Last Updated on 16 March 2022 by Ann-Marie Nye
Maidenhead United Reformed Church has played a central role in sending a lorry packed with emergency supplies to Ukraine.
In total, 590 boxes of all sizes packed full of medical supplies, medicines, first aid kits, sanitary products, toiletries, food, sleeping bags, blankets and cutlery, along with more than 1,000 packs of nappies were driven to Ukraine on 10 March.
With links to families in Ukraine and towns on the border with Poland, first-hand knowledge of exactly what was needed fuelled donations.
It all started when three mums – Jolanta Pietrusinska, Natalie Capel and Hayley Mallalue – whose children attend Maidenhead’s St Piran’s School began discussing how they could help.
“We were all having separate conversations about how we wanted to help,” explains Hayley. “So, we posted a message on our Year 6 WhatsApp group enquiring if anyone wanted to make a donation.
“Jolanta’s family are helping on the border with Poland, and we thought we’d probably get a couple of hundred pounds and maybe 10 bags for life.”
However, the message went viral to friends and family, other social media groups, neighbours, businesses and social groups – including Simply Waste Solutions and the Handy Cross Indoor Bowls Club – and other villages in the area. Within 24 hours thousands of pounds had been raised.
Seeing how much people wanted to give, the three parents then set about raising even more and sought ways to deliver supplies to Ukraine.
Jolanta, whose town Tomaszow Lubelski is 15km from the border Hrebenne, says: “I thought in the beginning I was going to keep all the donations in my garage. When we started collecting things it quickly became too small and I couldn’t fit anymore. Somehow, we found David [the Revd Downing, Minister of Maidenhead URC] and he was like ‘use the church’.”
The connection came from a Polish lady who runs a Polish school at the church.
“She rang me and said do you have storage, and I was like ‘I’ll be fine in my garage’ and she said ‘ok. If you need it, just let me know.’ The next day I was like I need it,” continues Jolanta.
“With my town so close to the border, we know exactly where the refugees are and what they need and they’re waiting for our lorry. Every day more and more people are arriving in Poland. More than 1 million Ukrainians have crossed into Poland. My town is full. Other villages are full. My old school has 250,000 to 300,000 refugees sleeping in the hall. Polish families are collecting them and bringing them into their homes.
“They have to feed them, give them water, a room, a bedroom, something. Everyone helps. So, we need to keep going because this isn’t a one-off help. We need to keep sending because they need it.”
Natalie, whose family live in Poverhiv near the city of Lviv, agrees.
“Thankfully my family are ok,” she says. “They’re safe and away from the main bombing but it’s where everyone is running to, to get to the Polish border. There are armed guards on the streets. They’ve had night curfews, blackouts, they’re obviously on high alert and quite worried but safe.”
Teresa Lega, a member of St Edmund Campion Church Maidenhead, paid for the cost of the lorry out of her own pocket.
Her parents were Polish refugees to the UK during the Second World War.
“What’s really sad is that my mum is 93 and lives with Alzheimer’s,” said Teresa.
“Watching the news on the TV brings back horrendous memories for her. As a child she was taken to Siberia by the Russians. Her mum was pregnant and gave birth in Siberia. The child died. Alzheimer’s means people dwell on past. Her long-term memory is good, not short term.
Jolanta, the lorry driver, and Teresa.
“I’m proud to be Polish. The way that Poland has opened its arms to Ukrainian refuges it’s absolutely wonderful.”
Members of Maidenhead URC also feel proud of their efforts.
Bob Robertson, an Elder of the church, said: “We’re very pleased that we’ve been able to do something so practical and I’m astonished that we have been able to do it so quickly.”
It took the group just six days to raise thousands of pounds and a lorry full of items. Many of the volunteers were not church members and did not know each other, but the project has brought them together.
“Because of the enthusiasm and contribution of complete strangers, the project has taken on a life of its own,” continues Bob. “It’s amazing. We found like-minded people that we didn’t know we had in the neighbourhood.
“When you’re a small church and part of a small denomination, you think you are a small island in the world. But it’s wonderful to know it’s not like that at all.
“For years we have been wondering what’s our role? Our congregation is getting older. Are the resources we have being wasted? But at moments like this, you can see that that’s not the case. Without our building we wouldn’t have been able to do what we are doing now.
“For us, this project is about being out there and visible to everyone and being God’s presence at a time when God’s presence is needed.”
Nearly every main part of the church was filled with donations including clothes and other goods. It was all hands-on deck to pack boxes, even Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, visited to help pack items.
The Revd David Downing said: “The response has been just phenomenal.”