When Lorne Adrain, businessman and former mayoral candidate for Providence – as well as founder or board member of countless philanthropic organizations – talks about his success, he calls on the Stone Soup folk story. A hungry traveler sets up a pot of boiling water in the middle of a village and starts adding stones; villagers take notice and contribute their carrots, potatoes, cabbages. “And before you know it, everybody’s bringing something to the soup. I love that dynamic,” says Adrain.
From founding Social Enterprise Greenhouse to his latest endeavor, the social impact leadership accelerator Global Fellows in Courage (which will soon host human rights advocates from around the world in the iconic Corliss-Carrington House on the East Side), Adrain shares that there’s always countless others bringing their ideas to the pot, too. And a recent trip to Poland–Ukraine border grew legs in a similar way.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, like many others, Adrain was watching the crisis unfold on TV and wanted to find a way to help. “I put stuff on my Facebook page about signing up to be a host family, sending some money here and there, but I really wanted to do more, and then a few weeks into the thing, I saw a Facebook post from Meredith Pearson,” a longtime friend and neighbor.
Right before spring break, Pearson saw a tweet from UMass Amherst professor Charli Carpenter calling on academics with the week off to board a plane and head for Przemyśl, a city in Poland near the border of Ukraine. With her three teenage kids away for the week, Pearson says, “I realized, ‘wait I could actually do that.’
“I worked in the human rights and nonprofit worlds and the intersection of the humanitarian sphere professionally before I had kids, so I was cautious about the idea because I know that it’s usually less helpful when random volunteers just show up and insist on helping,” Pearson continues. “I called [Carpenter] up and basically said, ‘Are you sure there’s really this need?’ because the last thing I would want to do is go there and just get in the way.”
She learned that there weren’t a lot of established international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) at the Polish border yet and there was a real need for drivers who could transport people crossing the border to train stations, processing centers, or other destinations. Pearson left the very next day.
“It was more ad hoc than I could ever even imagine,” Pearson recalls. Polish residents and church organizations were leading the efforts, supported by World Central Kitchen and volunteers from all over. With a GoFundMe page bringing in donations for supplies and a rented van, Pearson made her way to Hrebenne, a village right on the border, and joined a group shuttling refugees from the crossing to a
“These people had been traveling for days; they were exhausted. They’ve been sleeping in buses and floors and bomb shelters that they escaped from to come here,” says Pearson, who started using donated funds to put families up in a hotel room for a night. “It started out as just driving, but in partnership with the hotel [I was staying at], it became a sort of broader scope of caretaking.”
As Pearson’s week was coming to a close, Adrain, who had been following her efforts, wanted to take the baton. Following a Zoom meeting he organized with Pearson and a handful of interested colleagues, he met up with longtime friend (and URI fraternity brother) Jim Buehler in Warsaw.
“It was an experience I had never had before right out of the gate, landing in Warsaw
and seeing this mass of humanity with their belongings and bags trying to find a safe place to be. I think it became very real at that point,” reflects Adrain. Like Pearson, he and Buehler rented a large van and connected with other volunteers through WhatsApp, responding to calls for transport and supplies as the need arose.
Meanwhile, the GoFundMe account was going strong. Between it and other channels, Pearson’s and Adrain’s fundraising efforts had brought in close to $100,000. Along with purchasing basic supplies, “we used donations to buy things like generators and chainsaws – they used chainsaws to cut down trees and pile them across roads to slow the Russian convoys,” says Adrain. “We were buying and securing Kevlar and other body armor and finding ways to get that into Ukraine.”
Adrain notes feeling both heartbroken for the Ukrainian refugees’ plight and inspired by their sheer gratitude, as well as the Polish response. “There’s no refugee centers, there’s just Polish people taking all of these people into their homes.”
Now, though back home from their trips, both Pearson and Adrain stay connected with the contacts they made. Donations still trickle into Pearson’s GoFundMe page, which go directly to families and organizations. “Life is expensive, and life when you’re starting from scratch is overwhelming,” Pearson says of the continued need refugees are facing.
For Adrain, the trip inspired him to think bigger. “I’m trying to figure out whether the experience that Meredith and I had is something that we can bring to scale,” he shares. Collaborating with global and local connections, he’s working on creating a platform targeting the Harvard alumni community (and if it takes off, other alumni networks, as well) to demystify the ways people can help during a crisis.
“Ukraine will need volunteers for a long, long time, building homes and villages and cities and schools and hospitals and so on, but there will also be other disasters in the world,” says Adrain. “The beautiful thing is that there are people everywhere who want to help. If we can lower the barriers, make it easier for someone to see how to get involved, where they should donate – if we can get another 4,000 people to do something, that’s a big deal.”
To follow along the continued updates or donate, visit Meredith Pearson’s fundraising page: GoFundMe.com/f/Help-Ukrainian-Refugees-In-Przemysl
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