“It has been our great privilege to help people in Ukraine, and that was only possible thanks to the people in Cork, and further afield, who have always supported us.”
Those were the words of Caitríona Twomey as her third humanitarian mission to the Ukrainian border came toward its conclusion.
The Cork Penny Dinners co-ordinator and her fellow volunteers, all visiting Poland in a personal capacity, had brought 80-plus tonnes of humanitarian aid, which had been donated by the people of Cork, and by supporters and friends from beyond Leeside.
“As we’re packing up, saying our goodbyes and reflecting on this mission, we can see it’s been our most beneficial yet,” Ms Twomey told The Echo.
Ms Twomey had first been part of a humanitarian mission to the region in March, weeks after the Russian invasion, when volunteers had brought 25 tonnes of aid.
At the time, Ms Twomey said she and her fellow volunteers had been deeply affected by “the people’s plight, and the gut-wrenching pain on the faces of the children and all fleeing this terrible war”.
The second mission, a month later, saw volunteers bringing 50 tonnes of aid, and now, on this mission, over 80 tonnes were delivered to refugee centres along the border, to orphanages and hospitals in Ukraine, and to the towns and villages around Kyiv and Borodyanka, which are currently experiencing severe food shortages.
The volunteers also paid for a large consignment of fresh bread to be distributed in the area by their friend, Ukrainian volunteer Max Koronenko. Ms Twomey said her fellow volunteers had been “front of house” to an operation which had required months of planning by dozens of people.
“We have to thank the Penny Dinners volunteers at home in Cork, our own families, our employers, Conal’s Tree Services, the Port of Cork, Ryan’s SuperValu, our sponsors, and especially every supporter who donated time, or money, or aid,” Ms Twomey said.
Ms Twomey singled out the Red Cross, schoolchildren who had raised funds, the Irish Centre in Liverpool, the Everton Supporters Club in Liverpool, “and everyone who helped in any way”.
She thanked logistics firm DB Schencker for sponsoring the delivery of the 80 tonnes of aid to Poland, and CGI in Midleton for packing and storing the aid.
Ms Twomey thanked each of the volunteers on the mission: Kieran Coniry, Dave Feeney, Tomas Kalinauskas, Lesley O’Sullivan, and Conal Thomas, and said they had been exceptional ambassadors for the generosity of the people of Cork.
Ms Twomey said the mission had been tough, not least because it had coincided with a heat wave in Poland.
“The conditions we had to work in were difficult, with temperatures often unbearable, and we faced long delays at times; plans had to be changed, and often changed again,” she said.
“While that could be frustrating, we gave it our all, and no matter how many times we were forced to change our plans, we stuck to our key goal, which was to get aid to the people who needed it most.”
She added that the volunteers had never lost sight of the reason for their mission.
“We saw things that hurt us, we heard things that frightened us, that touched us, and that showed us how war can strip people of everything, even control over their own lives,” she said.
She said she found particularly moving the reactions of Ukrainian people who had expressed their gratitude to the Irish people for their support.
In Kraków, they met with officials in City Hall, where they discussed the best way to get aid to refugees staying in the city, and they made an important contact in aid-worker Alen Ruznić, who is working at the city’s Plaza refugee centre.
“A lot of the work we did was in making contacts, and in planning for the next mission, and the mission after that,” Ms Twomey said.
“We made contact with the mayors of Kraków, Kyiv, and Borodyanka, and it’s all about building up a network to make things run smoother the next time.”
One of the volunteers, Conal Thomas, agreed, saying that while he believed this mission had been of great benefit, the next one would be better.
“This has been a huge stepping stone to our next visit,” Mr Thomas said.
Ms Twomey added that while they were in Ukraine, they had seen a woman watching them transfer aid into the trucks bound for Kyiv, and when they were finished, the woman had put her hand to her heart and then pointed toward them.
“That said everything, and that made all the work worthwhile,” Ms Twomey said.
The volunteers return home this evening.
- Echo reporter Donal O’Keeffe travelled to the Ukrainian border with the Cork Penny Dinners humanitarian mission. Read his daily diary reports on www.echolive.ie