Uffington business man Richard Astle sets up Helping Our Ukrainian Friends which has raised £175,000 through support in Stamford, Peterborough and Oundle
A villager who spent three years working in Russia is spearheading a local volunteer group which has raised £175,000 to help the people of Ukraine.
Richard Astle helped set up Helping Our Ukrainian Friends in March last year, soon after Russian troops began to cross the border.
As well as raising an extraordinary sum of money, over the last 15 months the 20-strong group has co-ordinated the collection of tons of food and supplies from our communities and delivered it to Poland.
“We want to make a little difference and help ordinary people,” said Richard, who runs a communications business in Uffington.
“This way is slightly more than just sending off a cheque - It feels like we are doing something tangible.
“But we certainly didn’t expect it to be quite like this.”
Richard worked for the Foreign Office in the British Embassy in Moscow in the early 1990s, around the break-up of the former Soviet Union.
His fluency in Russian is an important tool in communicating with Ukrainian counterparts.
When Russia invaded last spring, Richard’s thoughts turned to his Ukrainian friends Igor and Galyna Mokryk.
Introduced through a mutual friend, they gave Richard and his friend Tony Bovill a place to stay in Donetsk to watch the England football team in the 2012 European Championships.
They kept in touch, and Richard followed their plight two years later when Igor, Galyna and their three children fled to Kyiv after Putin's forces invaded and annexed eastern Ukraine.
Igor became chief adult heart surgeon at the Kyiv Heart Institute, but February last year drove his family across Ukraine to safety over the border in Poland.
“When the invasion happened I got together with friends and said ‘right, what can we do to help?’,” Richard said.
“One of the key things is that we have this personal connection and that we are working with people we know in Ukraine and Poland.”
Within four weeks, Richard and Tony were on the road to Poland with donated medical equipment for the heart institute.
The next month, they went back again, this time with food donations for communities in eastern Ukraine. Then it began to snowball.
“It just grew from there,” Richard continued.
“Every time we go out we meet someone new and find something else we can do to help.”
Helping Our Ukrainian Friends works with refugees in Gliwice, southern Poland to help Ukrainian communities both there and in their homeland.
The team has no organisational status, and is not a charity, but can receive charitable donations for specific projects through its charitable partners.
With the support of local pubs, churches and cafes collecting donations, the group has delivered 26 tons of food supplies.
Two tons of medical supplies have also been supplied to the Kyiv Heart Institute, and flak jackets and helmets have been bought to protect aid workers who take the donations to front line communities.
Collection points for donated goods include churches at Oundle (St John’s), Baston, Thurlby, Langtoft, Helpston and Barnack.
Willowbrook Farm Granary Café, near Helpston, has also been part of the project since the start.
Helpston, where Richard calls home, has been a particular hub of support.
Villagers there raised more than £800 through a Meals on Feet event last October and a coffee and crafts weekend, while in November, an Art for Ukraine sale and exhibition added almost £2,500 – enough to buy a generator for a community café in Kyiv.
It was one of 37 generators bought and delivered after the Russian miltary targeted the electricity supply.
Businesses both local and national are supporters, while schools in Stamford, Oundle and Peterborough collect food and create gift boxes for Ukrainian children.
To date, around 1,000 Christmas and Easter gift boxes have been delivered to Ukrainian refugee children in Poland and parts of Ukraine.
Yet none of the group is ready to pat themselves on the back just yet.
“It’s going to go on for a very long time,” Richard added.
“There are communities that have been absolutely destroyed and will need so much rebuilding.”
The next mission is to help those affected by flooding caused when the Nova Kakhovka dam was destroyed in June.
A team will be sent out this month with money to buy supplies in Polish supermarkets which will then be shipped to the affected regions.
A further drop is planned for September before they prepare for a big winter campaign in December.
But as well as making deliveries and funds, Richard is keen that their volunteers see first-hand the effects that war has had.
“We are trying to give everyone involved a chance to get out to Ukraine and meet the people there,” Richard said.
“When you listen to their stories you realise they aren’t statistics. They are often young mums with small kids who have terrible stories.”
Alongside others from the group he volunteered at a residential summer camp in Poland.
It was organised by Galyna for Ukrainian families who have lost relatives in the war, mainly husbands, fathers, and brothers.
The camp gave 160 children some precious escapism and a snatched few hours to be carefree children again.
“We were doing the fun stuff, looking after the children while their mothers were having counselling and therapy,” Richard explained.
“There was a little boy who waved whenever a plane or a helicopter went by. His father had been a helicopter pilot who was shot down by the Russians.
“Another kid would keep texting his dad over and over, even though he knows he has been killed.”
As the war dragged on into a second year, aid agencies were concerned humanitarian support may fade.
Yet Richard says the evidence suggests otherwise.
They took their biggest delivery to date in March – a year on from the outbreak of war – when volunteers drove six tons of supplies out to Poland.
“The last major delivery was in March and that was the biggest one yet,” Richard recalled.
“We took four full vans out and also bought stuff out there with the money we had raised.
“We are still getting tremendous support – the generosity of local people has been incredible.
“And we have still got new people coming on board so we like to think it remains very topical and pertinent to people.”
Richard is not the only Astle who is involved – his wife and daughter have also made trips to Poland.
A mission by one family to help others suffering simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“These people were living normal lives very similar to our own, but now their worlds have been completely turned upside down,” Richard said.
“There are a lot of teenagers we meet who have absolutely no idea what their lives will be now.”