Penny Dinners volunteers will ‘never get over seeing little children put through hell’

“We have to say to everyone who donated, you have made an enormous difference with your outpouring of love and kindness, and you have saved lives.”
Penny Dinners volunteers will ‘never get over seeing little children put through hell’

Cónal Thomas, Michael Relihan, Leslie O’Sullivan, Tomas Kalinauskas, Caitríona Twomey, Aaron Feeney, and Dave Feeney after arriving home this evening. Picture: Donal O’Keeffe

VOLUNTEERS from Cork Penny Dinners arrived home at the charity’s Little Hanover St base at teatime yesterday evening, exhausted from their humanitarian mission to the Ukrainian border in Poland.

For the volunteers, it had been five full days since they set out on their journey to Poland, where they helped Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.

After leaving Cork on Tuesday evening, the group of eight had flown from Dublin early on Wednesday to Poland, where they met two articulated lorries carrying 50 tonnes of humanitarian aid donated by the people of Cork.

Volunteers help refugees in a wheelchair after fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, south eastern Poland. 	Picture: Sergei Grits/AP
Volunteers help refugees in a wheelchair after fleeing the war in neighbouring Ukraine at the border crossing in Medyka, south eastern Poland. Picture: Sergei Grits/AP

Over the course of their visit, they distributed aid to reception centres welcoming refugees to Poland and, with the help of the Redemptorist order, to hospitals and orphanages across Ukraine.

The volunteers came home as they had left, in a Garda van driven by their friend and supporter, Community Garda Tony Gardiner from Gurranabraher.

Penny Dinners co-ordinator Caitríona Twomey, who led the humanitarian mission to Poland, had been on the Cork Humanitarian Aid Ireland convoy in March, and she said that the group members were “shattered” but they had achieved a lot of good in helping people forced to flee their homes.

Ms Twomey thanked the volunteers for all their work and said none of it would have been possible without the generosity of the people of Cork.

“We have to say to everyone who donated, you have made an enormous difference with your outpouring of love and kindness, and you have saved lives,” Ms Twomey said.

Dave Feeney, a veteran of Penny Dinners’ first mission in March, said the group had the benefit of making the previous visit, and things ran more smoothly because of that.

“We got a lot done and obviously we brought a lot more stuff, and we did what we set out to achieve,” said Mr Feeney. 

“The numbers crossing the border are just overwhelming, but the Polish authorities seem a lot better organised than they were a month ago.”

Michael Relihan, returning from his first mission “but not my last”, said he had been concerned about people queuing in cars at the border.

“They’re in a big line, for two or three days, with no food, and nobody coming over to feed them, they’re just stuck there,” he said.

Leslie O’Sullivan said he felt the true situation in Ukraine may be far worse than anyone in the West realises.

“We have no idea, but what we’ve seen, and what people are saying, it’s horrendous, but you can imagine the poor people that are inside Ukraine,” he said.

“Coming back on the plane today, there was maybe six rows of Ukrainian people.

“It’s heartbreaking to see, a bag on their back, carrying children.”

Cónal Thomas said the group had bonded over their common purpose, and he praised Ms Twomey’s leadership.

“”I thought it worked very well, because we saw what we had to do; we did what we had to do; but what we saw over there, it was horrific,” he said.

“We’ll never get over it — little children put through hell,” he said.

Aaron Feeney said he had been shocked by scenes at Krakow train station, where four storeys of high-end shops cover platforms holding hundreds of refugees.

“There are multiple families with dogs, cats, all their children, just sitting on their bags, just waiting, no privacy, nowhere to go,” he said.

Tomas Kaliauskas, another veteran of the first mission, said he found it hard to believe that such cruelty could occur in 2022, and that world leaders had allowed this situation to come to pass.

On Saturday evening, speaking to The Echo from their base in Tarnow in south-east Poland, Ms Twomey had said the volunteers were “devastated” at the sight of hundreds of Ukrainian refugees, mainly women and children, arriving in sub-zero temperatures at the border crossing at Medyka in south-east Poland.

“The only thing that matched our feelings today was the bitterness of the weather,” Ms Twomey said.

“We were stung by everything we saw, and it was a lot to take in, to see so many babies, toddlers, smallies, and teens with their parents, trying to get hot food and drinks into them in the freezing cold, was very hard for us all.”

She said the volunteers were devastated and were feeling very lonely for their own families. 

“We are broken by what we saw at Medyka and inside the Ukraine border,” said Ms Twomey

“Our Polish friend Jan Skarbek brought us into the Ukrainian side with the permission of border control to see the sheer horror and sadness of this war,” she said.

“Dave Feeney said that within 10 minutes over 100 people went through and nothing only sadness, fear, and tears on their faces.”

She added that another volunteer, Leslie O’Sullivan, had spoken for all of the group when he observed that while scenes of refugees on television could provoke an emotional response, nothing had prepared them for the impact of meeting people who are fleeing terror.

“To see this pain in real life is horrific and gut-wrenching, and how wrong it is for anyone to have the power to put what could be our children, our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers, or our grandchildren through this. 

“It’s Holy Saturday, but there’s not much holy about what’s happening except the kindness of our Polish friends and all we have met on our journey,” she added.

Ms Twomey said the Penny Dinners volunteers had accomplished all they had wanted to on their mission, and she said Polish people had made them feel very much at home, with their friends Jan, Robert, and Dariusz giving invaluable help.

She said that the aid donated by Cork people would save many lives and she added that those receiving the aid had been deeply moved by the kindness of the donors.

“Three fully-loaded vans went to Katowice and our Redemptorist friends are heading to many locations within Ukraine with vital aid and food, and with massive amounts of heavy-duty hospital supplies,” said Ms Twomey.

She said 12 generators had been donated and the makings of a field hospital had been delivered into Ukraine.

“Orphanages have power now, and warm clothes, and beautiful new blankets for the children, with plenty of food and supplies,” she said, adding that everyone who donated had helped save lives.”

Back home in Cork yesterday evening, Ms Twomey said the charity intends to return to the Ukrainian border in June.

Cork Penny Dinners will be open tomorrow morning, as it is every morning, and over the course of a day which rarely ends before midnight, its volunteers will distribute hundreds of nutritious meals to people across Cork.

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