Report on Ukrainian Food Drive in Torun, Poland
By Wendy Melvin
I would like to report on an initiative that I undertook in Poland recently. Acting in the capacity of Team Manager representing Canada at the World Masters Track and Field Championships between March 25th and April 1, 2023, I had the good fortune and capacity to reach 4,200 athletes from 55 countries around the world and wanted to create athlete engagement around a Ukrainian Food Drive during our stay.
On March 15, 2023, I initiated a communication to the Team Manager from Holland who has influential communication channels with the executive of World Masters Athletics (WMA), specifically to help me both explore the viability and navigate the possibility of establishing a Ukrainian Refugee fundraising initiative for the duration of the WMA championships.
With a bit of prior investigation, I learned of a very important foundation named Fundacja EMIC (website address is https://emic.com.pl) who are present in the Torun and Bydgoszcz region of Poland. The EMIC has broadly served approximately 33,000 Ukrainians in the past year who now reside between these areas with general necessities, and more specifically in recent months, offer all of the key services so to safely and effectively settle newly arriving families (approximately 4,000 people) into unfamiliar surroundings. Each person receives somewhat customized support depending on their needs. From Canada, the justification for the initiative was clear. But how to execute was challenging given that there was no visibility on whether there could be interest to use the WMA platform as a place for such an initiative, and, we were a mere 10 days away from the commencement of the championships.
Within one week prior to departing for Poland, we received approvals from WMA executive, the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) of the WMA championships and the Torun City Council to proceed.
A letter to define and request participation in the fundraising program was created and immediately shared with all of the world’s Team Managers through What’s App. Within days, I received commitments from several key countries (Holland, Spain, Australia, England, USA, Finland, Sweden and Austria) of their eagerness to share my letter with their athletes both ahead of and during the championships. This was a very good start as it would reach more than 25% of the athletes ahead of our arrival in Poland. Flyers and one very large campaign banner were printed in Toronto and off to Poland we were with a plan.
Upon arrival to the competition stadium, a booth location had already been chosen for us in a key, high-traffic position at the competition arena where all athletes and spectators have to pass through every day. On the first day of the championships, we noticed that two charities EMIC and an additional charity named Dobra DLA Dobra were now involved with the initiative. The LOC explained that the needs in Poland are far more diverse than we imagined. While EMIC, our originally intended recipient of goods focuses on the needs of families, Dobra DLA Dobra focuses on the needs of the soldiers and medical teams on the Polish side of the border. Our comprehension of the scale of actual needs for war relief grew with these insights. We also gained an immense understanding of the strain placed on the people in Poland who have selflessly been at work helping the refugees now for over one year. The two agencies agreed to work together and the project became even more important than we ever could have imagined.
Commencing March 25, Canadian Masters athletes and athletes from around the world started to generously collect non-perishable food items from nearby grocery stores for donation to these organizations. Day by day, the donations grew and grew and grew. One incredible American athlete crocheted a blue and yellow baby blanket with a message that brought us all to tears. It read
“To whomever receives this blanket, I made this blanket as a way to show my support for the people of Ukraine. Sending love and peace to you!”
I am proud to confirm that our donations have gone directly into the hands of the Ukrainian people. There has been joy, and there have been tears. But in the end, we have made a difference. As of April 1st, 1,000 pounds of non-perishable food, along with money in the equivalent of $1,000.00, CDN was directly distributed to those in need. In some cases, we have even been blessed with corporate matching programs so the dollar amount is likely to increase in the coming weeks.
The incredible energy and generosity of our global athletes made this all possible. And I want to recognize everyone who took time from their competition focus to show their compassion for not only the Ukrainians but also, the good people of Poland who have carried the heavy weight of welcoming 1.2 million individuals to Poland in the last year.
To give greater context to this incredible initiative, I was privileged to have visited the offices of EMIC, the registered charitable organization mentioned above that serve to integrate Ukrainian refugees into Poland’s society. The offices have a food drive for weekly needs, a medical advisor, a career counselor and Polish as a second language classes; services which are all offered without delay. I personally felt the anguish on the faces of those who had just arrived in Poland and saw the masked heartbreak on the faces of those a bit further along and presently enrolled in language class. I also saw the strength and conviction of the Ukrainian people to rebuild their lives as quickly as possible. And I received in-depth explanations from the five incredible case workers who tirelessly endeavour to give hope and much-needed services to people who have had to leave their world behind. The long-range effort that goes into integrating the children, for example, is remarkable. But above all, I saw firsthand, the impact of war on beautiful human beings, and this time, it was in stark present.
Back at the stadium, handing food to a Ukrainian grandmother who is caring for the welfare of three generations of refugee family members was poignant on so many levels. Her tears became my tears. My tears in the present were also my tears from the stories of my past. Through this interaction, I saw my Polish great-grandparents who perished in a town not so far away in the eyes of this elder who accepted our food. I also saw my grandparents’ fear and blind trust in the faces of the young people who were navigating their harsh reality in language class much as might have been true during the early days of arriving in Canada. And for long moments in time, I watched young children so innocently laughing and playing in their Rynek (the town square). My great-grandfather was the butcher and a Rabbi who lived with the family at 6 Rynek in the small town of Chmielow. As I stood in the Rynek of Torun and watched life unfold around me, looking at buildings that had been untouched by war, these children became my grandparents. And while I will never replace these sights with actual stories of my past, I found tremendous peace in knitting a visual story together of perhaps what might have been.
There are signs of Jewish life returning to Torun and it was comforting to see clear acknowledgement of the 1,000 Jews who formerly lived in the town. Believe it or not, one of the favourite drinks during Easter is Passover Slivovitz. It is well stocked in grocery stores. A new craft cider labelled Sadowski, white wine named Perry Lubelski, sitting alongside Genesis wine from Israel was pleasing to see. And the coffee shop whose food display was stacked with lox and cream cheese on bagel choices, evidence or signals to me of some sort of redemption.
If you have not been able to find a meaningful way to support the Ukrainian people in the past year, I stand behind my recommendation to donate money to the amazing group at EMIC who have taken on the responsibility to create a safety net of settlement services for hundreds and hundreds of refugees. Their ongoing need for support in funding the services they provide revolves on a weekly basis. I know Olga and her team personally and the work they do is life-changing.
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