In January 2023, almost a year after the first shelling of Ukraine began, my neighbor, Stan Paulic, invited me to join him in Poland to volunteer with All Hands and Hearts (AHAH). After doing my due diligence, which included both researching AHAH and my heart, I decided to apply to the program, to feel that I was doing something to make a difference in this senseless war.

Margie James

Stan Paulic

AHAH is a non-profit organization that is addresses the immediate and long-term needs of global communities impacted by disasters. AHAH arrives early for first response and stays late to support communities in ways most needed. What makes their Ukraine Crisis Relief Project different is that this is the first time AHAH is responding to a disaster associated with war.

AHAH’s Ukraine Relief Project started in March 2022 in the town of Przemysl, Poland, located about five miles from the western border of Ukraine. After temporary housing projects were completed in Przemysl, the base relocated to Krakow, Poland, in March 2023. There the greatest need was supporting Ukrainian refugees to transition and integrate into life in Krakow, where opportunities for work and housing were greater.

On March 26, 2023, I flew from Eugene, Oregon, to Warsaw, Poland. This was my first international travel on my own. The Polish language is very challenging and English is not a common second language, especially in smaller towns and amongst the elder population. However, I found the people very helpful. We usually were able to figure out where I needed to go, aided by Google Translate and Google Maps.

With Stan and a few others from the US, I traveled to All Hands and Hearts’ Polish base camp in Krzecin, a farming village and bedroom community about 12 miles SW of Krakow.

Volunteers commit to serving for a week at minimum but can stay as long as desired. We spent four weeks volunteering with All Hands and Hearts on their Ukraine Crisis Relief Project, living communally in a three-bedroom, two-bath house in Krezcin.

The volunteer residence in Krezcin

While we were with the project, there were 20-plus volunteers and staff living on site. Volunteers and staff came from around the world and were of all ages. We shared a desire to do something useful for people who had to flee their homes because of war and a need to get a better sense of the reality of that war.

All Hands and Hearts currently has five sites in Krakow where projects are happening. Volunteers choose the projects they want to work on each evening. This allows both the opportunity to experience a variety of projects and to feel connected to a project. We worked 5-1/2 days a week, traveling into Krakow by van or by train. Given our mission of supporting organizations that are supporting Ukrainian refugees, our tasks were varied.

My first day of work was in a warehouse operated by International Bund (IB), a German relief organization. I sorted boxes of clothing by gender and size. The clothing was then made available to the refugees through IB’s storefront.

Another day I spent cleaning the kitchen and offices at Dobro Zawsze Wraca, an organization started by two Polish and Ukrainian women. Dobro is a distribution site for food, clothing, and special need items. AHAH also helped prepare some rooms at their site to serve as a school for Ukrainian children.

I spent more days working on several construction renovation projects, where I learned how to use hand tools. Imagine building when there are no square corners or straight walls, mortar has grass in it, bricks are crumbling away, cement floors are pocked and uneven, and materials are mismatched, yet they still need to fit together!

One such project was creating a kitchen for Soup for Ukraine. This group has been making soup for refugees since Feb 25, 2022, the day the war started. They had recently moved to a new site that did not have a kitchen; now they do! We also helped repackage food for refugees.

Soup kitchen before

Soup kitchen after

Our largest task was renovating an old warehouse operated by Mission of Grace that will store supplies vital for the local Ukrainian community. We added structural support, metal tracks for drywall, and rebuilt brickwork to securely support the door. They have now completed all electrical, drywall, and painting; it takes a village of volunteers!

Mission of Grace before

Mission of Grace after considerable progress

I felt the closest to the Ukrainian people while loading vans with supplies for the front lines of the war. These vans carry critical materials to people who have remained in Ukraine as well as special hospitals there. This effort is coordinated by Friends of Ukraine, an organization started by several Polish and Ukrainian women. Many of the non-AHAH volunteers were young Ukrainian refugees; the van drivers were from several different European countries. We packed baby supplies, food, special request items (a set of tires) – anything we Americans take for granted!

People helping Ukrainian people were present all around us. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity I had volunteering with All Hands and Hearts in Poland. I learned so much. The highlight was being around the Poles and Ukrainians who jumped to help without any questions when needed. It was an honor to support them.

Margie James
Central Presbyterian Church, Eugene, Oregon