A trans-Atlantic journey topping 4,400 miles begins in the Locust Valley living room of barista and yoga teacher Sasha Johnstone, who has been collecting and boxing donations bound for war-torn Ukraine.
Before those cardboard boxes of gauze, bandages, tourniquets, painkillers and other badly needed medical supplies can be trucked throughout Ukraine from a depot in the western city of Lviv, there are stops at a Coney Island auto garage operating as a makeshift warehouse and an international shipper in New Jersey.
Then, the goods, in shrink-wrap, go aboard flights to a Polish airport and are driven across the border to Ukraine, via a clandestine route that is always changing in order to avoid Russian interference — or worse for the driver.
"I felt so helpless being here in the U.S., not being able to do anything, refreshing the news every minute, worrying about my family and friends and their families. I couldn’t function; it was eating me alive," said Johnstone, 27, who was born in Ukraine and emigrated in 2015.
When Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Long Islanders started donating. They've given clothing, medical supplies, toiletries, cash and more. At schools. At VFW halls. At churches and Jewish centers and government buildings.
On a recent rainy Sunday, volunteers collected and packed donations at an East Hills Jewish Community Center "Curb Your Mitzvah" drive. Days earlier, a bariatric surgeon in Huntington invited the public to drop off donations for Ukraine.
And the St. Vladimir Parish Center in Uniondale has become a makeshift warehouse, jampacked with donations in the dance hall, pavilion and throughout much of the ballroom, according to Oleh N. Dekajlo, president of Long Island’s chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.
"The father allowed us to use it there, and now it’s become overwhelmed to the point where they can’t even rent out the hall for their regular affairs," said Dekajlo, who is awaiting the arrival of a donated 40-foot-long storage container to go on the parish property.
The surge in donations presents a logistical challenge: how to ship the goods into a war zone.
"As soon as you say, ‘We want to do something for the Ukraine, OK, what can I do?’ And boom! Boxes show up, things show up," said Sal Ferro, a Huntington councilman, whose town hall has collected goods. "And now it’s a matter of, OK how can we coordinate this all and get this over there to help these people?"
Much of what’s donated on Long Island is trucked via the Long Island Expressway and other highways to depots, such as in Brooklyn’s Coney Island neighborhood and Manhattan’s East Village, a portion of which is known as Little Ukraine.
Viktoria Zvaryshchuk, a 23-year-old Ukrainian in Brooklyn who moved to the United States about five years ago, helped unload the donations collected by Johnstone, who brought them with her from Locust Valley to Brooklyn on Thursday.
Those donations had come in starting March 5 mostly from a drop-off spot at the Locust Valley coffee shop Karmic Grind, one of Johnstone's employers. They came via local customers and others who had heard about her efforts. At the end of each shift, Johnstone would load up her Nissan Sentra with the day's haul and sort the goods that night, sometimes until 3 a.m, she said.
Zvaryshchuk, a cosmetologist, now devotes nearly all her time to the donation effort.
"Because in Ukraine is a war," she said. "Because all my family are there. All the people need help — a lot of refugees who came from east to west Ukraine, and they have nothing. They have no food, no clothes, they lost their homes."
Her own mom, dad, grandparents and parents’ siblings still live there.
"I’m here alone," Zvaryshchuk said. "All my family are there."
A long, perilous journey to Ukraine
As of Thursday, the Coney Island depot had filled three or four planes with donations.
From the depot, the goods are driven to the cargo shippers — Port Reading, New Jersey-based Meest and another in New Jersey, Dnipro (named after the Ukrainian city), by volunteers with trucks.
Meest means "Bridge" in Ukrainian, according to manager of human resources Myroslava Downey, who has also overseen the company's public relations since the invasion. The company specializes in shipping to Ukraine and its profit-making business is down 95% due to the war. It has handled 400 tons of donations, Downey said.
Once the donations from Coney Island, the other depot in the East Village, or elsewhere arrive in New Jersey, boxes are unloaded. Goods are inspected and sorted into categories.
