Jacksonville Church Organizes Humanitarian Aid to Ukraine

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A few weeks ago, Jacksonville business partners Ilya Soroka and Taylor Smith flew to Hungary and then traveled to Ukraine to help out as much as they could. They felt pushed. They knew there were so many needs and there was not much they could do. But they also knew this: they had to do all they could.

Whatever it takes.

Soroka, who was born in Ukraine, knew his grandmother and grandfather had stayed in their small village outside kyiv rather than flee the Russian invasion. Where would they go, they said to him. It was too late in their life to start somewhere new.

Moreover, the villagers had destroyed the bridges leading to the town so that the Russian tanks could not enter, and now his grandmother was preparing large meals to feed the soldiers and the starving inhabitants. Soroka, who turns 25 on April 19, gave them $1,000 for food.

Whatever it takes, he said.

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Smith, 57, and Soroka visited a school that had been turned into a refugee center where women and children slept huddled together on a gymnasium floor and in converted classrooms. Damp laundry hung on all available surfaces.

We could really use a clothes dryer, said the headmaster of the school, who was now coordinating care for the refugees. So Smith went shopping and found a clothes dryer for school.

Whatever it takes.

Their trip to Ukraine was quick and only lasted a few nights. But it won’t be their last.

“I feel called,” Smith said.

“I want to go back,” Soroka said.

It was an easy decision: ‘Let’s go’

Soroka moved to the United States when he was 3 years old with his family. He is a member of Living Stream Church on the Southside, whose congregation is made up largely of Ukrainian nationals who, like his family, immigrated two decades ago after the fall of the USSR.

The church has organized relief efforts in Ukraine, one of many organizations trying to alleviate the humanitarian crisis there. He is working with a network of churches in this country to determine where help is needed and how to get there.

Ilya Soroka chats with Ruth and Joe Barber about what they can do to help local Ukrainian refugees after barbers drop fresh eggs from their own chickens into a warehouse full of supplies.  Some supplies are destined for Ukraine while others will help new refugees and those expected in the coming weeks.

Soroka and Smith, partners in various real estate ventures, made the first trip alone after Soroka was invited by friends in Ukraine to come help.

It was an easy decision, Soroka said. “We both said, let’s go in a week, and we bought tickets.”

On April 1, Soroka departed Jacksonville International Airport with carry-on baggage for clothing and checked three large bags into the baggage hold.

One was loaded with 30 bullet-proof vests donated for volunteer drivers traveling to the war zone to evacuate refugees. Another was full of medical supplies. The third was for a friend’s nephew, who had just been drafted into the Ukrainian defense, filled with things he might need: beef jerky, first aid kits, etc.

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Smith, who took a different route, met Soroka at the airport in Budapest, Hungary. They were met by a Sprinter van driven by volunteers from the Ukrainian Church Network. They loaded two tons of supplies there, as much as the van could hold, and crossed the Ukrainian border.

Each also took $10,000 of their own money to spend where they felt the need. And there were many needs, even in the far west of Ukraine, which was relatively spared from the brutal invasion.

Restaurants in the city of Uzhorod were still open and people were still shopping and walking around. But it was clear that life in the ancient westernmost city of Ukraine had changed. They could see it in the presence of soldiers and militiamen on the street and in the groups of refugees queuing or just sitting in small groups.

And in every mind there was the presence of war, loss, grief and confusion. Night came the howl of anti-aircraft sirens, loud and unmistakable. Although Uzhorod was unscathed, bombs were falling somewhere nearby.

Gaining “moral clarity” in Ukraine

Smith likens the effort to helping hurricane refugees while they’re still in the middle of a hurricane. With blaring anti-aircraft sirens.

It was, they said, as if they were in the midst of a historical event.

“Anyone who listens to this stops dead in their tracks,” Soroka said. “A horrible war, but an incredible human spirit. We will tell our children about it. We understand the importance of the event.”

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“I’ve followed politics all my life and never felt this kind of moral clarity,” said Smith, who in his 20s was a key player in Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin’s administration.

They will be back in a few weeks with a larger group. They will take money and buy supplies in Europe to take them to Ukraine.

Ilya Soroka and Taylor Smith display some of the used firefighting equipment donated to be sent to Ukraine.  Some of them stink, they said, but they will always be indispensable in the war-torn country.  They both took trips to Ukraine and saw firsthand the needs of the country in the midst of war with Russia.

Meanwhile, in Jacksonville, donors big and small worked with Living Stream Church to collect supplies and donations, which are now piling up in a former Winn-Dixie owned by Soroka and Smith at Arlington Road and Atlantic Boulevard. , a place they ultimately aim to turn into storage units.

The church has also set up a hotline – the number is (904) 666-8058 – for those who wish to help.

The church has organized an airlift scheduled to depart on April 17, bound for Poland and then Ukraine. That load includes medical supplies, diapers and other things, including 300 firefighting suits – helmets, jackets, pants – collected by a Rotary club in Gainesville. The costumes are worn and some are quite smelly. But they will be useful, much needed.

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A group in Ukraine will meet the plane and then distribute it through the church network there. Various other Rotary clubs also participated, as well as the Global Outreach Charter Academy in Arlington, which was founded by Soroka’s parents in 2009. During this time, Baptist Health provided 200 pallets of medical supplies worth more than half a million dollars.

Other supplies from Soroka and Smith’s converted warehouse are being sold to raise funds, while others will be given to recent refugees and those still on the way from the conflict.

Smith marvels at what Living Stream Church and its helpers have been able to do. And he soberly recounts what he saw on his first trip to Ukraine.

“In my church we see a song about how death lost its sting,” he said. “But everywhere we went there was pain. Everyone was hurting, shaking, traumatized. I felt like, man, death hadn’t lost its sting.”

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