, , ,

On the anniversary of the Russian invasion into Ukraine, Wisconsin-Ukrainians continue to help their country

UMANA Illinois and Wisconsin chapter has sent nearly 400 tons of medical supplies to Ukraine

Valentyn Potapenko (right) stands with others holding an American flag and a Ukraine flag
Valentyn Potapenko (right) is a Ukranian-American who has helped organize relief efforts since the start of the Russian invasion into Ukraine. Photo courtesy Valentyn Potapenko

After putting his son to bed, Valentyn Potapenko flipped on the TV to find what moments before was a typical day had now turned into a nightmare. It was Feb. 24, 2022, and from his home in Wauwatosa, he watched as Russia launched a war by bombing his hometown in Ukraine.

He almost couldn’t comprehend what he was seeing.

“Right away, I didn’t believe that it was happening,” Potapenko said.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

In the days after Russia invaded his home country, Potapenko, who moved to America in 1995, said he felt hopeless. He had many family members and friends who were still living in Ukraine.

But he and his wife decided to take action, starting a website to collect donations for his people. After collecting nearly $50,000 in a few days, the couple then partnered with Wisconsin Ukrainians, which has collected over $500,000 in donations in the last year.

“People here in the United States jumped on board and helped in any way possible,” he said.

Christiana Trapani, a second generation Ukrainian-American, has a similar story. She owns Door County Candle Co., and has raised over $800,000 to support humanitarian efforts by selling the popular Ukraine candle.

A woman wearing a yellow sweatshirt with a sunflower on it speaks with a customer
Christiana Gorchynsky Trapani, owner of Door County Candle Company, wears a sweatshirt showing a sunflower, a national symbol of Ukraine. Photo courtesy of PBS Wisconsin 

“Last year when the war broke out, I did not think a year later it would still be going on,” she said.

But she’s encouraged by the generosity of so many.

“A positive that has come from this is the support from people in Wisconsin, Door County, near and far, but also across the country, with their support and their love and their want to help,” she said.

That support is impacting people like Oleh Izbenko. Izbenko lived in Kyiv with his family, but they fled closer to the Poland border after the invasion. He moved his two children and wife to Sturgeon Bay about three months ago. They’ve been living there ever since, starting a new life in America.

“I see and I hear the support of American people every day,” Izbenko said. “I met a lot of people here who support Ukrainian people.”

Since living in Door County, he’s had the chance to meet Trapani and hear her story, as well.

“It’s a lot of money,” he said about those donations. “These candles were bought by regular Americans, so they spent their own money to help and support people in Ukraine, and we are very appreciative.”

He’s still not sure when or if he’ll be able to move home. But when he looks back on Feb. 24, 2022, he said he believes there’s reason to be hopeful for the future.

“This is the way of Ukrainian people, and we’ll be fine in the future because Ukrainian people (are) so strong, so powerful, and they are not alone,” Izbenko said.

According to NPR, analysts estimate about 200,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the war so far. By comparison, Ukraine has seen some 100,000 killed or wounded in action and 30,000 civilian deaths. Neither Russian leader Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have shown any signs of backing down.

Volunteers with UMANA Illinois Chapter in Wisconsin work at a Germantown warehouse to pack medical aid supplies
Volunteers with UMANA Illinois Chapter in Wisconsin work at a Germantown warehouse to pack medical aid supplies. Photo courtesy UMANA Illinois Chapter in Wisconsin

From Germantown to Ukraine

Shortly before the invasion began last year, Nataliya Uboha, who is Ukrainian, along with her husband Doug Davis, evacuated her family from Lviv, Ukraine.

Uboha is an academic oncologist at the University of Wisconsin Carbone Cancer Center and Davis is a radiologist in Madison. Davis recalled that time of evacuation as “terrifying.”

“Those first few weeks were somewhat terrifying, because there was a very real sense that the entire country could fall,” Davis said.

The couple wanted to do what they could to help. They mobilized their health care contacts to collect resources for the medical aid effort in Ukraine. They quickly linked up with the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America.

“From the very outset, our goal was to do whatever we could to provide assistance and given that we’re all physicians, the health care space was the place we felt we could be most useful,” Davis said.

Doug Davis (right) receives a shipment of crutches and walkers from Valentyn Potapenko. 

For the past few months, Davis, in partnership with the Rotary Club of Milwaukee, has been in charge of a 40,000-square-foot medical supply distribution operation in Germantown.

Davis, along with several volunteers, collects the medical supplies, sorts them, packs them, and ships them off to Ukraine, as part of the UMANA Illinois chapter of Wisconsin.

In partnership with the UMANA Illinois chapter, they’ve sent between 350 and 400 tons of medical supplies. Davis has even personally gone to Ukraine help with distribution.

“It’s been a combination of both generosity and just incredible volunteer efforts,” he said.

Davis has set aside his clinical practice since the invasion began to focus on this work.

“This work, to my mind, is probably the most important work that I’ve been doing, in terms of the impact and the scale of what the humanitarian need is,” he said.

Valentyn Potapenko stands with a group of others, some dressed in camouflaged jackets and holding guns
Valentyn Potapenko is helping to organize relief that is benefiting military forces in Ukraine. Photo courtesy Valentyn Potapenko

‘Rebuilding the country’

Potapenko of Wauwatosa said donations have dropped off as the conflict goes on, but he is receiving help in different ways.

“The generosity and the donations have been overwhelming,” he said.

Recently, a Wauwatosa Girl Scout came to his home to drop off winter kids clothes, toiletries, boots, hats, gloves and more. Someone else recently donated a pick-up truck full of walkers, crutches and wheelchairs. Potapenko delivered those items to the UMANA Illinois chapter of Wisconsin.

“It all just kind of happens and I think for us, it’s just knowing the right people and right organizations to work with,” Potapenko said.

Several blue and yellow candles are arranged as part of a fundraiser
The Ukraine candles the Door County Candle Company made for its fundraiser are blue and yellow and can burn for about 72 hours, the company’s owner said. Photo courtesy of PBS Wisconsin

Trapani of Door County said many people tell her the candle offers them a sense of peace and hope. On Thursday, Trapani said a woman contacted her as a candle was sent to her without a gift note. Trapani found out she was sent the candle by a close family friend of the woman who was fighting in Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians with their big hearts, and their will and their want to fight, they’re just incredible,” she said.

Her new goal is to raise $1 million in donations through the candle sales.

“Once Ukraine wins the war, we’re still going to have to help with rebuilding the country,” she said.