Residents send 100 backpacks to kids in war-torn Ukraine

Ridgfielders gave jolly Saint Nick a hand this past year, buying and filling more than 100 backpacks with presents for kids in need in Ukraine — including the eastern region, which has seen heavy fighting and shelling since the conflict broke out in April 2014.

The program — “Warm the Heart of a Child — 2017” — was arranged by the Ukrainian American Youth Association, a sort of scouting group that was founded in Ukraine in 1925.

“A lot of people were displaced, and a lot of children and families were displaced, and being that we are a youth organization, we decided to do something about it,” said Tania Priatka, one of the youth association’s organizers.

On March 22, the Ukrainian American Youth Association was named Ukraine’s

“number one youth organization involved in volunteer and charitable work with children,” in a ceremony presided over by the former first lady of Ukraine, Kateryna Yushchenko.

Priatka explained how she would receive the name, age, and gender of a Ukrainian child in need from the association’s founding branch in the country. She would then pass the information along to American families who agreed to send a backpack to Ukraine.

She noted that the response from Ridgefielders willing to give had been unusually high.

“They were coming in one after another. … I almost got nervous that I would be able to track all of this data back and get all these backpacks for these names that I was sending out,” said Priatka, who lives in Cos Cob.

The program ran in all seven countries where the youth association has a chapter, Priatka said.

“The outstanding thing about this particular project is that our local partners on the ground in Ukraine were among the few international organizations who have been able to physically get over to the eastern regions where it is extremely dangerous right now, to personally deliver these backpacks and gifts to families whom not many others have been able to reach,” she said in an email.

Social media

Last year marked the second time the organization ran the donation campaign in Ridgefield, after Priatka said she was inundated with donations from residents in town.

In 2016, Ridgefielder Tanya Ording, who knew Priatka through the youth association from several years ago, posted about the project on a Ridgefield-centric Facebook page.

“After we had already filled our backpacks I decided to share my post on the Ridgefield Facebook page,” Ording said Friday.

The post was quickly shared and re-shared among residents.

Ridgefielder Carolyn Gillan saw Ording’s post and re-posted it on the Hello Ridgefield Facebook page.

“They were short by like 20 bags, and I thought it was such an easy way to give, so I posted on the Hello Ridgefield page, and it just exploded from there,” said Gillan, who grew up in town and has lived here for 39 years.

Within about three days in 2016, Priatka said, the organizers collected 54 backpacks from Ridgefielders alone, a far cry from the three backpacks Ording had originally asked her three kids to fill for the project.

Many of the donors were not Ukrainian. Many, like Gillan, had no connection to the youth association, she said. “This year, we almost doubled that number from last year,” Priatka said, noting that many people donated backpacks once again in 2017.

Ridgefielders donated 105 of the 206 backpacks collected by the Stamford branch of the youth association, according to Priatka.

“You see the pictures of these kids and just knowing how little they have — and just knowing that a backpack filled with just simple little toys or a blanket even will just bring them comfort and joy,” said Gillan, who has a sixth grade daughter at Scotts Ridge Middle School and a fourth grade son at Ridgebury Elementary School. “Just knowing that someone out there is thinking about them.”

‘What goes out’

Donors get to pick what goes to the child they’ll be sending the backpack to. “You fill it with things that you think are really special for a child of that age and sex,” Priatka explained. “What we try to do is not make these things boring and stinky. This is probably the one time of the year when they get things that are borderline frivolous.”

Last year those items included “makeup for the girls, something like a bottle of perfume — headphones, a nice, really warm set of gloves.”

From there, the backpacks — which the donor family buys as part of the gift — were collected at Ording’s home, where the number of donated bags caused a bit of congestion. “When I got to Tanya’s [Ording’s] house, her living room was just filled with backpacks,” said Priatka.

From there, the backpacks would go out by mid-October (it was cheaper to ship them over to Ukraine by boat rather than airmail) in order to arrive in time for the Feast of Saint Nicholas on Dec. 18 — Eastern Orthodox Christmas.

‘Gave up a lot’

“We try to get two girls and boy to try to have something for them to relate to,” said Ording, who has an 8-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, who both attend Farmingville Elementary School, as well as a 12-year-old daughter at East Ridge Middle School.

“We do ask that the families include a letter just to say something beyond the stuff,” she added. Since the project came together at the last minute in 2016, a number of families didn’t get the memo to include a personalized letter in their backpacks.

“So my son took it upon himself and got the girls to help write letters to each of the kids,” Ording said.

She re-wrote the letters in Ukrainian for the bags’ recipients.

For Priatka, helping with the program was just one way for her and her husband, both first-generation Ukrainian-Americans, to instill the value of their Ukrainian roots in their children. “I like the fact that it raises kids to be grateful,” she said. “We have a lot because we gave up a lot.”