By Etelka Lehoczky
On 26 January in Odesa, Mykola Stebljanko spent the day under attack. A barrage of missiles killed 11 people and destroyed critical infrastructure around Ukraine, including in the city where Stebljanko lives.
Despite not having working electricity, Stebljanko – who publishes Rotariets, Rotary’s Ukrainian magazine – was determined to report on the situation and Rotary’s response to it. He was able to make a cell phone call to describe an experience he’s had several times during the past year of war.
"Sometimes we have time to go into the shelter, but sometimes there is no time — we're just sitting in our apartment and waiting for the end," he says. "Most of the targets are military or infrastructure objects. Not the buildings for civilians. But sometimes the missiles go to civilian buildings. We just decided, if it will be our building, that will be our destiny."
Even under fire, Stebljanko, a member of the Rotary E-Club of Ukraine, wanted to let members around the world know how important their efforts were. In an interview, he spoke about how members established humanitarian hubs along the Ukrainian border to receive supplies and distribute them throughout the county.
In the city of Kharkiv, he noted, Rotary members who own a shopping center donated space to store supplies.
"They provided a whole underground level for the humanitarian hub," Stebljanko says. "They provide aid each day to thousands of people. In the frontline cities, the Rotarians are real heroes. Despite their very complicated life, they try to continue to serve as Rotarians."
Members inside Ukraine have had supplies to distribute partly because of the global network of Rotary members who have used disaster response grants to provide them. They have sent generators, medical supplies, emergency equipment, modular housing, and other provisions, as well as providing support for refugees.
The Rotary Foundation has awarded more than 300 disaster response grants, totaling nearly US$15 million, to help people affected by the war. More than 270 districts have sponsored grants. That's more than half of all districts.
Some governors credit their involvement to Diana Nestorova, of the Rotary Club of Acton-Boxborough, Massachusetts, USA. She led an online workshop about disaster response grants for more than 500 people in September.
"I took it upon myself to go back to everybody I knew around the world and explain: 'What is a disaster response grant? How can you apply for it? Why apply for it?'" she says. "I saw that what [I] could do was to educate."
Districts in more than 50 countries have used these grants to help. Beyond the nearby countries in Europe, the districts are in Australia, Bolivia, Colombia, India, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, South Africa, Taiwan, and the U.S, among others. Here are some of their diverse projects.
A van is packed with medical supplies in Munich, Germany, to be transported to a humanitarian relief hub in Ukraine. Photo by: Oliver Pannke
Members of District 9350 were inspired after Ukrainian ambassador Liubov Abravitova spoke to the Rotary Club of Waterfront, South Africa. "Everyone said, 'What can we do?'" recalls Governor Tracey Wilson. "She said, 'You can pray or you can assist, and we'd like both.'"
Still, it was difficult for Wilson and other members in her district to decide how to help. Then they learned about the extraordinary efforts of members in District 1842 in Germany and decided to work with them. Rotary and Rotaract clubs there have created a streamlined system to deliver medical supplies. A team of 15 people communicates regularly with Rotary clubs, hospitals, and charity organizations in Ukraine about what's needed. Then they purchase supplies in bulk, which saves money, and send them where they'll be most useful.
"It's mainly emergency medicine – as you would expect from a war situation – a lot of tourniquets, dressing material," says Oliver Pannke, a member of the Rotary Club of München-Bavaria, Germany, who works full time directing the effort. When members realized how damaged the health infrastructure was, they began providing a wider range of supplies.
"We started to also send medications for blood pressure, insulin, stuff like that," Pannke says. "Right now, we have about 150 different medications in stock here in Munich." The team has also procured and delivered equipment used to scan for shrapnel.
Districts in Australia, Japan, and the U.S. have also used their grants to support this work.
In early 2022, Russian forces destroyed nearly 85% of the buildings in Moshchun, about 33 kilometers (20 miles) from the capital, Kyiv. Rotary districts around the world have donated more than 60 prefabricated homes to Moshchun and other Ukrainian communities. The houses are just 6 meters by 7 meters (20 feet by 23 feet), which is small enough to be hoisted into place by crane. They have refrigerators, beds, and bathrooms with toilets and showers. They're also fully insulated and have electric heating panels.
This kind of donation was new for District 3462 in Taiwan, whose other ongoing projects involve installing water infrastructure, addressing basic educational needs, and protecting the environment. But Governor Stanley Shih-Yu Yang says he was moved to action.
"I received the assistance request from Ukraine Rotarians, and as a Rotarian, I felt the need to help in the first moment," he says. "As I told the decision to Rotarians in my district, they all supported the righteous action."
They provide aid each day to thousands of people. In the frontline cities, the Rotarians are real heroes.
Rotary Club of E-Club of Ukraine
Ambulances and generators
Several districts in India and the U.S. cooperated on two projects that sent ambulances and generators to hospitals in Ukraine. Rotary members in Florida worked with three districts in India to send ambulances stocked with supplies such as ventilation equipment, catheters, bandages, and burn dressings.
The Florida members also collaborated with districts in Karnataka, India, and in the U.S. states of Michigan and Wisconsin to deliver refurbished generators to four Ukrainian hospitals.
"The human suffering should be minimized," says Sanjay Deshpande, Foundation chair of the Rotary Club of Lake Nona, Florida, USA. "That was our driving force."
Donations for refugees
When Ukrainian refugees arrived in Sydney, Australia, with few possessions, districts in the area took action.
"So many were suffering, not only the trauma of the war, but the anxiety of being separated from families and the worry of what the future will hold," says Wilhelmina Howard, governor of District 9685.
Tina Latham, international service chair of the Rotary Club of Kincumber, New South Wales, says the decision to donate supplies emerged from a different kind of project.
"Our Days for Girls sewing group were making Ukrainian star quilt panels to be put together into quilts to donate to displaced Ukrainian families," she says. "Later, we learned families arrived in Australia with one suitcase and the clothes on their backs."
Collaborating with public schools, neighborhood groups, and the Priceline pharmacy chain, the districts provided essential items to 136 families in the Sydney area. Families with adults over 50 or children got vouchers worth AU$300 (about US$210) for clothes, food, cookware, school supplies, and medication.
The Rotary effect
Districts around the world have used disaster response grants to support people in Ukraine and those who have fled. As Rotary's global effort goes on, people in Ukraine have noticed – even under fire.
"During this war, we already established approximately 10 new Rotary clubs," Stebljanko says. "Just imagine, we have missile attacks, but we continue to grow our Rotary community."