ISLANDERS ON THE FRONT LINE

Written By: Robert Cocuzzo & Jason Grazaidei | Photography By: Kit Noble

Nantucket Cares personally delivers aid to Ukrainian refugees sheltering in Poland.

Tom McCann (front), Kasia and Johnathan Rodriguez, Kit Noble and Chris Yates

Tom McCann has always been a man of action. Whether it was launching Holidays for Heroes to support wounded warriors in 2012 or parachuting into Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, McCann takes a jump-and-the-net-will-appear approach to humanitarian work. Last month, when the sixty-eight-year-old Nantucket resident began seeing on the news the pained faces of Ukrainian refugees fleeing into Poland—most of them women and children who reminded him of his daughters and grandchildren—McCann instinctively started hatching a plan to help. But it wasn’t enough for him to just send a check to the Red Cross. He wanted to be at that border, literally embracing families as they crossed.

Tom McCann with a child at the camp in Milocin.

“I’ve been watching the television with tears in my eyes,” McCann said. “I said, ‘I can’t watch from the couch anymore. It’s driving me crazy. I need to go over there and do something, do anything.’” As fate would have it, McCann’s trainer at the Nantucket Hotel, Johnathan Rodriguez, and Johnathan’s wife, Kasia Chmielewska Rodriguez, had been planning a trip to Poland prior to Russia invading Ukraine. Born in Poland, Chmielewska consulted with her family amid the emerging conflict; they said the couple should still make the trip. When the Rodriguezes ran into McCann on-island and told him where they were headed, the idea for an aid mission was born.

Tom McCann at Logan Airport prior to departure.

Under the banner of Nantucket Cares, an emergency relief fund McCann originally founded with Tracy Long and Carlos Castrello to bring aid to Puerto Rico in 2017, their homegrown humanitarian mission to Poland quickly began taking shape. Serving as both guide and translator, Chmielewska connected with her contacts on the ground in Poland to identify small pockets of unmet need among the millions of refugees pouring into the country.

“I’m focused on small places,” Chmielewska said in the lead up to their departure. “In the big cities, they have more help. But some of these villages where there are now fifty kids, it’s hard for them.” She identified three small villages in particular where hundreds of refugees were being sheltered by regular Polish citizens. The Nantucket Cares team began building a list of their needs, from general hygiene supplies to specific items like size-six Nike sneakers for one of the little boys in the shelter.

Doctor Brad giving children checkups.

Meanwhile, McCann was doing what he does best—drumming up support. With a high-energy rogue approach, he rallied the Nantucket community into action, enlisting a host of islanders to set up a GoFundMe page, launch social media handles, craft a mission statement and logo, and, most important, fundraise. In the process, the Nantucket Cares team grew to include Nantucket residents Chris Yates, Jacquie Colgan and N Magazine’s chief photographer Kit Noble, who would document the entire journey.

“We have a connection to that part of the world,” said Yates, whose Nantucket-based company East Wood Trading (see “Behind the Veneer,”) has collaborated with families in both Poland and Ukraine. “It’s just my personal nature to want to help, which is the case for so many people. You wonder how and what to do. You have the sense that it’s not enough and want to be on the ground there…to be able to give them the daily necessities and life-saving necessities—water, food, shelter, any of those needs—and to give them hope and a desire to keep going and fighting for freedom.”

Brian McKernan and Kasia Rodriguez outside the refugee camp in the village of Milocin.

When a Nantucket Current article detailing McCann’s mission was forwarded to island resident Brian McKernan, Nantucket Cares gained two key players. At the time, McKernan and his friend, Ukrainian-born Yuliya Novak, were searching for an organization they could join to bring aid directly to Ukrainian refugees. A friend of McCann’s for fifteen years, McKernan called him up just days before the scheduled departure and told him that he and Novak would like to join them. With her family still living in Ukraine, Novak—who moved to New York City a month before the September 11th attacks and is now an American citizen—became an invaluable member of the Nantucket Cares team, serving as translator, cultural guide and connection to the Ukrainians still in the country.

Meanwhile, the Nantucket community responded to McCann’s call for support with full force. A number of island businesses made major financial commitments to the cause, while island students created works of art and cards and donated stuffed animals for Ukrainian refugee children. Marine Home Center committed $10,000 plus a pallet of flashlights that it shipped directly to Warsaw. Both Island Energy Services and East Wood Trading made significant donations while private individuals gave to the GoFundMe page, some as much as $10,000. By the time the Nantucket Cares team arrived at Logan International Airport on April 2nd to fly overnight to Poland, McCann and his team had raised more than $150,000 and already shipped more than $20,000 worth of supplies to Poland, including food items such as three thousand protein bars, along with baby clothes, medicine, hygienic products, teddy bears and other items. They took off from Boston with twenty-three fully loaded duffel bags, which Lufthansa airline checked free of charge, with plans to buy more supplies once they landed.

