By Colton Edson
In June of 2022 I saw that an old construction client of mine was traveling to Warsaw, Poland to remodel an old public building into an aid center for autistic refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. I jumped on the opportunity and after a brief meeting with him, I proposed the idea to DHC. I asked if they would support me taking some time off to go and do what I could to help, and within hours I had approval and overwhelming support that would spread to a go fund me that many of my coworkers contributed to. A week before I was due to fly to Warsaw for 11 days, the plan completely fell through when the Polish government decided to go with local builders instead of foreign volunteers. With only a week to find somewhere else that could use me, I sourced my social media network, and through a friend of a friend, I got the contact for an organization named Poland Welcomes.
Located only a few miles from the border of Ukraine near the main crossing point for fleeing refugees, Poland Welcomes operates 4 shelters with a capacity for around 1,100 women and children. Days later I was flying alone into the Warsaw airport and picking up my rental car to drive 4 hours south to the border. I arrived and met up with another volunteer, an Irish man named John who had put his life on pause and spent the last 6 months living at or near the shelters, volunteering and eventually getting put on as staff through funding form the United Nations. The shelter I spent most of my time at was an old school dormitory that had sat vacant for the previous decade. The building was in very rough shape, and we helped by cleaning rooms and building bunk beds, fitting as many as 24 people into a room. We fixed plumbing issues and installed new sinks so that each of the four floors had a functioning kitchen with running water. We installed new screens that were purchased with donations in all the windows in the main mess hall where everyone ate three times a day and had previously been overrun with flies. I spent one day building a fence between two wings of the building which doubled the contained, safe places that the kids would have to play outside. Security had to be very tight at these shelters as human trafficking was skyrocketing around the border, particularly for young women and children. As soon as I felt like I was hitting my groove and building relationships with the people staying in and operating these shelters, it was time to come home. After a heartbreaking goodbye and somber drive back to Warsaw I knew I had to try and come back if I ever could.
After about 2 months back home I pitched a return trip to my work and was encouraged yet again to go do what I could to help those in need. With a clearer idea of what I was returning to, I invited a friend to join me and together we spent 15 days in late November working at Poland Welcomes’ two largest shelters. In contrast to the late evenings and high temps of late July, we were greeted on our second day with the first snow of the season as the high temps topped out at about 32 degrees every day. The largest shelter, the one I had worked almost exclusively at on my first trip, had no heat. So, while contractors installed several dozen radiators, we were working at their second shelter which had heat but was in the middle of renovations to accommodate a full capacity of refugees through the winter. We met back up with John who was almost 9 months into his effort with the organization at this point. Together, we spent our first week there repairing cracked walls and ceilings, painting rooms and hallways and building more bunk beds. Our goal was to assist in completing the renovations as quickly as possible so incoming refugees from the recently liberated Kherson region could move directly into a heated and prepared shelter and not have to be relocated elsewhere. Our second week was spent at the larger shelter tackling the worst rooms of the building that had been avoided and made them into bunk rooms. We spent the whole week clearing the rooms, removing old pipes and electrical equipment from the walls, patching, and repairing cracks and plaster, painting and building more bunks before calling them complete. Two weeks again flew by, and we said our goodbyes, not knowing what the fate of any of these women and children would be but knowing we did all that we could with the time we had. None of this would have been possible without the overwhelming support of family, friends, and especially my work, DHC.