Hauling a shopping cart full of candy, gloves, rain gear and other items, Sean Faircloth walked between Medyka, Poland, and Shehyni, Ukraine, to distribute food and essentials to Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
As the line back to Medyka slowed, the temperature outside quickly dropped, said Faircloth, executive director of Together Place Peer Run Recovery Center in Bangor. He realized his shoes were wet and he wasn’t properly dressed for the conditions. Then he looked at the people standing beside him — primarily women, children and the elderly, their lives packed into a single suitcase or backpack.
“These are folks who are in a very vulnerable situation,” he said. “These people have come from places where they’ve had family members killed and where buildings have been destroyed and bombed.”
Last week, Faircloth volunteered his time and energy in Poland to support the more than 4 million Ukrainians fleeing the brutality of war in their homeland. After seeing the tired faces of families forced to leave behind everything they know to reach safety, Faircloth was deeply moved. He is encouraging Mainers and other Americans to get involved in any way they can, whether that’s on the ground in eastern Europe or financially.
Faircloth was inspired by Ukraine’s fight for its endangered democracy — an ideal that Americans need to uphold, he said.
Jumping on a plane to aid a country at war isn’t something he would typically do, but Faircloth felt an obligation following former President Donald Trump’s decision to withhold almost $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. The move led to his impeachment, which ended with a trial and acquittal in February 2020.
American citizens are not responsible for the actions that endangered Ukrainians and aided Russian President Vladimir Putin, but rather the United States government, said Faircloth, former Bangor mayor and state senator. He also ran as a Democratic candidate for governor of Maine in 2017, but later dropped out of the race.
Faircloth spent the bulk of his time in Krakow, Poland’s second largest city. He worked with nonprofit A Drop in the Ocean, or Dråpen i Havet, which is based in Oslo, Norway, and provides aid to refugees in Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — and now Ukraine. The group’s focus was providing free clothing and shoes to refugees, six days a week.
Two of the organization’s employees — Michalina Ferdynus from Poland and Shannon Fluck from Ireland — led the efforts and oversaw about 70 to 90 volunteers each day, with new ones joining constantly, Faircloth said. He spent a lot of time at the defunct Galeria Plaza shopping center, where the operation was based, sorting mountains of clothing by size and demographic.
Faircloth also spent time in Przemysl, less than 10 miles from the Polish-Ukrainian border. There he helped clear out a room full of cots, folded blankets and swept floors at former superstore Tesco, which has been turned into a shelter for refugees.
Faircloth was most touched when he visited Medyka, where a tent city of non-governmental organizations from various countries was set up, he said. Faircloth filled his shopping cart with fruits and vegetables, socks and other necessities; got his passport stamped; and crossed into Shehyni.
It was there that he helped an elderly Ukrainian woman carry her heavy bag. When they made it to the line where other refugees were waiting to enter Poland, the woman unzipped the bag — and out popped her cat.
“She laughed and got a chuckle out of me being startled by this cat,” he said. “This woman must have just gone through hell. She had to leave her homeland. But she kept her good humor and optimism somewhere in there.”
No matter what country volunteers were from, they were moved by Ukrainians’ courage in their fight for freedom and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s uplifting messages, Faircloth said.
One man from Illinois, who arrived without plans but was eager to help, told Faircloth he was ready to fight and die for Ukraine, he said. Another man with military experience put his law school studies in Vermont on pause to join the war effort.
Faircloth hopes his volunteer efforts encourage others to aid Ukraine with in-person support and keep Americans’ attention on the war, he said. If someone has strong leadership and organizational skills, they should especially consider getting involved.
“There’s just a tremendous amount of camaraderie and mutual support,” among volunteers who genuinely want to help, he said. “It’s something where you feel proud to be with these people. I don’t think you’ll find a more inspiring experience.”
For those unable to help with efforts on the ground, Faircloth suggests donating to organizations doing good work. To donate to A Drop in the Ocean, visit the website.