®International Charitable Fund "GIFT OF LIFE"

Oregon Observer Article

Reprinted from the March 17, 2022 issue (Vol. 137, No. 38) of The Oregon Observer, Oregon, WI

Helping from afar

Prayer service at Oregon church helps fund Ukrainian humanitarian, relief efforts


Staff reporter

When Nick and Kerri Laper left Ukraine for an international vacation in mid-February, they had pondered to their travel agent about whether they’d be able to come back.

At that point, there were rumblings of military action by the Russian military, but the Lapers’ travel agent had been more flippant about it, convinced an invasion wouldn’t happen. So the couple packed up their momentos just in case before leaving for vacation in Egypt – and haven’t returned since, as a no-fly zone was established in Ukraine.

Nick said in the days and weeks leading up to the invasion, many like their travel agent were in denial, or downplayed any possible Russian occupation by saying that it’s happened before, and they’d get through it just like they did then.

“The attitude of the people was pretty standard, this isn’t going to happen,” he said. “When we left, things were going along pretty normally … as we got closer to the date that we would leave, I asked the travel agent, ‘With everything coming down, what happens if we can’t get back?’

“She was like, ‘Oh, c’mon … we’ve never not brought a charter back,’” Nick added.

Instead, the Lapers are now back at their Fitchburg home – where they spend around a third of their year as they’ve split their time between Wisconsin and Ukraine for the last two decades. There, they are working daily to keep their mission work going by funneling shipments of food into the war-torn country through their networks of people in Poland and Ukraine, as well as keep tabs on their staff, some of whom have fled the country and others who have been forced to stay because they are men between the ages of 18-60.

The Lapers, along with others who have connections to Ukraine, spoke at Faith Lutheran Church in Oregon on Friday, March 11, holding a candlelight prayer service for peace in Ukraine where donations were collected to provide food and medical services to people in Ukraine as a humanitarian crisis unfolds. Much of the presentations prior to the service focused on what was happening in Ukraine, the history between the two former Soviet Union states and challenges with getting aid into the country, as the central bank limited cash withdrawals and stopped issuing foreign currency to the general public.

Nick said that the first shipment of non-perishable food and medicine they helped coordinate arrived in Ukraine on Sunday, March 13, and a second is on its way.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine started in the early morning hours of Thursday, Feb. 24, and has resulted in multiple cities throughout the country left devastated and damaged as approximately 2 million people have fled to nearby states such as Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. Since the start of the invasion, Russian forces have attacked airports, energy plants and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals as they’ve advanced through Ukraine with the intent of capturing the capital city of Kyiv and ousting the democratically elected government.

Ukraine was a republic in the Soviet Union prior to it declaring its independence in August 1991.

Conflict with Russia in the last decade is not new. In February and March 2014, Russia invaded Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula on the south side of the country, and later annexed it, setting up a pro-Russian government.

Prior to the most recent Russian invasion, the Lapers were working in Ukraine with the Gift of Life International Charitable Fund, a Confessional Lutheran Christian-based providing medical services such as medical and dental care, pregnancy counseling and material aid such as clothing and hygiene products. The couple would spend four months in Ukraine, living at their home in Ternopil, a city of 217,000 on the far western side of the country a few hours from the Ukrainian-Poland border, and would come back to Wisconsin for two months to ship medical supplies such as hemoglobin, dental fillings and anesthesia overseas.

Now, much of that shipment coordination, as well as phone calls and emails checking in with staff and other American citizens currently in Ukraine as a part of Kerry’s work as a warden for the U.S. Embassy, is happening in the Lapers’ second-story apartment in a home nestled in a woody area off of Syene Road. They’re hoping to instead return to Europe and temporarily relocate to Poland to make the process of coordinating aid and medical services easier, Kerry said.

‘More fortunate than most’

The relaxing vacation the Lapers were planning on having in Egypt ended up being anything but.

The mood was getting increasingly tense as it seemed the invasion was becoming more imminent, Nick said, and when they woke up on Feb. 24 to find out a no-fly zone had been established in Ukraine as Russian forces started attacking military and civilian airports. The no-fly declaration across the entire country upended their plan to fly back into a different part of Ukraine that might be less of a target than the airport in Kyiv, he added.

Kerry said that they weren’t necessarily expecting invasions to happen in the western part of the country – they had figured Russian forces would go after Kyiv rather than be embedded in cities around Ukraine.

“We could honestly say it was not a very relaxing timeframe,” she said. “On one hand, you’re being put up free of charge in a fivestar (hotel) and this is great, but under the circumstances, it was very stressful wondering how our staff were, and how things with the organization were. We had never expected the Russians to begin assaults in the west.”

The tour group the Lapers were with in Egypt was mainly composed of Russian citizens, Nick said, and they all waited together in the same hotel as the travel agency looked for travel solutions. The Lapers later found themselves on a flight to Manchester, on to Ireland, then to the U.S. to their Fitchburg home.

“It was kind of interesting to be surrounded by Russians, but they were friendly,” Nick said.

“We arrived here with only the bare essentials, we traveled really light.”

The Lapers left behind much of their personal belongings, including the boxes of mementos such as photographs, original artworks and cookbooks, their U.S.-based cell phones and their dog, Zeke, who is currently being taken care of by a family friend.

Nick said that they don’t count themselves as refugees based on their situation of having a stable living situation in the U.S., but have just had to learn to live without things they were used to having at their fingertips in Ukraine.

“We have to say, we’re more fortunate and more blessed than most people that have had to leave Ukraine,” Nick said. “We have this place here, with some clothes, some shoes, some jackets, some of the other essentials.”

Getting the ball rolling

Normally, the Lapers would ship any supplies they procured in the states to Ukraine through the Meest-Karpaty shipping service in Chicago, that would get supplies to the couple’s front door in Ukraine within 6-8 weeks.

But with their normal fund channels cut off due to the invasion, they’ve had to be creative in how they use their network of people in neighboring countries to Ukraine. So instead, any donations that have come into the Gift of Life fund are now sent through Polish channels, where people can purchase food and medicine and prepare for it to be driven across the border into Ukraine.

And then not only does material aid then need to get through customs, which is overburdened by the number of refugees seeking safety in Poland, Kerry said, but transportation of goods has to be done by people they trust.

The Lapers are currently making plans to settle in Rzeszow, a city in Poland approximately 100 miles, or 2.5 hours, from Ternopil. Being closer would also allow the Lapers to take a more active role in some of the other aid efforts that people have reached out to them for, as many other organizations don’t have the connections with people inside Ukraine that they do.

They credited a friend, Regina, with having the Polish contacts that helped get the first shipment into Ukraine, and is working on getting the second done by establishing partnerships to send weekly shipments of goods. It’s also Regina’s family that would offer to house the Lapers as they work to move humanitarian aid across the border, Kerry added.

“They’d like Nick’s help on the ground to facilitate more,” she said. “What has hampered many U.S. organizations that want to help is that they don’t have a Ukraine side connection. So even for us, we have work permits, we have whatever, that makes it easier for us to go back and forth across the border if it’s not considered outrageously dangerous.”

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