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Sean Faircloth is the executive director of Together Place Peer Run Recovery Center. He founded the Maine Discovery Museum in Bangor and also a non-profit welcoming immigrants to our community.

Hurrying to organize women’s dresses by size on racks at an abandoned shopping mall, it struck me. This was not what I pictured when I decided to volunteer in Poland helping Ukrainian refugees. Walter Mitty style, I fantasized myself as Samuel Beckett, genius Irish writer, who joined the French Resistance, risking death at the hands of the Gestapo.

Unlike Beckett, my greatest danger was getting my eye poked by a coat-hanger. My coat-hanger comrades and I did move product. Our makeshift clothing-store, run by a Norwegian nonprofit, served a thousand Ukrainians a day, mostly women and children, arriving in Krakow with what they could carry. Helping refugees mattered, but a feat of derring-do it was not.

The border was more stark. Heading to Ukraine from the charity tent-city on the Polish side, a new pal and I crammed our shopping cart with mittens, rain gear, candy, fruit, and socks. I pushed our cart into Ukraine, meeting the long refugee line to Poland. Amid chilly mist, we spread a little cheer, returning to Poland to do it again.

I carried one old woman’s bag to take her place in line. She laughed hard when her cat startled me, popping its head out her bag.

I admired an American crossing into Ukraine carrying military gear. A veteran, he’d left law school to fight. Two Ukrainian soldiers welcomed their new American comrade under plastic tenting spray-painted with “VOLUNTEERS.” Courageous.

The line neared a halt, rain verging on snow. Feet freezing, my discomfort was minor compared to so many Ukrainian children and old people enduring that long cold line.

I encourage non-military Americans to volunteer as this war continues. Yes, send money, but many reading these words can afford a trip to a beach or national park. Millions can afford such a trip, so many can consider both contributing and volunteering.

Why? Because Ukrainians fight for embattled democratic values — and democracy is embattled. Freedom House, which measures democratic strength, documents 16 years  “of decline in global freedom.” Before 2022 Russian President Vladimir Putin poisoned political opponents, and committed war crimes — in Chechnya,  Georgia and  Syria (a  quarter million civilians slaughtered).  

Volunteer for Ukraine because the world is watching. I can tell you Ukrainians, Poles and volunteers from the world over notice when an American arrives to help. Their parents and grandparents, like our parents and grandparents, remember America spearheading the United Nations. They admire the America of the Peace Corps, the America that called on humanity to address “tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.”

That America meant something to people around the globe. It sure meant something to us.

Ukrainians face their darkest threat boldly. Will we?

Americans must face our democracy’s decay and our government’s undermining of democracy abroad. Freedom House recently downgraded America’s democracy score. Donald Trump praised Putin for taking Crimea in 2014. Trump removed a Republican platform plank supporting aid protecting Ukraine, fed Russia classified intelligence, thanked Putin for expelling American diplomats, ignored warnings of Russian bounties for killing American soldiers, re-called our ambassador to Ukraine because she didn’t advocate for Putin’s corrupt allies, and withheld military aid from Ukraine, seeking to extort President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into helping Trump with his political attacks. After all Putin’s slaughter, Trump called Putin a “genius” for invading Ukraine.

Meanwhile Trump in multiple states recruits candidates for offices charged with protecting election results (secretaries of state, local election officials) — candidates openly lying about election results. American democracy teeters.

My volunteering for Ukrainian refugees was neither glamorous nor dangerous. I swept floors in a refugee center, wheeled a shopping cart supplying Ukrainians waiting to cross into Poland. With numerous volunteers, organized by an excellent  nonprofit, we supplied a thousand refugees a day with clothing. Samuel Beckett I am not. The Gestapo wasn’t looking for me.

Beckett was Irish, not French. Yet, recognizing that democracy and freedom worldwide were on the line, Beckett put his life on the line. Later a Nobel laureate, Beckett was not famous when he joined the Resistance. You need not be a movie star or genius writer. Yet, volunteering is effective, especially when contagious. Volunteer, however mundane the task. You can inspire neighbors, your Rotary Club, or friends on social media to contribute — and volunteer. Tweet it. Post it. Share it.

When the USSR fell, some declared “the end of history.” Democracy wins! Turns out history causes whiplash. Democracy is in jeopardy. Americans who show up activate others to volunteer for democracy abroad, energizing our commitment to democracy at home. Humbly serving will mean more to you, and to others, than any trip to any beach.