On a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, Maryna Vlasiuk of Manalapan was running slightly late to the Newark International Airport.
She was rushing to join about 15 other people, each dropping off packed bags full of supplies destined for Ukraine. Together, they brought 60 bags, which would then fly with one man to Poland before arriving in the war torn country.
When Vlasiuk arrived at the airport, she got busy marking each of her bags with masking tape and writing her Ukrainian friend’s number on them in case they got lost.
A spreadsheet she shared with a small group had a description of the contents of each bag along with contact information for each person designated to pick them up when they arrived in Poland.
Since March, Vlasiuk and other residents of New Jersey and New York have banded together to coordinate near weekly deliveries of aid to Ukraine.
“We are a team,” Olena Blednova of Harrison said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Ukrainian Americans and others around the globe have been coordinating shipments.
While the war has disrupted traditional supply chains, the informal network created by Ukrainians like Vlasiuk provides a means of sending much-needed supplies, while strengthening connections among the Ukrainian community.
Many are friends, family members or former university classmates still living in Ukraine, Blednov said.
The items sent reflect coming needs as a brutal winter is expected.
Sleeping bags, heating pads, winter clothing, solar battery chargers, flashlights, earmuffs, gloves, and handwarmers were packed along with diapers, toothbrushes, drones, tourniquets and medicine for soldiers and civilians.
“People thought this would be fast,” Blednova’s husband Sergiy Blednov said of the war. “A couple months.”
He said he has seen the initial fundraising peak subside as the disruptiveness of the war has led to global price increases.
But even so, Ukrainian residents have persisted in sustaining fundraising.
A political awakening
On the Wednesday night in late February when the war broke out, Vlasiuk got a call from a friend telling her that the unthinkable had happened.
Vlasiuk, a former elected member of the city council in Irpin, said she was shocked, feeling like she was unable to do anything an ocean away. Irpin, a suburb of the capital city of Kyiv, was invaded and suffered extensive bombings in the first couple months of the war.
When the initial sense of overwhelming fear subsided, Vlasiuk, who has an aptitude for organizing, started a Facebook group called USA Stands with Ukraine, originally called NJ Stands with Ukraine. Their first gathering was near the Eastern European grocery store Netcost in Manalapan, where they planned to organize outside Rep. Chris Smith’s office in Freehold that first Saturday after the full-scale war began.
Vlasiuk said she initially wasn’t interested in politics, but graduating college and witnessing the Orange Revolution in the early 2000s marked a turning point. The bloodless months long protest against a disputed election and corruption, had brought out hundreds of thousands of people.
Her mother had supported the opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who would later win the presidency. Vlasiuk said she remembers people telling her mother that if she continued to support Yushchenko, her younger sister would be kicked out of university.
“And I said, “What?” And after this point I was very interested in politics,” Vlasiuk said. “Because, before this point, it was not interesting for me.”
Vlasiuk later ran for city council on a platform of promoting the middle class and fighting against corruption.
And since the initial Saturday protest outside Smith’s office, Vlasiuk has organized groups of people to protest against the war outside Governor Phil Murphy’s office and has met with other activist groups to stage a lie-in outside the White House in Washington D.C.
In between protest planning, she made pleads for donations online and at in-person fundraisers, hoping to keep the war in the front of people’s minds.
In May, she gathered a group of children to sing at a fundraiser organized by the Lakewood Estonian House and in October, a similar group performed at Freehold’s World Diversity Day.
People from all across New Jersey contacted her asking if she would take certain items. A man even offered warehouse space in Marlboro to store items for shipment.
Help came from Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike. She remembers getting a call from a couple of Georgian men. “They’re not speaking English. They’re not speaking Russian. Just Georgian.”
Vlasiuk, who talks with a self-described poor English, said laughing, “Our conversation was so strange.”
In addition sending items by plane, she worked with a number of shipping companies, most notably MEEST in Port Reading, which townships like Holmdel have used to send donations to Ukraine.
As the initial fundraising peak began to subside, Vlasiuk began organizing charity photoshoots to pay for the supplies being sent.
"If there is something I can do, I will do it.”
On a warm summer day in early September, a group of volunteer photographers and makeup artists welcomed people into a well-lit house in West Windsor. They dressed families, couples or individuals in hand-picked vyshyvanky, or embroidered shirts, and posed them against a black backdrop with studio lights, a white wall with natural light or in nature. Each photo shoot was $300.
Liubov Bilous, a professional portrait photographer, had previously worked with Vlasiuk when Vlasiuk ran a small kid’s theater in Freehold.
“I want to help Ukraine and if there is something I can do, I will do it,” Bilous said. “And photography is what I can do.”
Her family is in Mykolaiv, a city damaged extensively from the fighting.
“They want to stay on their land and help people to win,” Bilous said. “I really worried about them because they are there and Russians, they are bombing actually their city, but I hope for the best.”
Wearing a shirt that reads “Proud to be Ukrainian,” Viktoriia Bobrova became acquainted with Vlasiuk after searching for a way to send items to her district, Poltava Oblast, where she has friends and family fighting in the Ukrainian military.
Being wary of people who take advantage of humanitarian crises, she checked to make sure people were sending supplies. Vlasiuk, who’s Facebook group is populated with photos of items bought and shipped, seemed trustworthy to Bobrova.
She later found a social connection as her mother’s friends knew friends who were acquaintances of Vlasiuk.
Bobrova organized donations from her friends in Atlantic County and sent them to the warehouse in Marlboro, which were then driven to Port Reading or Newark and later shipped to Poland and brought into Ukraine.
“It’s not a nice occasion,” Bobrova said. But “it’s kind of united a lot of Ukrainians I’ve never met before.”
The unity of Ukrainians both within Ukraine and in its diaspora was never something distinctly felt.
Tatyana Krasilshchikov, who designed the floral wreaths for the photoshoot, said, “I never saw so many Ukrainians before the war. … We didn’t even ask. … If you speak Russian than that was enough.”
When the war began, she found herself glued to the news, crying. A hair and makeup artist by trade, she wanted to make something beautiful and began crafting the traditional floral wreaths.
“I’m very happy that Ukrainian people decided to be that close to each other right now. I never thought Ukrainians are like that,” she said. Before “every person would care for (himself). Right now, everyone cares for each other.”
Saint Nicholas Day Fundraiser
With Russian attacks hammering basic infrastructure as winter sets in, Vlasiuk is planning another donation drive for Saint Nicholas Day, celebrated on Dec. 19 in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. She is looking for necessities like pain killers, vitamins, handwarmers, warm clothes and socks and luxuries like candy, toys and costumes for kids.
“This is our family. (Ukraine) is the place where we want to bring (our) kids.” Bobrova said, “As long as it’s going to become safe again, … we’ll do our best to make it safe.”
Olivia Liu is a reporter covering transportation, Red Bank and western Monmouth County. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: Manalapan woman keeps fundraising to aid Ukraine in war with Russia