6 | We got up early this morning and headed to the border. Parking our cars, we packed the nearly 400 filters and 300 prenatal vitamins into 4 duffle bags to carry across the border into Ukraine.

As we walked, we came across lots of aid tents on both the Poland and Ukraine sides of the border, with ample food options, coffee and tea, along with tents offering support for cellular/communication needs, lost/abandoned animals, nursing mothers, children, and medical care.

It is a beautiful thing to witness how many organizations and people are doing what they can to care for the people of Ukraine.

We then got back into the vans and headed towards Lviv. The conversation on the road was wonderful – this was, in fact, the first time our team had been able to be in one car, all together! Sometimes, our car grew quiet, as we looked outside the windows at the Ukrainian countryside, took in the proud billboards of “We are Ukraine!”, and saw ample evidence of war with frequent military checkpoints.

We passed markets where kerchief-clad women were selling bouquets of flowers on sidewalk markets, people were mowing their lawns or sweeping their front porches. We also drove by several immense construction projects. I was struck that even in war, with the potential of being bombed – and frequent air raid sirens, the people of Ukraine appeared tenacious and determined to go about their daily lives. (We hadn’t seen ANYthing yet – the courage and compassion of the people of this country were about to blow our socks off … and hearts open!)

We talked a bit with Sasha, and even with a language barrier, the connection between us as friends was palpable from the start. His dry sense of humor, clever conversation, and kindness was a joy and provided much laughter throughout our time together.

We arrived in Chernivtsi around 4 pm and went on a tour of Young Life’s Aid Headquarters. We first toured a bike shop, run by Young Life Ukraine kids and leaders. “The best in Chernivtsi!” Sasha proudly boasted. Next, we saw a large tent, which was divided into two sizable storage rooms, with ample foodstuffs on one half and health and medical equipment on the other. The organization and scope of this team’s work was immediately visible.

We entered the Young Life building and as we entered the former club room, we saw it had been turned into refugee quarters with twelve bed pallets cozily arranged throughout the room. When we entered the kitchen, which was bustling with energy and delicious smells, we discovered that one of the leaders had set up a schedule for shared cooking and cleaning between the refugees. There was a quiet and dear sense of community in this space.

As we continued our tour, we passed 3-tiers of shelves at least 6 feet long, piled up with clothing for the refugees, provided by the community of Chernivtsi. The staff told us that in their city, there is a need for clean water and that they presently need to buy all their water. However, they told us that water is currently inexpensive and accessible. Thus, they wanted the filters to first go to places where people were more desperate and in need, without access to any clean water.

Ruslan, one of the leaders then told us that only two days prior to our arrival, they had received a call from  a colleague in another region, who expressed a desperate need for water filters for their community. They affirmed what we had heard from many others: The urgent need for filters, as water systems were being destroyed and sources of clean water were lacking. Young Life committed to delivering the filters we gave them to the people in need, along with the food and medical aid they have already been delivering.

 

Later that evening we went to another refugee space, which was in their church. We were told by staff that they would like our team to share a few stories, with an emphasis on hope, encouragement, and the strength of Ukrainians (which was SO EVIDENT and EASY to talk about!). The day before, as we had put together the plan for the evening, Iryna and I talked about the food, in the hopes that it would be a fun evening of friendship and food. Iryna suggested, “How about pizza?” Done!! This is exactly what we did.

That night, as the pizzas entered the room, stacked 20 boxes high, there was a sense of quiet joy and fun.

We ate pizza, listened to and recorded a few stories, cried and prayed with the people of Ukraine. There was a lot of loss and pain expressed – along with some heroic and hopeful stories. When we showed the filters, the refugees and Young Life staff were impressed, excited, and full of ideas for how they could be used and where they could be shared!

We headed home, where 4 beds had been prepared for us, with great hospitality and kindness. Sasha put together a platter of cheeses and olives; Terry added biscotti and nuts. For a few hours, we basked in being with our new friends, Sasha and his son, Valentyn, until late in the evening. Iryna joined in via video call from the Czech Republic. At 11 pm, there is a lights-out requirement throughout Chernivtsi, for security purposes. As we dimmed the lights, we had a moment of quiet prayer for this dear family and their work in Ukraine.

MAY 7 | We got up early and headed to the border. This was an uneventful trip in terms of security issues – but Sasha’s high-speed driving kept us awake and made for a grand adventure! We shared stories on the way back and our hearts were tied together tighter with each – speedy! – kilometer. We arrived at the border by 1:00pm and crossed back into Poland, and headed to the Warsaw airport for our flight home the next day.

