Cork Life Centre director with terminal cancer describes his 'shocking' experience delivering aid to Ukrainian border

Don O’Leary is just back from delivering humanitarian aid across the Ukrainian border, and the Life Centre director says he will carry with him the memory of seeing families torn apart by the war.
Cork Life Centre director with terminal cancer describes his 'shocking' experience delivering aid to Ukrainian border

Don O'Leary, director, Cork Life Centre, and his team of volunteers had decided to lend a hand and, furnished with the names of two Ukrainian contacts, he says they had wanted to do the job “quickly, quietly and no circus, and I think we managed that fairly well”. Picture Denis Minihane.

“The shocking thing for me was seeing the women coming off the buses on the Ukraine side with their kids, and the minute they got off the bus, they got on the phone, and I would imagine that what they were saying was ‘We’re at the border’.” 

Don O’Leary is just back from delivering humanitarian aid across the Ukrainian border, and the Life Centre director says he will carry with him the memory of seeing families torn apart by the war.

He and his team of volunteers had decided to lend a hand and, furnished with the names of two Ukrainian contacts, he says they had wanted to do the job “quickly, quietly and no circus, and I think we managed that fairly well”.

They didn’t make a public appeal for contributions, but the word got out anyway and money was donated and the five-man team was soon on the road.

“We had the centre’s mini-bus and we had a Hi-Ace van, which was filled with generators, blankets, sheets, nappies, baby food, baby bottles,” he recalls.

“The thing that caught my attention was that Kharkiv was nearly obliterated in the early days of the invasion, and I was hearing about nurses and doctors bringing pregnant women down into basements in hospitals.

“The sheets had become disposable, and light was going to be a factor, so we bought generators, and we took sheets, sleeping bags, blankets, anything we could get our hands on that would be useful to the people over there.” 

He says he and his colleagues stayed in an AirBnB in Poland, “a beautiful log cabin, up the steepest hill you’ve ever seen".

“We got four or five hours’ sleep and we got up the following morning and we headed to the border, and when we were finished on the day we went over into Ukraine and handed over the supplies to the two fabulous people there and their supporters, off we went.

He says they mostly ate in service stations, but as a treat on the way they went to the Hilton Hotel for dinner “and it was one of the cheapest dinners I ever saw - €77 for dinner for five people”.

He says his saddest memory from Ukraine was seeing those women phoning home to say they were at the border.

“All we saw in terms of military activity was a lorry carrying three tanks, a NATO cargo plane flying overhead, and also three baby American soldiers I would have put down for 16, but they must have been 18, obviously.

“We made good time heading back the road, we did what we had to do, and we kept going.” 

Don O’Leary has been director of the Cork Life Centre, a northside facility which offers one-to-one tuition to students failed by the conventional education system, since 2006, and in that time the centre’s student population has grown from five to 55.

He says his colleagues are hoping to do another humanitarian run to Ukraine, and although the 64-year-old, who is living with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, says he probably won’t be able to travel, he will be with them in spirit.

His visit to Ukraine will stay with him.

“One of our kids here asked me a very perceptive question: ‘What’s the difference between ye coming across the border, and a refugee coming across?’ and I said ‘The difference is we’re coming across to go home’.”

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