New York Nonprofit Brings Humanitarian Aid to Ukraine
Two New York teachers moved to action in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
On a hot June day last year near the Polish village of Medyka, Chris Winslow and Craig Charvat had reached an impasse. The two Americans were on their way to Ukraine, whose border was less than a kilometer away, and were carrying along with them seventeen hefty duffel bags. The immediate destination was a Ukrainian border checkpoint, which was on the other side of an 800-meter-long expanse of open ground that could only be traversed by foot. Without assistance of some kind, they’d be forced to carry all of the bags, which weighed around 900 pounds in total, across the gap themselves. With the temperature rising and Winslow and Charvat feeling the fatigue from spending the previous week traveling from a small town in southern New York State to the extreme east of Poland, the task seemed daunting.
But then a stroke of good fortune appeared in the form of a group of American retired military pilots who offered to help. The duffel bags were moved, and, after six hours of effort, the two men were admitted into Ukraine. Crossing the border was a milestone for the pair, who had come to the war-struck country to deliver the contents of the duffel bags, which included water filters, medical supplies, bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets, and other combat support supplies.
Winslow and Charvat hadn’t come as part of any international aid group, businesses, or government. Rather, the two men were there representing NY4Ukraine, the non-profit they’d founded in the aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion earlier in the year. Both men are in their fifties and are public school teachers to middle and high school students in Center Moriches, New York, a hamlet a few hours east of New York City. When the invasion happened, they’d felt an almost immediate impulse to do something to help the Ukrainians under attack, which led them to start their organization.
Both men have a strong interest in history and politics, and they’d immediately sensed that the Russian invasion was a major historical event.
“I was outraged,” said Charvat, an Eagle Scout with twenty years of teaching experience who had previously been worked in the civil conflict in South Sudan. It was clear to him that Putin was a “bully.”
Winslow, who is a veteran of the U.S. Marines, had similar sentiments. At the time of the invasion, he was teaching comparative politics to his 11th grade students. In response to the war, he planned a special project for the class which had his students study two hundred years of Russian history.
“The students got really interested,” he said. “They asked me, ‘What are we going to do?’”
It was a question the two men began asking each other as well. They were struck by the gravity of the situation but felt that other Americans they knew weren’t taking it as seriously. Within a few weeks, they decided that they wanted to go to Ukraine to deliver humanitarian aid. By April of 2022, they’d started NY4Ukraine to raise money and facilitate the trip.
At the same time, they also began making contacts with people with contacts in Ukraine. In a news story, they heard about an American Marine veteran who had volunteered with a military unit in Mykolaiv, a city in the south central part of the country that was put under siege during the early months of the war. Through him, they were able to reach people in Mykolaiv, and as a result of this connection, decided to hold their first fundraiser for units in that region. By June of 2022, they’d raised several thousand dollars in donations from the local community. After adding in their own and some other partners’ contributions, they purchased $12,000 worth of supplies, which they packed into the seventeen duffel bags.
After having entered into Ukraine, they were driven to Mykolaiv by a Ukrainian contact. The city at that time was still under regular attack by Russian missiles and artillery, and Winslow and Charvat witnessed a bombing during the week they spent there. While in the city, they delivered some of their supplies to members of the Mykolaiv Regional Guard and a Ukrainian Army special forces unit.
“The great thing was that the units only took what they needed,” Winslow said.
They also met an American military veteran from Texas named Claus von Stauffenberg in Mykolaiv, who was apparently named after the German army officer known for his failed attempt to assassinate Adolph Hitler. von Stauffenberg claimed that he was the son of an oil magnate who was in town to disperse $1.6 million dollars from his family’s fortune. Before leaving, they also connected with another NGO operating in the city, who them distribution another portion of their supplies.
After leaving Mykolaiv, Winslow and Charvat went up to Kyiv, where they visited the suburb of Bucha, the site of savageries by Russian forces, who killed four hundred and sixty one civilians there in the first months of the war. These slayings, which are one of the greatest atrocities during the war thus far, are currently being investigated as war crimes. Also in Kyiv, their driver put them in touch with the commander of a Ukrainian volunteer battalion, the Unified Volunteer Unit & Ukrainian Intelligence Service, which they also delivered aid to. The soldiers in this unit fought in the Battle of Hostomel Airport, which was a key early victory for the Ukrainian military that very likely prevented an attack on senior members of the Ukrainian government, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Back in New York after their trip, Winslow and Charvat continued to develop NY4Ukraine and began planning to go back the following year. They started several new initiatives, including “Letters from America,” where students from several school districts in New York are writing letters to Ukrainian children in refugee camps. They also began collecting art supplies that will be used for art therapy in Ukrainian schools and refugee camps. And they also continued to collect general humanitarian aid, which they planned to deliver during their next trip to Ukraine. They also began working with a Ukrainian-American Army veteran to help manufacture combat uniforms that are being delivered to Ukrainian forces with the assistance of several Ukrainian families in New York City. To facilitate the production process, they are accepting donations of battle dress uniforms and have set up donation sites at several National Guard bases.
During their February trip, they delivered clothing first to a shelter run by the Hope Foundation, a non-profit that provides emergency shelter and support to Ukrainian refugees in the Polish border town of Przemysl. The next stop was Lviv, where they gave art supplies to a Ukrainian organization that distributed them around the country. Another delivery was combat supplies to the volunteer battalion they’d contacted during their last visit. While in Lviv, they also met with several members of the Ukrainian religious and cultural communities.
As the war stretches into its second year, Winslow and Charvat aren’t slowing down their humanitarian work, despite both having full-time jobs. Early in 2023, NY4Ukraine received 501(c)(3) status, which makes donations to it tax deductible. In late March, they took part in a fundraiser in Brooklyn for Ukrainian children and they’re updating their supply lines so that in the future, aid supplies will be sourced from Poland and other European countries. And they’re planning to make another trip to Ukraine later in 2023.
When asked how long the group planned to keep up its activity, Winslow was unequivocal, saying, “We will continue our support until victory.”
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Excellent article! Well-written, and it really shines a light on the humanitarian efforts and challenges for the war in Ukraine.