 

Chapter 2. WATER FILTER DEPLOYMENT BY YOUNG LIFE UKRAINE

May 11 | Today, in Zaporizhia, Ukraine, the Young Life Ukraine team gave filters to this trio of humanitarians who were distributing food and water in various hard-hit places in Ukraine. Another distribution to soldiers took place; these filters will go to the front, where the hostilities are most intense at this time. Here is a link (in English and Ukrainian) to a multi-use form people can fill out to request from or offer support to Young Life Ukraine.

 

Chapter 3. A GLOBAL AND RICH CONVERSATION ACROSS 4 TIME ZONES

In this 1-hour conversation (see video link below), friends new and old gather across four time zones to discuss how faith, friendship, and family can strengthen and connect us, ’round the world. Find inspiration and hope in this intimate conversation about what is happening in Ukraine today from two dear friends, a most-remarkable mother-son duo, Iryna and Valentyn Utkin.

Learn more about:
1 – What is happening among youth in Ukraine from the perspective of a wise and impassioned 24-year old Ukrainian, Valentyn.
2 – What life is like for the many families who have had to be temporarily split up, due to the war, as has been the case for Iryna Utkin, who has had to flee to the Czech Republic with her daughters.
3 – What gives Iryna and Valentyn HOPE amid these difficult days of war in Ukraine.
4 – Why water is needed in Ukraine so urgently right now – and what we are doing, together, to provide water filters to the people of Ukraine.
5 – How a birthday celebration – Marqui Severson’s 50th birthday extravaganza with her husband – led to the distribution of life-saving water filters in Ukraine 2 weeks ago.

Thank you to Marqui Severson and Danielle Sloneker, who joined the conversation and shared their stories. Watch below or on Facebook.

 

Chapter 4. A GAME-CHANGING – AND EVERYDAY – CELEBRATION

A wonderful, simple, everyday story – a friend’s 50th birthday party! – in which we became connected with this NGO in Ukraine. My friend, Marqui Severson and I have been friends for over 25 years. How I LOVE and am INSPIRED by this soul sister of mine. For many years, we’ve talked and dreamed about how our love of people and the world would bring us together to work on a global project, TOGETHER.

In early April the war in Ukraine had been breaking her heart, and so, in lieu of gifts, she asked her friends and family to donate to an organization close to her heart in Ukraine …  Young Life Ukraine. And, then, she proceeded to dance the night away for she and her husband’s co-birthday backyard disco extravaganza. When I decided to join John’s team to fundraise for and deliver water filters to Ukraine, she suggested that I reach out to Young Life Ukraine to see if they might be in need of filters – or be able to deliver them to Ukrainians in need. (Which, as you know, by this point of our story, that YES – they did!)

Her 50th birthday party – and her BIG HEART – has been a catalyst for so much goodness, including a wonderful – PACKED HOUSE! – gathering of kids and adults last week in San Jose, California.

 

Here’s a glimpse of the story from Marqui’s perspective, exuberant voice, and many exclamation marks (!).

Ohhhhh….we’ve been WAITING for decades to work TOGETHER again since we lived together in Denver!! How. Much. Fun. Did we have FUN bringing these worlds together?!?! Sooo fun!! Bringing the people TOGETHER to make some change happen is what we do!!

This is what brings me the most JOY! Bringing the people together! One of my oldest & dearest friends, Sarah Davison-Tracy, flew into town from Denver for a 24 hour whirlwind visit last week!! Years ago she founded this incredible organization called Seeds of Exchange which connects people and organizations all over the world TOGETHER to help bring change!

Sooo…we invited our Village here in San jose to come hear stories about her recent trip to Warsaw, Poland & crossing the border into Western Ukraine for just a quick 36 hours!!! Sarah teamed up with the founder of Vivoblu Water for All, John Deyoung, to bring 400 water filters to Ukraine!

Sarah met up with these precious new Young Life Ukraine friends & brought 400 water filters & WE CAN HELP BRING MORE!!! Just $65 is the cost for one water filter – supplying 15-20 ppl clean water for 2 years! Please consider giving even $5-$10!! Kids….even YOU can give a little bit of your allowance to help!! It ALL adds up! Imagine if we ALL gave a little!!!

ALL teens need…to be SEEN, HEARD & Understood! These AMAZING YoungLife leaders & staff are UNBELIEVABLE in their commitment to helping over 1,000 refugees so far..find a place to stay & humanitarian aid!! -Marqui Severson

Ahh!! Talk about JOY in the midst of pain in the world … that’s our sistah, Marqui!

 

Well, dear friends – you’ve made it to the end – for now, at least – of the tale of our connection with this remarkable organization, Young Life Ukraine.

May you be filled to the brim with whatever you most need in this moment.

You are loved.
You belong.
We belong to each other.
Let’s standTALL, together, and light up the world!

xo, -Sarah DT