JACKSON — Bill Hayes returned last week to Jackson with a light case of COVID-19 and a suitcase full of stories of resilience from his volunteer mission to Poland and Ukraine.
Like many other Americans, his first introduction to Russia’s invasion was on the news. The war had been raging for about a week. Refugees were streaming over the border.
Hayes, a retired energy consultant, thought to himself: “I can’t just sit here and watch this. I’m going to go lend a hand in some way.”
It took about a month to wrangle the logistics, but soon he was on a plane to Krakow, Poland, alongside his son Rob and an old friend from high school, also recently retired. Sarah Kraemer, a friend and travel agent, helped waive bag fees so they could fly with additional supplies.
Having met with Polish citizens over Zoom, the unlikely trio had a welcoming community when they landed. One humanitarian worker led them immediately to the railway station, where 100 Ukrainian refugees — mostly mothers and children — were picking up food. Other volunteers told Hayes they needed more fruit, meat and cheese, so his team went grocery shopping.
“That was our introduction to the system, so to speak,” Hayes told the News&Guide after returning to the U.S. “Then the next day we got in our van and drove to the border and went to a refugee center in Przemysl. I just went in and asked them what they needed, and they had a list of supplies.”
The team took a scrappy approach — partnering with a single bilingual volunteer who could translate and exhausting funds from their own online fundraiser — rather than working under an established nonprofit. Hayes said he sees benefits to both ways, but in this case working independently allowed them to work quickly.
While negotiating the Polish-Ukrainian border, Hayes befriended Jackson resident David Craig, who has been volunteering there since mid-March. Together the men packed essential supplies into sprinter vans, which can navigate Ukraine’s torn up streets better than larger trucks. Craig personally delivered one van load to its destination in Bucha.
In one center hosting about 1,500 Ukrainian refugees, Hayes volunteered alongside a Polish fireman who worked six days at the shelter and five nights at the firehouse.
“The dedication, the energy and the resilience of these volunteers was unbelievable,” he said.
Hayes plans to return to Poland for a second mission at the end of May.
Fellow Jackson resident Karen Hogan is packing her bags for Poland too. A dancer who blends movement with early childhood education, Hogan is hoping her skills will serve Ukrainian refugees in a unique way.
“I don’t want to come off as naive thinking that the kids are going to want to dance,” she said. “But if I could bring them a spark of joy, that’s the goal.”
To that end, Hogan has a suitcase full of props — scarves, rhythmic instruments, balance beams — which help beckon children from their shells.
Unlike Hayes, she decided to work under with an established organization in Poland at the recommendation of a friend in the United Nations. She will join Global Volunteers in Siedlce, Poland, in about a month. And while Hogan doesn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian she hopes the universal language of dance will help transcend barriers.
“Children’s first language is movement,” she said. “You don’t need Google Translate, they just go.”
Hogan had a similar experience as Hayes, watching the war unfold on TV with mounting shock and outrage.
“I couldn’t get over my grief,” Hogan said.
But then, one day, she did. Just like the Pink Floyd anthem “Comfortably Numb,” Hogan realized she had built up a tolerance to the atrocities overseas.
“And that freaked me out,” she said, asking herself how her compassion evaporated.
That night she talked with her husband, Jeff, who encouraged her to funnel her frustrations into action. He would stay behind to watch their 15-year-old son, Finn.
Hogan lacks any personal attachment to Ukraine, but as a mother she empathized with families in need of child care at the border. Through the American nonprofit NotMeButWe, which is operating emergency day care camps in Poland, Hogan hopes to reach mothers who need a few hours respite.
And if the movement classes take shape the way she envisions, there will be benefits for the children too: “Moments of joy where they can forget the chaos, get out of their mind, and play.”