A pillow was donated to a man who slept in a church after his home was destroyed during the war in Ukraine – a simple gesture, but emblematic of the efforts of locals to help those in need in a country that few have visited.
“He had nowhere to go,” said Paul Pierquet of this rescuer.
This scene has been repeated again and again as supplies collected under the Wisco-Ukraine project organized by Pierquet and his wife Christine this summer have reached their destination in recent weeks.
“It is, for me, moving,” Pierquet said of watching videos and seeing photos of the items being given out.
He feels a sense of joy seeing the faces of those receiving much-needed help, he said, but he also feels sadness.
That’s because he and his wife, who are family life pastors at Portview Church in the city of Port Washington, lived in Ukraine for 16 years before returning to the United States last fall, just a few months before Russia invaded Ukraine.
“It’s just weird to see so many things being bombed,” Pierquet said. “It’s a bit shocking.”
The Wisco-Ukraine project sent approximately 24,000 pounds of food and supplies, enough to fill a shipping container, to Ukraine in July.
There was a bit of a delay for the container to arrive at the port of Gdayna, Poland, Pierquet said, as many shipping containers were arriving bound for Ukraine.
By the end of August their shipping container was in port and by mid-September it was being unloaded. The items were then trucked to Ukraine – a long journey made even longer by the lines of trucks heading into the country.
“Our truck driver basically had to sleep in his truck for 36 hours ‘as he navigated the lines,'” Pierquet said.
The truck traveled to Cherkassy in central Ukraine, where Pastor Benjamin Kovalenko, a friend of the Pierquets, had prepared a storage facility.
After a few days of organizing and cataloging the items, they were separated and individual food and hygiene bags were created for distribution.
Most are given to internally displaced people, people whose homes have been destroyed by war.
More than 12 million Ukrainians are either refugees or internally displaced, Pierquet said.
“It’s a crazy number when you think about it,” he said, noting that the number is higher than the number of refugees and displaced people during World War II.
Traveling all over Ukraine to distribute aid is not easy, Pierquet noted. Previously, it took four hours to travel from Cherkasy to Kyiv, but now it takes 10-12 hours.
And it’s a war zone, so traveling is dangerous.
The first major distribution of relief items, two pallets each of hygiene bags and Manna Rice, a protein-enriched rice meal that contains all the nutrients needed in a day, went to Smila in southern Ukraine, near Odessa, said Pierquet.
Other trucks headed to Kyiv, where there is a church founded by the Pierquets, and to areas in northern Ukraine, such as Kolentsi, to be distributed by Pastor Maksim and Timothy, two other family friends. .
“All the houses there were practically demolished,” Pierquet said, noting that this area was in the path of the initial Russian invasion.
Pierquet said he was very nervous when he learned that Pastor Benjamin was taking several vans full of supplies to Izyum, in the Khakiv region of eastern Ukraine, an area that Russia took over but which Ukraine has since recovered.
It is an area without electricity, an area where a mass grave with 436 bodies was discovered.
“I was very nervous about it,” he said. “When he told me he was leaving for Izyum, I started to pray. They went in and out as quickly as possible.
“But the need was probably the greatest there. It’s all gone.
The efforts of those distributing aid in Ukraine cannot be underestimated, said Pierquet.
“I’m grateful for people like Benjamin, who were able to leave,” he said, noting that the pastor’s wife and four sons are in Poland. “He can leave, but he said, ‘It’s my time. For him to sacrifice his life like that is frightening.
It will take time to distribute all that has been donated, said Pierquet.
“You can only do it one truck at a time,” he said.
Pierquet said he also felt a sense of gratitude for the many people who helped with the relief effort.
“We had so many people who participated in so many different ways,” he said, students from Marquette University School of Dentistry who donated toothbrushes and toothpaste to people who dropped off diapers and canned goods.
“I was a bit skeptical about our ability to fulfill it,” admitted Pierquet. “It’s very humiliating. I am very happy with the overwhelming response.
He recalls the days when “six or seven wagonloads of people we had never met would arrive (at Portview Church) and blow up their trunks, which were laden with donations”.
He noted that they expected to get a bigger corporate response to the collection, but mused, “Maybe it was never meant to be about the corporate side.”
Although the relief effort is much needed, Pierquet said he and his wife realize it won’t solve everything.
“We realize that in the long run it’s just a drip in a bucket, but it’s something we could do,” he said. “If everyone sees a need and gets on with it, that’s how the Kingdom works.”