Local Ukranian advocates support ‘kids club’

Children play at the Jamestown Ukraine Relief Project’s fundraiser in August at Lawn School, which helped support the Ukrainian Children’s Action Project with building a youth enrichment center and recovery camp, below, in Lviv. The camp allows refugees to “safely begin to process the losses and dislocation.”

John Andrews, founder of the Jamestown Ukraine Relief Project, has been at the fundraising forefront on the local level to support the citizens of Ukraine, which has been under attack by the Russians for 18 months.

Money from his nonprofit organization, raised through donations at events sponsored by the group, has been funneled to Ukraine to provide doctors, feed the hungry and support refugees. His group’s latest successful venture was born from a single question.

“What can we do for Ukraine’s children?” he asked.

Andrews answered that inquiry after getting in touch with the Ukrainian Children’s Action Project, which was formed to “help address the critical and growing needs of traumatized Ukrainian kids who are exposed to the unrelenting attacks of the Russian military.”

Founded and managed by Dr. Irwin Redlener and his wife, Karen, Andrews learned about their plan to build a youth enrichment center in Lviv. The center will include an art studio, which Andrews said was a serendipitous fit for Jamestown’s artistic community.

“Many of these kids, hundreds and thousands of them, have been dislocated or removed from their homes,” Andrews said. “They’re either in exile outside the country or, more critically, still inside the country and still having to deal with bomb shelters every night. They arrived in their places in western Ukraine with knapsacks. That’s about it.”

Best way to help

According to the children’s project, approximately two-thirds of Ukrainian children younger than 15 have fled the besieged area in the eastern section of Ukraine. The invasion not only has resulted in severe trauma, the Redleners said, but it also has disrupted their education. Addressing both the trauma and critical schooling gaps, plans for the youth center were formulated with the goal to serve about 300 children between the ages of 5-18 in Lviv.

The idea surfaced when the Redleners visited the Polish city of Warsaw in April 2022 to see where one of the largest groups of Ukrainian refugees were staying. The mission, according to Karen Redlener, was to talk to these children so they could identify what their needs were.

“While we were there, we visited many different shelters where refugees were housed,” she said. “We also visited a school and talked to the teachers and the students. Ukrainian students were there. We learned a lot about what the challenges were for children and families, and realized that so much of our experience working with children in crisis was very relevant to understanding what these kids were going through. We really knew from our experience that the kids would be challenged with educational continuity, especially in different countries, and different languages would be a challenge. And, of course, the psychological trauma that they experienced by fleeing violence and war in such a dramatic way.”

Listening to these children, Ira Redlener, a pediatrician, thought building an enrichment center as “an indispensable educational resource and learning space” would be the ideal fit for a similar refugee population in Lviv, western Ukraine’s largest city.

The new center also will feature an art studio, which inspired Andrews and his group to get involved. Buoyed by $21,000 raised at their “Stepping Out for Ukraine” fundraiser in June at Fort Getty, the group was able to meet its goal of $30,500 to fully pay for the project.

“Our decision to fund the art studio honors the strong support we have received from Jamestown artists,” the organization said, “and reflects the importance of art as a vehicle to express and work through the extraordinary challenges and trauma faced by children in a war zone.”

The ‘Kids Club’

The Ukrainian Children’s Action Project has been transforming a vacant building in Lviv into a renovated space that will offer classes for primary and high school students, including English, mathematics, literature and history. They also will offer college-prep courses, sports and psychological therapy. The Redleners have hired a director to oversee the operations at the center, which will open in October.

“It’s called the kids club,” Karen Redlener said. “The director had this vision for building a center in a neighborhood that was low income and where a lot of displaced families were living. This was a vacant building for many years and she had this vision of building a kids’ center so close to these families. We were very inspired by that. What the Jamestown program really liked about it was that they’re an artistic community. That was really a good alignment, a good connection for our program and their program.”

Another notable contributor to the group is American musician Joan Baez, who coincidentally made her professional singing debut at the Newport Folk Festival just 2 miles from Jamestown. Her paintings of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have raised $125,000 for the organization. A friend of the Redleners, Baez has traveled to Ukraine and Poland with them to meet refugees. She also appeared alongside Ira Redlener on MSNBC to draw attention to their cause.

“Of the 7.5 million children, five million of them were displaced by the war,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what happened already … Investing in children we feel is an investment in the future of Ukraine.”

The Redleners also offer five-day recovery camps so Ukrainian children can “safely begin to process the losses and dislocation.” The local group has provided the Ukraine project with $12,000 to support those recovery efforts and also donated $3,000 toward purchasing tablets for remote learning.

“It’s vital to keep public attention on what’s going on in Ukraine because it’s easy to lose track of this very, very important story,” Andrews said. “That’s another big piece of what we’re trying to do.”