As Ukraine readies for winter at war, Ridgefielders do more than send donations and chainsaws

RIDGEFIELD — On the western side of Ukraine in the town of Kalush, a group of people are working hard to winterize and refurbish a dormitory. They're getting it ready to house 42 people from the eastern part of Ukraine who have been displaced by the war.

"It had leaky windows, had showers that didn't really work. They are putting in new windows, repainting, putting in communal showers and a bathroom, and sprucing it up," said Annetta Hewko, a Ridgefield resident and chairman of Ridgefield Responds, a nonprofit organization founded in 2005 that's engaged in efforts to help the people of Ukraine.

The dormitory project is just one way the nonprofit is supporting people in Ukraine. Aside from sending donations and equipment to the country, the organization aims to form connections with the people there to better aid those displaced and affected by Russia's invasion in February. 

"Ridgefield Responds' strategy is to find partners on the ground who know what's happening and have the ability to affect change," said Hewko, who is of Ukrainian heritage and a former resident of Ukraine, and has relatives living there now.

To repair the Ukraine dormitory, Ridgefield Responds is working directly with MoveUkraine, another nonprofit organization, to achieve its goals.

"MoveUkraine worked with the mayor of the town to identify buildings that can be refurbished and repurposed. They chose a location near public transportation and near jobs because they want to help integrate these people into the community," Hewko said.  

The 42 people who have been displaced consist of mostly mothers and children, said Hewko, adding there are also some professors.   

She said once they move in, they would initially live rent free until they have the means to support themselves.

Those who are winterizing the dormitory are working under tough conditions, she added.

"The energy grid is highly compromised across the country. They get electricity four to six hours a day, so they do as much work as they can during light hours," she said. "These power outages mean no light, water, electricity, internet, etcetera, during the remaining 18 to 20 hours of the day."

The project was planned to be completed by mid-December. However, she said, given all the recent bombing of the infrastructure, it has slowed down work, Hewko said.

"It is not just about putting them in a place to live, but putting them in a place to live where they can actually have a life," she said.  

She added while their ultimate goal may be to return home, "they realize it's not going to happen in the near term, it will three to five years at best."

The dormitory project, which is at the College of Economics, Law and Information Technology, cost $8,500. Through the Ridgefield Responds' website at ridgefieldresponds.org, local residents can contribute toward future project that will help displaced Ukranians.

"We channel those funds to Ukraine," she said.

Ridgefield schools initiative

Through MoveUkraine, Ridgefield Responds is working to connect the kids who will live in the college dormitory with kids in Ridgefield.

"We haven't identified a school yet," Hewko said. "We really want to get lots of aspects of Ridgefield engaged in this."

Ridgefield Responds is seeking teachers who can volunteer their classroom over the internet for the initiative.

She said the Ridgefield classrooms would provide a connection for the Ukraine children with the outside world.

"It's sharing childhood. The other reason it's important is to help with the PTSD and the trauma that they've all lived through," she said. "They hear that other people care about them, that people outside are trying to understand their situation."

The children who will move into the dormitory are either taking virtual classes or going to school in the local community, she added.

Tool collection

Ridgefield resident Ross Voytovych, who traveled to Ukraine to visit his family over the summer, is collecting and repairing chainsaws that he ships to Ukraine. Voytovych is a member of Ridgefield Responds and says he's concerned about the loss of electricity in many parts of Ukraine as a result of the bombing.

"I'm fixing the chainsaws and I'm sending them over to Ukraine because they don't have electricity so they need something mobile, like a gas-powered thing. They can use it anywhere because you're not attached to to the outlet," he said, adding this is a new hobby for him.

"If parts need to be replaced, I'm purchasing it. I'm investing my own time and I'm fixing them so they can be used in Ukraine," he said, adding he's also collecting generators and sleeping bags. 

Ridgefield Mobile Mover Repair and his neighbor are helping with the project, he said.

He said some chainsaws come completely blown because their motor is not good. 

"Basically, I'm taking the motor apart and I'm purchasing pistons. I'm purchasing cylinders, repair kits and everything, and putting them together," he said. "I've got a few of them rebuilt already."

He added he's doing a "pretty substantial rebuild. If it can be fixed, it will be fixed. If the damage is beyond repair. I will use it for parts."

He'll be sending the equipment to his brother in Ukraine, who will distribute it where needed.

To donate, Voytovych can be reached at rvoytovych@laticrete.com.

'A Rising Fury'  

Ridgefield Responds is hosting a film screening about the war in Ukraine called "A Rising Fury," a panel discussion and a Taste of Ukraine event at The Ridgefield Playhouse at 2 p.m Jan. 8. The event is a fundraiser for Ridgefield Responds' housing initiatives in Ukraine. 

After the film, there'll be a panel discussion with the Ukrainian filmmakers who are coming from Ukraine, and with the film's producer. The filmmakers will be available for a meet and greet. 

"Ridgefield Responds will be discussing new efforts about our partnership with MoveUkraine," Hewko said. "We're going to have a slideshow that will tell the displaced person's story and some of the work that we're doing with Ukraine and some more of the work we'd like to do over there."

Also, Taste of Ukraine will include Ukrainian food and music. 

Tickets are available for the event at The Ridgefield Playhouse website, at ridgefieldplayhouse.org.

These are among multiple projects that Ridgefield Responds has on its horizon. 

"Our approach is, we're not just going to help with the housing and then walk away and move on to the next project," said Hewko, adding there are over 8 million people inside the country who have been displaced since the war began. "We want to create an ongoing connection with the people we help."