Businesses and individuals around the world have stepped up to fundraise for Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion began in February, but the head of a Southwest Michigan business development service has taken his show of support a step further.
Kinexus Group President and CEO Todd Gustafson and a small group of volunteers traveled to Poland at the end of April to see firsthand the work of Polish NGOs helping the 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees who have entered the country. The group has raised more than $20,000 to benefit Ukrainian refugees as well as Polish and Hungarian organizations supporting them.
Gustafson and his partners are focused on both immediate relief efforts and long-term resettlement. They are working with their new connections in Eastern Europe, local resettlement agencies and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in hopes of eventually sponsoring the resettlement of Ukrainian families in Southwest Michigan.
‘Alright, let’s go’
Gustafson, who has led the Benton Harbor-based workforce development nonprofit for 17 years, was struck by news reports emerging from Ukraine back in February.
“I was just infuriated by the human suffering and carnage,” Gustafson told MiBiz. “I thought, ‘I gotta do something. I cannot sit here any longer and watch on the TV.’”
Gustafson was hesitant to give blindly, seeking to do more than just donate to a major aid organization and move on with his life.
“I wanted to actually see for myself who we were helping and how we were helping them,” Gustafson said. “So I said, ‘Alright, let’s go.’ … I asked for anyone else who was interested, a couple of people raised their hands and it’s kind of snowballed since then.”
Gustafson traveled to Poland alongside Caleb Colp, an internal data and salesforce administrator at Kinexus Group, and Bob Moss, a former pastor of First Church of God in St. Joseph, who brought expertise from his many mission trips abroad. First Church helped to facilitate a streamlined fundraising campaign.
Though his initial efforts were done individually, Gustafson said things “started to mushroom into something bigger” as he talked with other NGOs, businesses and faith-based communities.
“There was a growing sense of wanting to do something for Ukrainians,” he said.
While in Poland, the group met with businesses, NGOs and volunteers serving Ukrainian refugees.
“For a country of 44 million, absorbing 3 million people is a lot,” Gustafson said of Poland. But he was impressed with the Polish people. Gustafson visited organizations including the Help Center, a collection of 200 Polish volunteers who serve 800 refugees daily, as well as East-West Link, a training and staffing company whose headquarters are located beside a train station in Warsaw where many refugees are entering the city. East-West Link created a shelter near the station that has served more than 30,000 refugees.
The Help Center is entirely reliant on volunteers and donations. Although recognized as the most effective aid center in Warsaw, “it still functions only because each morning there are enough people who decide to come in and contribute their time or savings,” volunteer Help Center Manager Agata Kozak told MiBiz via email. “We were touched by the visit of Todd and his team. Not only did they (do) huge grocery shopping, enough to help hundreds of people in need, but also they promised to spread the word about our work among their Michigan friends. And they did.”
Since returning from Poland, Gustafson has worked with volunteers from Cornerstone Alliance, Southwest Michigan Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Southwest Michigan, Kinexus Group and First Church on finding ways to continue supporting Ukrainians. More groups are coming forward to join what Gustafson calls an “informal coalition.”
The coalition has donated funds to both the Help Center and the East-West Link shelter and is still in contact about ongoing support. They also have helped support a Ukrainian family that includes a florist who fled Kyiv with her 8-year-old daughter who are currently living in Poland with an ex-patriate from St. Joseph.
Back in Michigan, Gustafson and the coalition have been “navigating the bureaucracy” in hopes of eventually sponsoring the resettlement of Ukrainian families. They’ve also continued to fundraise in support of partners in Poland and hope to expand that support to organizations in Hungary.
“Now that we’ve returned and have identified those organizations that we can work with — that are legitimate, we’ve seen what they’re doing and what services they’re providing and what needs they have — we’ll raise more money to send it to them,” Gustafson said.
According to Kozak, donations to the Help Center will be critical for its ability to continue providing services.
“As the war rages on, it is becoming clearer that the refugees will not be returning home any time soon,” Kozak said. “It is crucial to divert aid effort towards activating them professionally, providing psychological help, creating long-term infrastructure for meeting their needs.”
New groups have continued to offer support to the growing coalition, including financial institutions, manufacturing companies and faith-based organizations.
“As we learn more about the resettlement and how and when and if we can sponsor families, I know they’ll be at the table with financial contributions, volunteers, opening up their houses,” Gustafson said. “We’re eager, people are at the table and they want to know what they can do to help.”
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