Rhode Islanders Unite to Support Ukraine

By Jared Kolok

Residents of Jamestown and Aquidneck Island organize in support of the Ukrainian cause

One does not need to travel far on Aquidneck Island to find the yellow-and-blue colors of Ukraine’s flag, which can be seen hanging from storefronts and homes. The flags are a constant, ever-present show of support for a besieged country entering a third year of war. Area residents have taken it upon themselves to organize relief efforts, including support groups in Jamestown that have inspired the creation of sister chapters on Aquidneck Island. Portsmouth students sprang forward to help and launched their own initiatives.

A member of Kids4Action in Portsmouth.

What these efforts have in common is a focus on humanity in times of darkness — and a desire to spotlight Ukrainian culture through fundraising programs.

In Portsmouth, K-12 students are coming together to support their Ukrainian peers through Kids4Action, which launched in January 2023 with the aim to be a catalyst, locally and globally, for change.

Leslie Gurski, a Portsmouth resident, founded the organization with her (at the time) fourth grade son, Colton Silvia. “Now more than ever,” Gurski said, “it is important to let kids know how to make an impact.”

“I saw stories on the news about Ukraine getting attacked,” says Colton, now in fifth grade, “and thought it wasn’t fair.”

“[Colton] totally took the reins and researched how to get money over to Ukraine,” says Gurski, explaining that K4A has forged a path for kids to take a central role in community action and has expanded its membership and activities across Portsmouth schools.

According to Daniele Montefusco, a K4A board member, the adults serve as guides and mentors to let the kids do what they want. Ultimately, the adults provide financial oversight and leadership support, Gurski said, while “youth steering committees take direct action to raise money and awareness.”

Youth members of Kids4Action, who collected letters, below right, for their Ukrainian peers. | Photos courtesy K4A

In 2023, the core group of roughly 15 students, mostly in late elementary and middle school, raised over $15,000 through various fundraising efforts across Aquidneck Island. The money is being funneled through the Boston-based Ukraine Forward’s project to support the Chernihiv Children’s Hospital in Ukraine.

K4A works closely with community partners, such as Clements’ Marketplace in Portsmouth and the Newport Gulls to sell baked goods and host car washes. Last summer, group members staffed a baseball game and ran a raffle, splitting proceeds 50-50 with the Gulls.

Last year, the group pioneered a program to enroll students from Portsmouth’s four public schools — as well as Saint Philomena’s — in its Kind-It Forward initiative. An enrollment notice distributed to each school described this initiative as a program to “send letters of encouragement and support, in an effort
to bring hope and kindness to the Ukrainian children.”

K4A members collected more than 1,200 letters from Portsmouth students and passed them on to the Massachusetts nonprofit Supporting Orphans Nationally and Globally, which translated them, and hand delivered them to Ukrainian youth across the country in October.

More than 200 return letters have been received and K4A members are working with Portsmouth teachers to communicate directly with a Ukrainian class via Zoom.

“It gives me goosebumps,” Montefusco said, “seeing the involvement and passion of kids.”

According to Colton, Portsmouth schools and the wider community have strongly supported K4A and its initiatives.

The fifth grader says he is “very proud of our organization and really grateful for the community,” and urges anyone wanting to make a difference to “just get something started, you just want to get the wheels moving.”

In Jamestown, residents galvanized to act soon after the war began, and, in March 2022, established the Jamestown Ukraine Relief Project, a nonprofit which operates in three broad categories: fundraising, awareness, and refugee support.

John Andrews, president of Jamestown Ukraine Relief Project, gathers with members discussing Ukrainian books and their authors at Curiosity Store in Jamestown. | Peter Silvia photo

“In community there is strength,” says John Andrews, the organization’s president. “At first individuals felt helpless and disempowered, but after a few days, we realized the Ukrainians were teaching us about the importance of community.”

Andrews, who says the war is atrocious, saw an opportunity for broader community action, which was also way for people to turn various emotions, ranging from fear to anger and helpless rage, into something productive. He emphasizes that the group’s fundraising efforts do not support military funding, but rather support rebuilding civil society.

Early in the war, when Russia was attacking critical electrical infrastructure, JURP sent 5,000 solar lanterns to Ukrainian families. The first shipment arrived in time for Hannukah. More recently, the group has supported the Ukraine Children’s Action Project, raising $30,500 to construct a youth enrichment center for displaced children. The center opened its doors in Lviv, Ukraine in November 2023.

JURP continues to raise and maintain awareness of the conflict through its activities. It hosts a monthly book club that meets at Curiosity Store on Narragansett Ave. at 6 p.m., usually on Wednesdays; newcomers are welcome. The group read “Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine” by Anna Reid for its April gathering, and will continue the conversation at its May 22 meeting.

Book Club reading material. | Peter Silvia photo

At the end of February, they hosted a film screening and discussion of the documentary “Back to Bucha” at the Jamestown Arts Center. And this summer they will host its third annual Sunflower Festival, planned this year for August 24, which is Ukraine’s Independence Day. The sunflower is a powerful symbol in Ukrainian culture, and it represents peace and resilience.

In May 2023, an offshoot chapter of the Jamestown group was established on Aquidneck Island under the name Ukraine Relief Project – Aquidneck. In its first 10 months, URPA successfully raised nearly $10,000 by hosting speakers, art auctions, and benefit concerts.

Janet Skinner and Linda Gaitonde, founding members of the Aquidneck chapter, felt there was no outlet for their frustration over Russia’s attack on Ukraine — and there was an unmet need to raise awareness on Aquidneck Island. Their first event was a concert featuring the bandura, a traditional Ukrainian instrument, at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in May 2023.

Other events have included a lecture featuring Walter Braunohler, a career diplomat who served in Ukraine prior to the invasion and is now the State Department’s senior faculty advisor at the U.S. Naval War College. Braunohler spoke in November at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Newport.

A bandura concert at the Redwood Library. | Courtesy of URPA

Another popular event was a fundraiser and art auction held at the Newport Elks Lodge in October. Community artists donated artworks specifically crafted for the auction. Complemented by Ukrainian music that was “not typical of an art auction,” Gaitonde said the event was lively, celebratory, and unique. She added that the outpouring of generosity blew her and the other organizers away.

According to Laura Murphy, a URPA board member, the Aquidneck group exists as “an arm or extension of JURP to make it easier for people to feel like they’re helping in the community-based fundraising effort.” Just like the biblical Aaron held Moses’ arms up, she says, so does URPA help spread and support the mission of JURP.

The close-knit Jamestown and Aquidneck Island communities exemplify the strength and power of Rhode Islanders to create positive change, especially through dark times.

Linda Gaitonde, a founding member of Ukraine Relief Project – Aquidneck.

The Ukrainian plight is “a fight that I hope transcends politics,” says Brauhohler, the diplomat, who is impressed with the Rhode Island congressional delegation’s work on the Ukrainian issue. At the same time, he recognizes that supporting Ukraine’s military is an expensive undertaking — one that has increasingly been used as a political wedge issue.

Despite that, supporting Ukraine is the morally right thing to do because people are hurting and suffering, Brauhohler says, and we should help them.

“We need to defend our values and way of life,” he says. “All of America should be behind Ukraine and the fate of freedom, democracy, rule of law, everything we hold dear in the U.S., and making sure it continues in Ukraine,” Braunohler adds.

As for local engagement and advocacy, organizations like JURP, URPA, and K4A are working tirelessly to keep awareness high. Ultimately, in the words of Andrews in Jamestown, “this is our fight too.”