Ukraine 2023 Trip Reflections

I wanted to write some blog reflections on my latest trip and time in Ukraine. However, for more first-hand individual stories and pictures as they unfolded day by day, you can view those here: Ukraine 2023 Trip Facebook Posts.

I came back to Ukraine because it has been one year since I was last there. You can read about last year’s trip summary day by day here if you would like to compare with this year’s reflections: Ukraine 2022 Trip Blog Post.

I wanted to revisit Ukraine personally a year later to see the difference, spend time with our leaders, volunteers, and friends, participate in current and ongoing war relief efforts, and get a more first-hand perspective on what is happening, what the greatest needs are, and what the most significant needs will be down the road so that I can report back more fully. This trip accomplished those goals, and I hope this post will help articulate and inspire you since there are many mixed messages, confusion, and opinions out there.

The main thing I want to stress is that regardless of your political views, I hope we all can agree that real people are suffering from a war real in real time. I want to draw your attention to what I saw, what people are going through, and how we can continue to serve those in Ukraine in meaningful ways.


In preparation for this trip, I wondered how it would compare with one year ago. For example:

  • Last year, we had people in safe housing locations in West Ukraine that we visited with, whereas this year, it has been about nine months since people started returning or relocating. Last year, Irpin and Bucha, where we spent most of our time, had just been liberated by Ukrainian forces driving Russia back. This year, they have been attempting to rebuild their lives in those areas.
  • While last year was more of a risk on the ground, this year was more of a threat from the sky, with air raid siren warnings for most of Ukraine a day or so before I left for the trip and each night through the time I was there.

However, my wife and I felt utterly peaceful about this trip again. The verse of the day before I left was Psalm 4:8, which states: In peace, I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety. I needed to remind myself of this verse a couple times as air raid sirens went off and missiles were launched every night in Ukraine, including over places I was staying. While the Ukraine military is shooting most of them down now, (including while I was there, the first hyper-sonic missile shot down by a US defense system sent last month!) some still get through occasionally, and falling debris can cause damage and put people in harm’s way too.

While going into a country at war has some risk involved, it also didn’t bring much comfort to my parents, who were a bit concerned for my safety, but frankly, as I told them, with all the shootings and craziness in the US right now, I don’t feel any safer there! It is interesting, though, how, whether Ukrainian or American or whatever country we are from, we get “used” to certain realities even that are abnormal and continue living our lives. Now, I will say the air raid sirens are traumatizing for Ukrainians, and they never “get used” to it in the sense of no longer caring. The constant missile warnings deeply shake them, adults get little to no sleep or take turns with one adult staying awake while the other tries to sleep during air raid warnings. It’s been their life for over a year now and some lived through this before in East Ukraine before even this war.

Day 1: Tuesday-Wednesday

On day one, I flew into Warsaw, Poland again, since there are no commercial flights into or out of Ukraine still over a year later. From Warsaw, we drove near the border of West Ukraine but spent the night in Poland since there was a mid-night curfew in Ukraine, and my flight didn’t arrive until early evening. We woke up early the following day to cross the border and go all the way to Irpin, which is outside of Kyiv, where our directors and most volunteers live, along with many people we helped provide safe housing for last year. That evening, a drone exploded over the Kremlin, and later, in the middle of the night, air raid sirens went off again. However, I slept right through it, being tired from all the plane travel and then doing the driving to Irpin.

While we were driving, our Ukrainian Director, Tanya, and I could catch up and discuss many things related to the war, our plans for the next couple of days, how people were doing, and other items. One of the insights I learned that I didn’t know was that before the war, only 1-3% of budget funding went toward Ukraine’s military. But since the 2022 invasion, it is now 60-80% going to the military to defend against Russia. Plus, all the support from the US and other European countries also goes mostly to military defense. However, this means that there is little going to help civilians. Helping the Ukrainian people is where organizations like ServeNow play such a critical role in meeting civilian needs on the ground affected by the war.

Another reality that came into more perspective as we drove is that different parts of Ukraine are experiencing different war stages and dynamics. In West Ukraine, they are least impacted in terms of attack. There have been some attacks but mostly on military bases, less civilian. Then you have towns like Irpin and Bucha, where I came from last year, that had just been liberated at that time. People there are trying to figure out how to rebuild and restart their lives. But then you have the current front-lines most under attack, being occupied by Russia, or just now being liberated again like Irpin and Bucha were last year. The needs, therefore, are different depending on where you are. Immediate aid to survive is desperately needed at the frontlines.

