July 23, 2024

Dispatch from Ukraine: Planning tip — plan for plans to change

On the left, Jonathan Andersen, logistics manager for Operation Safedrop, supervises volunteers emptying boxes of donated medical supplies to cull expired material. Surrounding them are the tons of donations that require sorting and repacking before being sent to medical facilities in Dnipro, Ukraine. Paul Huard photo
July 9, 2023

Instead of packing meals to go, it’s time to pack medical supply kits to help save lives

Editor’s note: Ashland High School teacher and freelance reporter Paul Huard is volunteering this summer in Ukraine. Here’s his third dispatch about his experience.

By Paul R. Huard for

LVIV, Ukraine, July 9, 2023 – You cannot hold on to your expectations when you make the choice to go somewhere in the world that is going to hell in a handbasket and attempt to help the people there.

Everything you thought you would do, you planned to do, and you want to do will almost certainly clash with something called Reality.

That doesn’t mean your skills, hard work and enthusiasm will not be needed. Far from it: There are always more people in need during a crisis than helpers. There will always be a job to do.

Remember Gumby? He was super flexible. Be like Gumby.

When I first arrived in Lviv, I met up with Alexis and Thierry, two friends I met while volunteering in Przemsyl, Poland, last year. (For those of you who have followed my articles, you have certainly noted that work at Przemsyl during 2022 was a kind of apprenticeship for many of us who returned to the region to volunteer further.)

We would plan a mission that included the immediate delivery of beds to a Ukrainian hospital where soldiers recuperated from severe combat wounds. We even met up, estimated fuel costs, planned when to load the truck, and set a departure date.

But Alexis had to return to London unexpectedly and Thierry was delayed in Poland waiting for the beds to be delivered. With time on my hands, I decided to work at a kitchen that packages meals for outlying towns whose supply chain is disrupted by the war.

“I’ll just chop vegetables for the cause,” I said to myself. That had been part of the plan from the beginning.

When I arrived, the kitchen and packing area were full of volunteers.

“We’ll find something for you to do, but if you have other options it’s OK if you leave,” the manager said.

It didn’t take long. The volunteer community in Ukraine keeps in touch with several WhatsApp feeds, including a channel dedicated to Lviv volunteers. There will always be a job to do.

Jonathan Andersen, logistics manager for Operation SafeDrop. Paul Huard photo

Jonathan Andersen, the logistics manager for the Danish NGO Operation SafeDrop, had an appeal on the feed. “Hey, everyone,” he wrote. “I could use some help tomorrow at my warehouse sorting out some aid. Most of it will be medical aid.” Andersen even offered a ride to the location and lunch for workers.

An administrator followed up with a comment: “That warehouse that Jonathan has is great. If you can help, it would help thousands of Ukrainians in the long run.”

I sent Andersen a message asking where I should meet him.

The next day, I was in a van charging its way through Lviv streets to Horodok, a small city near Lviv that is home to several industrial plants. Andersen was driving, navigating his way through some of the most daunting traffic I have every witnessed during my travels.

When we arrived, I saw a huge steel-framed building that could have been a manufacturing building anywhere in Europe. Inside, there is a cavernous space full of boxed donations stacked on pallets. Clothing, medical supplies, hospital furniture, bottled water — the amounts are immense and the sources for material are from across the continent.

The task for the next several days was simple. Strip more than 20 pallets a day of medical supplies donated for civilian use, open the boxes, see what is inside, check it all for whether any of the goods were past expiration dates, chuck the expired materials, keep the good stuff, sort it, re-box it, label the boxes, and then stack the supplies on another pallet.

Eventually, the supplies would be loaded on a truck bound for Dnipro, a city badly damaged by Russian artillery and missile attacks.

Paul Huard sorts the contents in a box of donated medical supplies while working in warehouse used by Operation Safedrop, a Danish charity operating in Ukraine. Paul Huard photo

Each pallet had at least 300 kilograms each of material. (That is about 660 pounds.) There were 20 to 25 boxes per pallet. A box of surgical dressings or face masks was no sweat to lift, but boxes full of liquid hand-sanitizer or stainless-steel surgical instruments were backbreaking.

“I like to call this place my Danish gym,” Andersen said.

Besides, we had very little idea of what was in the boxes until opened. They were marked and numbered in French, but none of us read French. There was supposed to be a manifest – but no one could find it.

The labeling was not particularly helpful once we used Google Translate. A box marked “Medical Supplies” might have anything. The most common item is face masks — there are thousands of them.

We dive in, a handful of volunteers with box cutters pulling the boxes from the pallets, opening them, and sorting through a bewildering assortment of medical supplies.

We trashed medications, respiratory equipment, IV fluids, catheters, and other items that were too old. Even in a war, doctors made it clear that they did not want to use any drugs or degradable materials that were past their prime on patients.

The age of some of the donated materials was ludicrous. When a volunteer found a box of catheters with an expiration year of 2005, she quipped, “These catheters are old enough to vote.”

The garbage pile just grew and grew.

However, there were still plenty of good supplies. For example, we found multiple sets of autoclave trays. In a nation that still widely uses non-disposable surgical instruments, the discovery is a boon.

So are the hundreds of boxes of suture kits, respiratory supplies, syringes, hypodermic needles, surgical dressings, and post-operative bandages. And box after box of antiseptics and hand sanitizer was a welcome sight, according to Andersen.

“Hospitals are just screaming for this stuff,” he said.

Sorting and re-boxing were on-going, but material, once organized, had to be placed again on pallets, the pallets moved to temporary storage with hand trucks, and then marked for easier identification. While in college, I had worked in a warehouse and recalled that it was no easy job.

The demands have not changed, but I have changed by 40 years. Still, I found the work as it went by over the days rewarding, particularly as other volunteers arrived and we teamed up.

Besides, it was hard not to feel a sense of accomplishment when we considered how all the supplies, culled out of metric tons of donations, would soon go to a place where they are badly needed.

When you go somewhere in the world to help people in need, there is always a job to do.

Be flexible — and do the job.

Missed a prior installment? Read the first dispatch here, and the second dispatch here. Read the fourth dispatch here.

Paul R. Huard was a reporter who covered government and the military for Gannett newspapers. His freelance work included assignments in Estonia and Spain. During the summer of 2022, he volunteered as a humanitarian relief worker in Przemysl, Poland, where he assisted Ukrainian refugees. This summer, he will continue his work by volunteering in Ukraine.  He lives in Ashland. Email Huard at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at

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