A Month On. Travelling to Poland: The 2806-mile Journey to Support Ukraine
1 Jun 2022
“If it helps one person, literally one person, then it’s worth it.” – Becky Freeman
1 Jun 2022
“If it helps one person, literally one person, then it’s worth it.” – Becky Freeman
The humanitarian crisis resulting from the heartless and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been something that has undoubtedly consumed our minds over the past 8 weeks.
Thousands have died, millions have fled, and countless innocent families have been forced apart.
But within this darkness, there is indisputable humanity too.
Poland, have led the way in global efforts to take in refugees, taking in over 2 million Ukrainians (of an estimated 3.6 million). They opened their doors to their neighbours and embraced them with a migration policy that is unquestionably admirable. Their resources are finite, and respect and praise are simply not enough.
Well, four of our incredible team members (three employees, plus a TG partner) recently drove two vans over to Poland to deliver supplies and our amazing community helped to support them along the way.
Since their return, we’ve had a number of you ask how it was, how long it took them and how you can continue to support. So, we had a sit down with them to reflect on:
What you all have done is incredibly admirable, and we’re sure it was a decision that required some thought. When, and why was it that you decided to make the trip?
I remember it being on a Tuesday that I heard of my wife’s colleague travelling over to Poland to bring donations in support of the refugees. I did a bit of a whip around and the donations just started flooding in. That’s when I realised that the issue was not getting the donations together, it was actually getting them over there…
I walked into the kitchen and said to my wife: ‘I think I might just hire a van and take some stuff over myself’…Well, I was really asking her if that was OK, can I do that?
Having agreed it with her, I put a message out to the team. Almost immediately, my phone started ringing. When we mentioned to Jess about needing a fourth driver to take over a second van, she volunteered instantly. She was so laid back I thought: ‘yeah, this is going to work!’
Earlier the same afternoon, I’d seen a post on Facebook asking for donations. I thought: ‘I can drive long distance, and my friend [Nathan] can drive long distance. We can do this!’. When I saw Harry’s post, I rung him straight away.”
By the sounds of it, you had a great group dynamic from the start. We’re sure this was needed for a trip that requires this much organisation. How did you prepare?
The problem was that everything was quite last minute. We decided on a Tuesday evening that we were going, and the week after on the Thursday morning we set off. It also wasn’t until the night before that we had a confirmed donation centre, as you don’t know which centres actually need what until days before.
As you can imagine, there was heaps of paperwork too. I never thought I’d find myself suddenly thinking ‘oh my gosh, have we got headlight deflectors?!’
As Becky said, it all happened so quickly. The news does bring a sense of urgency to it all and, as soon as you realise you want to do something to help, you just get itchy and want to go straight away.
I was collecting donations at my house and the office. Strangers were turning up in the dark.
One guy even arrived at my door and said: “Are you Harry? Some Irish lady in a carpark gave me your address.”
It really was chaos for a time, but really exciting. There was also a lot of pressure to make it happen and make it a success.
I just packed a pillow and my bag, and I was ready to go!
Well, we also had the supplies to load up too. There were a lot… We had over a thousand nappies, a carload full of baby food, a stack of sleeping bags as long as the van, plus toiletries, sanitary products and first aid supplies all donated.
It’s incredible how much was raised in such a short amount of time, we bet you’ve been overwhelmed with the support that has been shown from everyone. We’re intrigued to hear about the reaction that you received when you shared the news of the trip.
Well, Becky didn’t let us tell anyone until she’d told her mum face to face!
My mum was on board with it in the end! It took her 24 hours to come around, but she would have killed me if she found out from someone else.
I was seriously worried this was going to hamper our fundraising efforts, we were thinking we have to kind of keep this on the down low in case Becky’s mum finds out before we tell her.
Really though the main reaction was people’s concern for our safety, we did end up travelling right up to the Poland Ukraine border, but everything was safe.
The support was overwhelming though… We originally were aiming to raise £2,500; that got quickly smashed. We then upped it to £5,000; again, smashed. We are now aiming to raise £10,000. We’re on nearly £8,000 now.