In contrast, things like home repairs and rebuilding are needed in other parts, along with addressing the needs of those who lost everything and the psychological and educational needs of parents and families. For example, all the schools and even a large university in Irpin were destroyed or severely damaged. Kids have now been either out of school for a year or trying to do some learning online, but with many challenges and fewer social interaction opportunities.

Day 2: Thursday

On Day 2, we spent the morning into early afternoon visiting multiple hospitals receiving medical equipment and beds from ServeNow. Right before I arrived, another shipment arrived. These are 40-foot container-size truckloads from a partner organization in Sweden. The items are donated from Sweden, and then we pay for loading, shipping, customs, transportation, and distribution. After we visited the hospitals to see what they obtained, why those items are needed, how their training is going to utilize them, and what more is being requested, we then went to our storage facility, where a group from a church was loading up some of our items to take directly to the front lines where fighting is among the fiercest right now. They invited me along, but I would have had to take another week, even though I would have loved to join them! The storage area is near a military base, so I must point out that last year, we had a shipment arrive before the war. We were still determining if our equipment had survived the attacks after the war started. Not only did that medical equipment not get damaged or destroyed, but the same was true for our bakery equipment too miraculously despite damage all around those facilities.

And that leads me to the bakery/café which we also visited. I told the story last year of how our bakery section of the building miraculously was spared damage. The store right next to it was hit and suffered significant damage. A missile also went right over the roof of the entire building complex and landed behind it, but it didn’t damage the structural integrity of the building. And now, for the first time, I enjoyed the delicious drinks and sweets from this bakery café! Before the war started, we were finishing renovations and about to install the equipment. It was an empty shell when I was here last year, but now it is a high-class and professional café, where the top coffee drink maker has trained staff in Ukraine! And I am not joking when I say I have never tasted drinks that good or had meaningful sweets. To me, the bakery is more than a bakery. It’s a symbol of hope and God’s protection amid even the horrors of war and destruction.

After enjoying some time at the bakery taste testing everything, we delivered food containers to people who have lost their homes entirely or experienced substantial damage and are in need. The food containers we provide are large! They are heavy and filled with various items that will last people a good month. I didn’t even realize how many items are packed into those and how appreciative people are amid losing so much. We sat and listened for about an hour or so to people’s harrowing stories of survival. We then took time to pray for nearly everyone. I was especially touched by how open people were in sharing their lives with us and eager for prayer. Many testified that they sensed God being with them, protecting and drawing them to him. It struck me that this war has not resulted in people becoming bitter and angry with God. Instead, many have been more open to God than ever before the war. Further, they are deeply and sincerely grateful for God’s kindness through our ServeNow volunteers and team.

I was also touched by how so many people try to help one another despite their needs and situations. For example, a woman named Lesya, who ServeNow helped start her own “chocolates” business before the war, came to greet us at the bakery while we were there. She came with some sweets she had made as a gift for us, and I heard how she and a team of volunteers produce and send hundreds of energy bars to the war-zone weekly. She does this with 80% of her earnings from her business, keeping only 20% for herself. Yet, Leysa has lost so much in life. Her town Avdiivka (where I had led a team years ago), was recently destroyed. With tears in her eyes, she showed me pictures of her apartment building entirely on fire and her parents’ house destroyed. And yet there she is, doing what she can to help others!

That evening we had no electricity through much of the evening and more air raid warnings. Another reminder that as some people try to go on living, this war is ever present and looming.

Day 3: Friday

On Day 3, we brought some food items to a center for refugees from the current war-zone. Most of the people there are elderly or one’s with families. It was hard to listen to elderly people share their confusion at why this completely unnecessary war is happening and why they have lost their homes. Many had gone without food, medicine, and basic needs for some time. Further, to think so many civilians, including many elderly people, disabled people, children, and families are experiencing first-hand the terror of war and destruction of their homes is mind-boggling.

We then made a stop at the “Dream in Style Salon,” where we helped a refugee from Crimea start a cosmetology training program years ago as she opened her salon. One of the touching things to hear as I was getting my nails done (yes, they force me!) was that many of the women we helped train before the war still use the skills and kit we gifted them at graduation, even in other countries! It is interesting to think how things we do in years past can impact people’s future in ways not foreseen in advance.

