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A look at three North Carolinians who volunteer in, around Ukraine

ukraine-volunteers

The sun sets over the neighborhood in which Dave Jernigan stayed in during his time in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Dave Jernigan. 

Content warning: This article contains mentions of violence.

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“In movies, 'hero' is such an overused word, and I don't really feel like I understood heroism until I experienced some time on the ground in Ukraine."

That is what Dave Jernigan said after spending a month in Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, working as a volunteer. He said everyone he met had an "unbelievable heroism" about them.

Jernigan, a Hillsborough resident, volunteered from late May 2022 through June 2022 to aid the country amidst the Russian invasion.

As the country's seventh largest city, Lviv has taken in around 250,000 registered displaced people and an estimated 150,000 unregistered displaced individuals since the invasion began over a year ago.

During his time as a volunteer, Jernigan said he saw the trauma of multiple generations of refugees.

“Lviv — it's a really beautiful place,” Jernigan said. “It’s a very vibrant city, but everywhere you look you see trauma.”

In one of his volunteer roles, Jernigan said he helped convert a network of Soviet-era tunnels under hospitals into air raid shelters so patients and doctors could evacuate — sometimes mid-surgery — if imminent danger were to arise.

Jernigan said his group of volunteers would often sit in the hospital courtyard and feed pigeons stale bread. He recounted one such day when a small child wrapped in bandages shrieked with joy upon seeing the many birds.

Jernigan soon realized that the child was missing most of their fingers on one hand and suffered severe burns. 

“I can't think of a day that has passed since I've been home where I don't see that child — and the parent in me just broke,” Jernigan said. “I see this horribly-disfigured child, but yet I also saw the beauty of this child who just was overjoyed to see all of these pigeons.”

Jernigan said he was moved by the spirit and resilience of the Ukrainian people.

Jonathan Mills, a Chapel Hill native who previously lived in Poland, has also been working to support Ukraine since the Russian invasion. 

He has worked as a full-time volunteer in Warsaw, Poland, since March 5, 2022 to bring trauma-informed early childhood care to refugees. 

Since the war in Ukraine began, more than 10 million Ukrainians have crossed the border into Poland. A large portion of those individuals are women and children because men between 18 and 60 are unable to leave Ukraine, Mills said. 

Mills said these mothers need to work to afford housing, which they cannot do unless they have a safe place for their children. Alongside his group of volunteers, Mills has created nurseries to provide quality early childhood education and care, specifically for Ukrainian children.

“It's very hard, but at the same time, then you see kids being happy and playing and that's what kids are supposed to be doing and that gives you hope,” Mills said. “Kids should play. That’s what kids should do.”

Currently, Mills and his volunteer team has opened 67 center programs across Poland and have just received funding to open 21 additional locations. Mills said the group hopes to have 100 open by the beginning of May.

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Mills said the team has trained about 270 teachers to work in the centers. He added that there are currently 15 psychologists on staff and 28 other individuals that deal with programming and educational content, real estate and team development fundraisers among other things. 

“It's humbling to have so many people doing great work,” Mills said. “It's just a lot of people with big hearts working very hard.”

Isabella Romine, a first-year student at Wake Forest University, also volunteered to help the Ukrainian war effort.

She was studying Russian in Chișinău, Moldova when the invasion of Ukraine first began and felt compelled to help.

Romine said during her six weeks as a volunteer, she was one of the few volunteers who could speak Russian, so she helped lead refugees around the center and showed them the resources they had to offer.

“I had the skill of Russian that I could use with these people who were going through one of the most difficult times of their lives, and I just felt compelled to do that,” Romine said.

Romine said volunteering was not only a physically exhausting endeavor — as she moved boxes and pallets of shipments — but also took an emotional toll.

“Then, on the other hand, there's — there was an emotional aspect where these people are going through, like, the worst moment of their lives and you're a witness to that,” Romine said.

Romine said one of the most important parts of her job was simply having conversations with people.

“Everyone is still a person regardless of what they're going through, and just talking to someone and, you know, letting them say what they have to say and being there and listening," Romine said. “It's very important too, regardless of what someone is going through.”

@mkpolicastro

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