What’s unsuitable — unseasonable clothing, items that can’t go on a plane, such as aerosols — are thrown out. What’s most needed, such as medical supplies, is prioritized. Then the donations are placed onto pallets, a wooden or plastic base that is then shrink-wrapped, loaded onto tractor trailer trucks, driven to Kennedy or Newark Liberty airports and flown to Polish cities, such as Warsaw and Krakow.
Then begins a treacherous part: trucking the donations into Ukraine itself — via "green zones," which are believed to be safe from the Russian military.
"We have to be careful. There is a daily green zone established. We will only deliver to those areas. And needless to say that our drivers there are operating under difficult conditions because it’s changing daily," Downey said. Those zones, she said, are designated by the Ukrainian government.
The path can be circuitous to the destination, Lviv, a hub where the goods are put onto other trucks to go where they’re most needed.
"From Lviv, it goes to all the hot spots," said Serge Sklyarenko, speaking by cellphone on the Belt Parkway, in traffic, as he drove his black BMW sedan, packed with night vision technology, bulletproof vests, helmets, binoculars, boots, a drone, and thermal undergarments, bound for a drop-off spot in Brooklyn.
Sklyarenko, 52, a Ukrainian-American, is one of the volunteers who has helped shuttle goods off Long Island and onward, eventually bound for Ukraine.
"I just want to help fellow Ukranians. It’s in my heart. It’s in my blood. I have to. I can’t do anything else," said Sklyarenko, who lives in Long Island City, Queens.
Most critically needed items: First-aid supplies and more
For now, the most urgently needed items are first-aid supplies, cartons of aspirin, sterile syringes, tourniquets and blood-clotting equipment to treat wounded civilians or military personnel, as well as helmets and bulletproof vests, Dekajlo said.
Some items, such as clothing, are low on the priority list.
"I understand that people want to give, but we have to politely tell them now that we just don’t have the space to be able to take in clothing, because there really is not that much need for clothing presently," he said.
Donating cash instead of goods skips the cross-Atlantic shipping pipeline, and allows for items to be purchased directly in Europe, Dekajlo said.
Cash donations "ensure donation management does not detract from disaster recovery needs," the nonprofit Center for Disaster Philanthropy wrote in a recent blog post.
On Long Island, a nonprofit overseen by the Ukrainian committee has established a separate bank account with Chase, and accepts payments via Zelle, the app Venmo and through checks. Donations have ranged from $5 and $10 to $5,000 and more, Dekajlo said.
Even if cash is preferable, Dekajlo said, the committee is accepting most goods people donate, "not turning down something that they give from their hearts."
"It’s a delicate balance there. We don’t want to just say no. But given an opportunity, we would love to be able to get the money over there, or at the very least the medical equipment, because we know that’ll get there faster," he said.
To combat fraud and make sure the money is used only as donors expect, the committee does test purchases — for example, of a United Kingdom-based distributor of bulletproof vests, helmets and war goggles. Promised delivery time: 48 hours.
"We have to make sure that nobody’s skimming money, nobody’s stealing money — that the stuff actually gets there. So we’ve been tracking this stuff," Dekajlo said.
Assuming the promised items arrive as expected, bigger purchases will follow.
Dekajlo is happy to see donations of supplies from Long Island that could be used by the military.
The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office gave 449 bulletproof vests — bulletproof and stab-proof "to a point" — that were being decommissioned, and replaced, and would have otherwise been shipped back to the manufacturer, said spokesman Sgt. Paul Spinella.
Legal permission to export material like bulletproof vests ("You need a license for that," Spinella said) had been secured by the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, he said. Spinella added that the office is awaiting receipt of a copy of the document granting legal permission.
Last Monday, workers from the Hauppauge-based College HUNKS Hauling Junk & Moving service took charge of four pallets of the vests, which typically cost about $1,000 each.
"The Ukrainian Congress Committee signed for it," Spinella said. "And the College HUNKS, if you will, loaded it onto their trucks."
Meanwhile, in Nassau, County Executive Bruce Blakeman sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for legal permission so that more than 50 working rifles collected during a county drive could be sent to Ukraine.
The status of that request is unclear; the White House press office didn’t return a message seeking comment.
With Nicholas Spangler