Helping Our Ukrainian Friends group from Stamford, Helpston and Peterborough set for biggest delivery of aid
A group of volunteers will hit the road later this month on their biggest humanitarian aid mission to help victims of war in Ukraine.
Helping Our Ukrainian Friends (HOUF) was set up after an impromptu meeting of friends in the Bluebell Inn, in Helpston, in March last year, shortly after the Russian invasion began.
Working closely with other groups in the Stamford area, its 12th mercy dash to Poland is set to leave the village on Thursday, November 23, with the appeal for cash and aid in full swing.
More than £3,500 of the £25,000 target has been raised to buy items for the trip and help cover transport costs, while more schools, churches and pubs around the region are taking in donations.
“We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response,” said founder Richard Astle.
“We have more collection points and our biggest-ever team going over. Even if we fill the vans, everything else will still get delivered.”
This year’s winter mission will involve 18 volunteers, most of whom will take it in turns driving three-hour stints over to Gliwice, a town close to the Polish border with Ukraine.
From Gliwice, the supplies from the three laden vans will be transferred onto Polish lorries and taken across the border into Ukraine where Ukrainian couriers will then take it to frontline communities.
This year’s convoy will be bolstered by two decommissioned NHS ambulances, donated for a new life helping wounded Ukrainian troops.
Among the drivers will be Olena Popova, a Ukrainian refugee living in Ketton, whose husband Konstantin was killed in the war shortly before she arrived here.
Making his 10th trip, Richard will drive one of the ambulances beyond Gliwice and on to Kyiv, if safe to do so – a journey of 1,524 miles.
From there, the ambulances filled with medical supplies will be taken to the frontline.
Drivers for this final leg could include Jack Holly, a volunteer medivac driver and aid worker from Stamford with whom HOUF is in regular contact.
For Richard, the trip will also be a chance to meet an old friend, a surgeon in the Ukrainian capital who helped inspire the group’s formation.
“This will be the first time we have been all the way to Kyiv,” said Richard.
“When we see the Welcome to Kyiv sign for the first time I know it will be very emotional.”
There has also been an avalanche of Christmas giftboxes for children.
These good acts and support together helps to restore faith and positivity in the face of destruction and chaos.
“The symbolism of the giftboxes is very powerful,” said Richard.
“The kids love them, and for the mothers it means so much to know they are still in our thoughts. It is the message of support that they symbolise.”
The business world has also been heavily involved.
Price comparison website, Compare The Market, bought £2,000 of food for the next trip, while Hindmarch Garage, in Stamford, provided free MoTs for the ambulances.
“The support we’ve had from businesses has been phenomenal,” said Richard.
“This is all an example of what communities can do.
“When they come together and work together they really can make a big difference. It is a message of hope.”
Priority items invited this year include sleeping bags and camping stoves, as well as LED lights and the battery packs they run off.
Petrol chainsaws are also in high demand for woodcutting during winter – an invaluable power resource while the electricity supply remains disrupted.
“The really important thing is getting the things to the frontline and we’ve built up a trusted network of contacts so we can take things from Stamford and show it being delivered in the Dombass, in Kherson, and Kharkiv,” Richard added.
Since that evening in the village pub, the group – which does not have charity status – has raised £186,000 in cash donations and delivered more than 30 tons of food and two tons of medical supplies.
Yet Richard believes it will be tough to maintain this momentum next year as an attritional conflict drags on into its second winter and continues to slide down the news agenda.
“Our biggest challenge is how we maintain levels of engagement in future,” Richard said.
“This isn’t just about a humanitarian disaster and getting aid to people who need it.
“I personally feel it’s our war. Our democratic values, way of life and the security of the continent is under threat.
“If Russia were to win the war, which could still happen, then the consequences for us could be quite severe.”
To donate, visit www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/helpingourukrainianfriends2023