A donation to the page that really stood out to me was for £400 from an anonymous source. The message read something like: ‘…it doesn’t matter who I am, I just think what you’re doing is amazing.” There were several anonymous donations of hundreds of pounds; it was incredible to see.
The TG Tribe were incredibly supportive too. As an organisation they offer us community days for any charitable projects that we want to do, but they gave us more days since they knew it was going to be a longer trip, so they really supported us in terms of facilitating it from a work perspective.
We had a lot of financial support from TG as well. Each driver was given £500 which covered the vans, and some more. Anyone at Tyler Grange, if they are working for a charity, a club or some sort of cause, can apply for a £500 community grant.
Other than that, the team offered so much in the way of help with organisation and logistics, which was so important because of the small-time frame in which we had to get everything sorted. The financial support from our team was also overwhelming. The average donation amount was £50 per person, which was amazing.
I want to give a special shoutout to Kay in our Cotswolds office who was incredible in spreading the word and gathering donations; she brought us a good 5 carloads of things just herself!
* [Editor’s Note: For your reading pleasure, we’ve also trimmed down a good few minutes of Harry apologising for the mountain of bin bags of donations that couldn’t fit in the van. He’s promised that he’s not a hoarder and that they’ll be donated once his back has recovered from the drive and he finds a local hub providing support to displaced Ukrainians!]
I’m sure this has really helped to restore your faith in humanity; it sure has for the rest of us, anyway. We bet this support really spurred you on throughout the trip itself. With any trip like this though, we’re sure it’s not all plain sailing. Is there anything that perhaps didn’t go to plan?
I have a caffeine intolerance that has conveniently only recently surfaced! It can make me pass out.
Within an hour of setting off, I had to stop driving and get in the passenger’s seat because I was about to pass out… An interesting start.
We can’t not mention the other van missing the ferry on the way back now though!
Yes, the van Jess and I were in ended up being slightly behind. We had a few issues with getting AdBlue into our van (a fluid that’s used to make any gasses released from the van less harmful). We had a tricky time with it which meant that we missed the ferry by a matter of minutes. That was fun!
Nightmare! At least you had each other to stay entertained while you waited for the next ferry. Jess, we’ve heard something about a hotel lawn…please expand.
Ha, well tiredness and always getting the dark and difficult legs of the journey fuelled this story.
Basically, we arrived at this posh looking (but incredibly cheap) hotel with dirt tracks heading in multiple directions. The sat nav pointed left, so naturally I followed. Next thing we know, we’re driving our van across some of the most gorgeous, freshly manicured lawns you’ve ever seen.
It was mortifying the next morning to see our tire tracks scribbled all over. Luckily, it will grow back just fine but that didn’t make me feel any better in the moment.
However, that same night we got a text from Becky and Nathan saying: “If we asked you to come and get us now, no questions asked, would you?”
So, perhaps their night was a bit more eventful than ours…
This is when we were at the hotel that we lovingly named ‘The Murder Hotel’.
Arriving in the middle of the night to a massive haunted looking building with an empty car park made us feel somewhat uneasy.
What quickly followed was a dead-end conversation with the man at reception, and whilst my attempt at speaking German wasn’t exactly award winning, we still managed to figure out that we in fact didn’t have a booking.
When I tried to pay, my card didn’t work! Then, out of nowhere, our saviour arrived.
The loveliest lady noticed the kerfuffle and ending up paying for our rooms! She turned out to be a translator at the refugee centre. She wouldn’t even let us pay her back.
Wow it sounds like she was your guardian angel. Was there anyone else that particularly stood out to you in this while journey?
When we arrived to the drop off point itself and unloaded the countless boxes off the van, the reception that we got was incredible.
Volunteers took us into the refugee centre to show us what was happening. It was hard to witness.
It really brought home how crucial the donations really are, there was just constantly a line of people waiting for supplies and food and drinks. I couldn’t help but see my wife and daughter’s faces amongst them, thinking it could be them just there.
It made me realise that this could be happening to us, to anyone. You can have a happy, safe life and suddenly someone invades your country and innocent people get punished, they get forced out of their own homes and split from their families, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to be able to escape.
