From the moment Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24, I knew I couldn’t just sit and watch the war unfold in my beloved home country where my family still lived.
Thanks to the support of our Toledo community, in May I was able to deliver much-needed supplies to military bases, hospitals, survivors in Ukraine and refugees in Poland and Hungary — including my mother, stepfather, brother and sister.
My name is Alona Matchenko and I am a third-year law student at The University of Toledo and co-founder of Toledo Helps Ukraine, the nonprofit spearheaded in northwest Ohio in response to the crime against humanity, democracy and freedom in Eastern Europe.
I spent about three weeks this spring in Ukraine and the surrounding countries with my husband, Jesse Smith, and our four-year-old daughter, Jasmine, joining me on the last week of the journey.
That amounts to 23 days, as the war with Russia waged on and reached new lows. But luckily, we accomplished many good things during this time and learned about bravery and resilience.
I met a family on my first day who was forced to shelter with Russian soldiers and share food and water with them for more than two weeks. I also met so many injured soldiers. Their stories are harrowing.
Ukraine is blessed with so many courageous heroes that it is no surprise to me that our small country has been holding off one of the world’s superpowers all on its own. Ukrainians are strong, and we are showing this fact to the world each day.
Much of our aid — made possible by donations to Toledo Helps Ukraine — went to refugee families whose husbands, fathers or adult males were drafted and sent to the frontlines of the conflict.
Getting into Ukraine and staying safe while there was the hardest part for us.
Our group was forced to drag all of the heavy suitcases filled to the brim with supplies by foot through the border and between the hundreds of cars lining up bumper-to-bumper at every exit.
For the supplies going into Ukraine, we filled three delivery vans full of essential aid to send to my native city, Kremenchuk, in the Poltava region of central Ukraine.
The nights in Ukraine were quite terrifying. The city sirens blared. Some of the hotels I stayed at went into lockdown and barred off the doors with heavy gates, which I had to climb to get past in order to reach a bomb shelter.
Thankfully, Jesse, as an American citizen with a passport, was allowed to enter and leave Ukraine freely. A Ukrainian man, for example, would not be permitted to leave the country again because all able-bodied men are required to stay and defend the country.
The donations Toledo Helps Ukraine sponsored included a wide variety of goods such as personal hygiene products, an assortment of canned food, salts, sugar, flour, sunflower oil, pasta, buckwheat, rice, all types of meat, a lot of bread and even some comfort foods like cookies and tea.
Foods like these are critical at this time because Russia is seizing not only Ukraine’s food supply but also its considerable food resources. Hopefully, our supplies can help the citizens obtain food, even with the war jeopardizing so many of their crops and farms.
And as part of these supplies, we had to assist in securing and transporting diesel, not only for the delivery trucks but for future Ukrainian use.
We also provided housing for two brothers who were about to exceed their free stay at a Ukrainian hotel and had no place to live for the remainder of the war.
It is so rewarding to be making a real difference in the lives of Ukrainians like these brothers, and I hope we can help others in their situation.
We accomplished so much in those three weeks and helped many people.
But nothing gave me more relief than reuniting with my own family. They escaped to Poland the day after our rally on the UToledo campus March 3. All of them helped us load and transport aid. My mother and stepfather still have not been able to find work yet, so Jesse and I support them financially with our own income.
None of this would have been possible without the support of our UToledo campus community and Toledo region.
Thank you so much for assisting Toledo Helps Ukraine in its mission to provide aid to Ukraine, and we hope you will stay with us on our journey. The war seems far from over, and so much of Ukraine needs to be rebuilt. With the courage, generosity and goodwill of people like you, we believe a brighter future will be coming to Ukraine.