Resident Reflects on Experiences as an Aid Volunteer in Ukraine

May 2, 2024

Glancing out at passing late-April traffic on The Great Road, Richard Comeau reflected on his whereabouts a couple of weeks earlier. 

“We got a full container of medical aid products dropped in western Ukraine. We sorted and delivered it by cars. I woke up in Mykolaiv, did the run to Kherson, then a run to Kyiv, all with people volunteering in some way to help.”

The Bedford resident recently returned from his fourth volunteer trip to the war-torn region since the Russian invasion in February 2022, and he expects to return for another stint in September. 

“Each time I’ve gone, it has been a little different and I’ve learned more,” Comeau said. “It’s so gratifying to see people doing this for no other reason than doing the right thing.”

Comeau, 62, a software engineer who calls himself “quasi-retired,” credited his wife, Alison Malkin, with the idea.

 “I had never been much of a volunteer for anything. My wife said, ‘If what you see on the news is bothering you, do something.’ I don’t think she was thinking about going to Ukraine.

“Once you do it, you know that what you’re doing is right,” he explained. “And once you get into it, you do more. There are people there who need help.”

Comeau served a couple of three-week volunteer stints in Poland near the Ukraine border in the spring of 2022, helping prepare and distribute food for World Central Kitchen. When the operation moved to Ukraine, he discovered that it was excluding foreign volunteers, so in looking for other opportunities, he discovered UAid Direct.

UAid Direct (https://www.uaiddirect.org) is a small non-governmental organization, one of many that Comeau said have sprung up to help beleaguered Ukrainians. The outfit is “a handful of people doing the right thing and doing it well.” 

The principals come from London and Vienna, he said, and there is a core of long-term volunteers and no paid staff. “My role was to augment the team, to help fund the mission defray expenses, and to tell their story.”

“People want to give to large NGOs, but it’s the smaller ones that are doing the work in Ukraine,” he said. UAid Direct is part of a network of NGOs “that work collaboratively and cooperatively.” 

If the destination is near the front, “we go there, we deliver the aid, and we get out.” Russia maintains drone coverage over all of the front lines, and “they do target aid workers. They also target medical facilities.”

It wasn’t that complicated to go, he said; “you sign up on the website and you show up, joining others from many parts of the world, “some of the most giving and brave people I ever met.

“We don’t just go hand out stuff. Every mission is carefully planned and targeted to a destination – a vulnerable village or a medical operation near the front lines,” Comeau said. “Sometimes you buy stuff in a safe part of Ukraine and deliver to places near the front. To get to those places you have to go through multiple checkpoints and you have to have a reason for being there.”

Most of the aid goes directly to civilians, as well as some hospitals. UAid also supports an orphanage near Mikolaiv, helping improve and expand the facilities. Another project is a traveling clown who entertains children.

One impression he repeated often was that, amidst a devastating war in a country of 40 million people, “what’s striking is that life goes on. I could access the Internet. There are traffic jams, there are malls, people going out to eat. People in villages living their lives.” And “there are so many places that you see destroyed – civilian places.”

En route to missions, Comeau and fellow volunteers ate in restaurants and spent nights in cheap hotels – reserving through booking.com. 

“As a short-term volunteer, I help to defray those costs as we go, although nothing is required,” he noted. 

Visiting the capital Kyiv, he was a tourist, even as a Russian missile destroyed the main power plant. “We went to a big box store in Kharkiv, bought shovels, axes, saws, extension cords, kettles, wood stoves” for delivery to remote areas.

There’s no sugar-coating the situation, particularly in the eastern part of the country, where “we could see smoke from the front lines.” The volunteers have to watch for land mines, butterfly mines, kamikaze drones, and artillery shells. There are collaborators in the villages in contact with Russians. 

“I was working with people who knew what they were doing, people with whom I trusted my life. These folks literally risk their lives.

“We were at villages that were threatened, where many older people are reluctant to leave, or can’t leave,” Comeau said. He met a 97-year-old resident “who wanted to hold our hands. He said a prayer, thanking and blessing us.”

Comeau isn’t telling his story as a recruiter. “People ask, ‘How can I help?’ First is to vote, be aware of the issues. Read the news about Ukraine; get it from multiple sources,” he said. “Then, if you can, donate. If anyone is interested in helping but doesn’t know what to do then they can contact me at [email protected].”

“Most frustrating for me is to watch this turn into a political issue where Russian propaganda is parroted on the floor of the House of Representatives,” Comeau said. “I know most of what they say is not true. It’s anti-American because this is in our interest, a free country that we promised we would help.”

How hard is it to transition from the battle-scarred Ukraine to bucolic Bedford? “I also like having a normal life,” Comeau said. He said he was especially inspired by his family: “My wife is a social worker, my example of how to be a better person. And my son Evan has his own way of being kind, of doing the right thing.”

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