Sevastopol humanitarian finds its niche serving the autism community in Ukraine

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Sheldon Rosenberg is now at home tending to his family’s Sebastopol ranch.

But he expects to return to Poland at any time and to border towns where he knows he can be of more urgent use.

He spent nearly two weeks there in April, setting up supply chains for much-needed goods for families with autistic children in Ukraine. The experience has established him as a well-connected trustworthy man for the necessary logistical work in the field.

When he returns to Poland, it will be for the third time – his second representing the non-profit organization Global Autism Project. He returned from his first trip in late April and left less than 48 hours later to scout service sites for the Brooklyn-based association his efforts are now focused on.

“You don’t have to change the world,” Rosenberg said Friday. “You just have to change the situation in front of you.”

The 48-year-old father of two was looking for a niche to fill in the days and weeks following Russia’s February 25 invasion of Ukraine.

He found it by scouring social media, exploring who was doing what locally to help those fleeing the ravages and disruptions of war in a world of uncertainty.

By connecting online with individuals and groups, he realized that there was a deep and unmet need among those for whom the noise and chaos of war is particularly debilitating, so much so that many cannot leave the war zone and, if they do, they are in no less need of special assistance.

So he went looking for ways to get gluten-free and lactose-free bulk food items, sensory toys and other acquired special needs, then funneled across the border to already identified Ukrainian families.

Every survey, meeting or conversation revealed a need or an opportunity for engagement that created another link in a chain of support for those in need.

He says it’s not just about connecting the dots, but putting the dots on paper.

“I kind of joke that contacts are commonplace, and right now I feel rich,” Rosenberg said Friday. “I have a lot of contacts and I bring people together.”

A veteran of crisis zones, Rosenberg has repeatedly served refugees on the ground since more than a million people fled to Europe during the Syrian war in 2015. Many of them landed in Greece, where Rosenberg made several trips to help in refugee camps. He has also worked in Bangladesh to facilitate the transition of Rohingya fleeing genocide in Myanmar, provided assistance to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston, and traveled to the Mexican border to work with prospective immigrants there. .

The Schoolbox Project, a locally founded nonprofit organization that provides mobile, trauma-informed programs for children displaced by crisis or conflict, grew out of the Syrian crisis and the time several members spent in Greece. Rosenberg is the logistics coordinator for the organization and continues to apply lessons learned.

But much of the progress, he said, has come from person-to-person contact and people just trying to do what they can to help.

There are, for example, the Russian “kids” – young adults, in fact – that he heard about and finally met in a town near the border on his first trip. They have long since renounced their homeland and are stationed in a house in Medyka from where they transport all kinds of material support to Ukraine, Rosenberg said.

Calling themselves “Russians for Ukraine,” they are also now a staging area for materials that supporters of Rosenberg’s networked groups might provide.

There was a Ukrainian woman who, back home, ran an autism center for 60 children and borrowed therapy space for a few hours a day to serve displaced families in Poland.

Rosenberg met her, connected her with Global Autism Project founder Molly Ola Pinney, and now they hope to set her up in a larger center with other staff to help local and displaced children. in need.

Another person, an Englishman whom Rosenberg met through a contact in Texas who first put him to work on behalf of families living with autism spectrum disorder, is a Polish grain exporter. When Rosenberg was trying to find unused public buildings that could serve as short-term residential or educational service spaces for members of the autism community, he enlisted the help of the man, who eventually found him. leads to several possibilities.

One, a vacant structure in the town of Sedziszow, located along many rail routes, could be used to provide a “soft landing” for families who need a quiet place to access services and plan future steps after their flight from Ukraine.

Another, found since leaving, is a three-storey school in Warsaw that needs renovation before it can be occupied by children.

But most contract workers in the region are usually Ukrainian men – who have returned to Ukraine since the start of the war. Rosenberg, a builder at home, is due to return to Poland to help rehabilitate buildings for the Global Autism Project.

The organization is also looking for a resource center for families who need help accessing limited resources.

“The big message is that there are Ukrainian teachers and therapists here who need work,” Pinney said Friday from Krakow, “and there are families who need services, and what’s stopping them from provide these services is that they don’t have the space and they don’t have the equipment.

Many of the children who would be served lived in bomb shelters and traveled through hellish landscapes.

“We want to provide space and materials so that services can restart here as quickly as possible, and that’s important because for these children, every minute counts,” she said.

Anyone wishing to contribute to Rosenberg’s efforts can do so at bit.ly/3MqSMAY.

You can reach editor Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.


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