What stands out for me is the night that Nathan and I were leaving the donation drop off. There had just been attacks on Lviv and so as we were driving back through Poland there was a huge number of Ukrainian vehicles that were fleeing.
When we stopped at a petrol station and saw about 40 vans pulled up – all full of Ukrainian women and children – it was gut wrenching. The sheer devastation on their faces was something I will never forget.
Arriving at the centre and seeing the crucial work the volunteers were supporting made me truly appreciate what I have. I marvelled in the sheer resilience of people.
Seeing all of these people who had fled made me think. I thought about if I was in their position…. If I had to leave right now, if I had to flee for my life, and all I had was my car, because I’m lucky enough to have one, what would I put in it? I have no idea… Absolutely no idea.
I personally felt proud to be part of a world that was so willing to help each other, seeing the convoys of emergency services, troops and aid from so many countries. It showed me that even regular people like us with a bit of thinking can directly help people in need.
That’s so poignant. It’s near impossible to be able to put yourself into those shoes when we are so lucky ourselves. How do you think this experience may have changed you, or your perspective on life?
It’s affected me so deeply. Both Nathan and I went back a second time, in fact. We were able to stay for a few extra days to volunteer in two centres and got the chance to go over the border this time to hand out blankets and teddies to those queuing in the freezing cold for hours. Trip three will be in early May from the donations we raised!
For me, I thought: we have the funding, we have the stamina, we have the ability, so why on earth would we not? It’s such a small thing really in the grand scheme of things. But if it helps one person, literally one person, then it’s worth it.
It’s made me just think what else can I do? It’s amazing how much can be done when you come together with a bit of energy and support from your friends, family, colleagues and wider networks. You can achieve some really, really meaningful things. I know that it made me hopeful that my family would be supported in the same way if we’re ever on the receiving end of a situation like this.
Coming home also just made me think, we have no genuine worries here. We have a warm house, we’ve got running water, we’ve got food, we’ve got security. But then there’s also the realisation that this peaceful time is actually quite fragile, because these people had those things just a few weeks ago.
I would say it’s affected me; I’ve come to realise how fragile our current way of living is. The people we saw weren’t these disadvantaged people from less developed countries across the world, as we have seen in the news throughout my life. These were people who, until a couple weeks before we went, were just like us. Working and living in cities just like ours, who now are homeless and have no idea what is next for them.
Everything really does get put into perspective doesn’t it. We haven’t spoken too much about the journey itself, can you just tell me a bit about it?
5 days of travelling does sound boring, but we had some really funny times.
Firstly, Polish McDonald’s is incredible by the way. But as we were driving Nathan and I found that the Polish road signs are quite frankly, the most hilarious road signs. Everything is geometric shapes. So, they’d have a sign with a cow on and its udders are completely square… Or there’s one with a car hitting a pedestrian. Why would that be a road sign? I don’t know, but the person it’s hitting is this giant triangle man with tiny stick legs. After 11-hour stints of driving, the deliriousness makes this absolutely hilarious.
Me and Jess had such a laugh… and we have really similar music taste which helped. But honestly the thing that stands out for me in the journey was the camaraderie you had on the road.
You see vans from Italy, Spain, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium, all decked out with Ukrainian flags, passing each other and waving. I’ve never felt so part of Europe and so close to our European neighbours. I guess its kind of a silver lining of this whole situation.
After the isolation of the pandemic and not travelling, and mixed with Brexit, it just was amazing to see us all going to help our European brothers and sisters as a team.
You’ve just reminded me about something that will stick with me forever now.
Nathan and I had a moment in the van when the song ‘Forever Young’ came on, and we were listening to it and the lyrics were just really hitting home. The song was actually written during the Cold War about nuclear bombs, and the lyrics were just so poignant. We ended up just both sitting in silence, looking opposite ways out the windows and crying.
It’s been incredible to hear all about your experience, thank you so much for sparing your time to share it with us. TG couldn’t be prouder of all of you for doing what you have done, and what you continue to do for Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine is by no means easing, and support from any channel will help those innocent civilians whose lives have been turned upside down overnight.
If you would still like to donate to the cause, follow the link to Harry, Jess, Becky and Nathan’s crowdfunding page.