Arriving in Gdansk, a port city on the Baltic coast in northern Poland, the Nantucket Cares team was met by a three-man American security detail that Yates had arranged to run logistics, drive three sprinter vans and, most important, keep them all as safe as possible. Because humanitarian aid groups have been targeted, the Nantucket Cares team was given strict instructions not to discuss any of the locations they were visiting over the phone, out of fear that their lines could be tapped. One of the security detail was a doctor, who would be treating the refugees they encountered at the camps.

To supplement their twenty-three duffel bags of supplies, Nantucket Cares went on a shopping spree in Gdansk, filling four large carts with groceries requested by the refugees. They then drove thirty minutes inland to the first refugee camp in the village of Miłocin, population 243. There they found fifty-five women and children, ranging in ages from two to eighty-one, who had been sheltered since late February by a Polish man nicknamed Jan. Entering Jan’s kitchen, he gestured to a prominently hung painting depicting an orphan holding out an empty cup. “This painting sits in my house because this is my purpose,” Jan told them through a translator. “To fill the empty cup.”

Nantucket Cares team delivering stuffed animals donated by island children.

In two separate structures behind Jan’s home, fifty-five women and children were staying in eighteen rooms with a single bathroom in each, one of which wasn’t operating properly. Most were sitting on mattresses splayed on the floor. Upon seeing Nantucket Cares and learning that these were Americans who had traveled all this way to help, many of the refugees were brought to tears. “When I asked one of the women what else we can do to help,” recounted McKernan, “before she could even answer the question, tears welled up and she started crying.” Looking into McKernan’s eyes, she responded through Novak as her translator: “Please have America help us more. Have America send its food and its military to help us.”

McCann with a young Ukranian mother who gave birth shortly after crossing the border.

With tears in his own eyes, McCann finally had the opportunity to embrace the families who had been just images on a television screen on Nantucket a couple of weeks earlier. One woman in particular took hold of McCann’s heartstrings. She had fled over the border nine months pregnant and was fortunate to reach this shelter in time to give birth. Holding her defenseless baby girl in his arms, McCann was overcome with emotion and became inconsolable for nearly a half hour. “Apart from the birth of my own children, it was the most emotional experience in my life,” McCann reflected. “How can this beautiful baby almost be born on the border in a massive war? She is no different than my own grandkids.” The Nantucket Cares team handed out bags of supplies along with stuffed animals with notes donated by island children. They left Jan and the refugees, but not before pledging $10,000 a month for three months to support his efforts caring for refugees and filling his proverbial empty cup.

In the days that followed, Nantucket Cares continued its crusade, delivering supplies and groceries to two other refugee camps in the villages of Brusy and Osiek. Meeting with the mayor of Brusy, they pledged to sponsor the town’s community center at $5,000 a month for three months. At the community center, they met nearly a hundred refugees, including a Ukrainian man in his seventies, who was the first male refugee the group had encountered. The rest were back in Ukraine fighting the Russians.

“Every woman we spoke to had either a husband, brother or father back in Ukraine fighting for freedom,” Novak said, shortly after leaving the community center. “Some of the woman had lost loved ones and now have no one to go back to.” Many of the woman arrived in Poland with little more than the clothes on their backs, having sought shelter in Ukraine for what they thought would be a single night but what ultimately led to them permanently evacuating the country.

On their fourth day in the country, Nantucket Cares went to the train station in Warsaw where busloads of refugees were arriving. While Rodriguez, Yates and others volunteered dishing out meals at World Central Kitchen, McCann began buying train tickets for refugees who had arrived without any money. For the next twelve hours, he saw to it that a hundred families were able to board trains bound to relatives and contacts living in France, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria, England and elsewhere in Europe.

“I’m struggling with the fact that our team of eight is experiencing things today that are impossible to put into words,” McCann wrote in a Facebook post late one night. “I can tell you how beautiful, resilient, loving, strong the two-hundred-plus women and children we met today are. I can try to help you all back home understand that while you sleep safely within your home later tonight with your family and children all safe and sound, [there is] this absolutely horrific situation that our world is in right now.”

One thing McCann can express is that the need they encountered in Poland was immense and is not going away anytime soon. On that front, he and other members of the team were discussing how Nantucket Cares can take a long-term humanitarian stake not only in Poland, but elsewhere in the world. “We should leverage this momentum and build Nantucket Cares into a global humanitarian relief organization,” McKernan said. “Start with Ukraine, start here on this trip and keep helping Ukraine, but there’s no reason why this has to stop here.”

Indeed, supercharged by the small but mighty force of the island, Nantucket Cares is a testament to the power found when passionate people come together to do good. As McCann said, “Life is a giant jigsaw puzzle. No one person can solve the puzzle. Everybody has to be a piece. Nantucket Cares will hopefully be a big piece of the puzzle, but everybody needs to figure out how to be a piece of the puzzle.”

After returning to Nantucket, Nantucket Cares plans on giving a presentation using the photos and footage shot by Kit Noble to rally even more support behind their efforts.

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