Next, we participated in a feeding program in Bucha where a hot meal is served to people who need it, along with other bible literature, like our Basic Series books. People are also invited to the church that hosts this weekly project via ServeNow.There was a woman who came back later asking where the church was stating this was her second time receiving food and now, she wanted to come to church. I don’t recall seeing her at church, but it was good to see seeds being planted and people more open.

We walked to the local hospital right after this, where some of our medical equipment arrived. Some key hospital personnel were present to thank us and immediately set off to put it to good use!

We also visited more families to deliver food items, hear their stories, and pray with them, which you can read about, see, and watch a video of in the Facebook link at the beginning of this article.

Day 4: Saturday

On Saturday, we visited the center where we are holding weekly kids’ activities. Kids can come here, and we provide activities such as swimming, art therapy, and English lessons. It was good for me to see this because it hit home more profoundly with the need for these types of programs for kids. Instructors told us that parents are so happy with this program as it gives kids consistency, safety, social interaction, and educational opportunities. Parents testify to how this program has helped their kids sleep at night, given them something to look forward to again, put a smile on their face, and opened up about their feelings and emotions. I didn’t fully comprehend this program’s significance until I saw it for myself.

We then went to the church in Bucha that meets on Saturdays, and I preached on the 7 Words of Jesus from the Cross. Afterward, we had lunch (my favorite Ukrainian meal: Shaslik!) with the men from the rehab, out of which this church started.

In the evening, we had some key ServeNow volunteers over to our director’s home for a meal and where I shared a bit more personally with them to thank them for all their service over this last year amid their struggles and updated them on ServeNow efforts outside of Ukraine and around the world. It is also inspiring to me to meet with such dedicated people all around the world. God’s people are everywhere, and God is actively at work through his people worldwide, even in the worst of circumstances. This fact doesn’t get any media attention, but it is something I witness repeatedly in my travels.

Day 5: Sunday

On Day 5, I preached at our director’s church in Irpin on Carrying Each Other’s Burdens and noted how much of an inspiration they have been in modeling this over this war. Afterward, a man named Gregory came up to me, wanting to give me a piece of shard from a missile that had hit his home. He gave this to me as a reminder that because of ServeNow, he and his family are alive today. He was one of many we helped evacuate and provide safe housing for during the first months of the war, and we sat with him last year, hearing his story.

This gesture and gift were significant to me. It wasn’t until this trip that the gravity of what we did started to settle in. It was because of advance planning in case war did break out that made possible our ability to quickly move people to safety that otherwise may have been killed. And really, we got people out just in time, which was only possible because we sent some significant funding in advance in case they needed to evacuate and had an agreement in place with a location in case needed. That funding and location provided the ability to know people could make the drive to West Ukraine with being able to pay for gas and have food over a long period with a place to go and be taken care of. It just struck me that many of the people at church may not have been there had we not taken the possibility of invasion seriously. Right up to the war, not many were taking an invasion seriously and not preparing for it. Even though we were prepared for it, it was still shocking when it happened. But looking back now, it is clear God was going before us, preparing the way, and we were able to be a part of something that we think may be among the most significant efforts we have ever undertaken in saving people’s lives. Yet, the work continues, and the road will be long and steep to rebuild.

After the church service, we quickly drove to a nearby church to give out about 100 loaves of bread. While there, I heard the story of this church and how missiles had hit all around it, but it was not damaged. It served, therefore, as a hub for relief aid, water, the ability for people to charge their phones, and more. The church continues to grow because of its efforts within the community.

We then drove to Lviv, where we spent the night, as there is a curfew at midnight. We arrived with 2 minutes to spare!

Day 6: Monday

On Monday, we drove to the border and Warsaw. We arrived early in the evening, so we had some time to walk around the city and enjoy one more dinner together. We heard more of our salon trainer’s harrowing story of survival at dinner, which you can read about in my Facebook post. But we also reminisced about the past year of war and even went back to look at some of our messages to each other before the war started and when it began. As I mentioned earlier, the sobriety and weight of what we had done in advance and on time to help evacuate people to safety and help those in need began to sink in deeper. God’s providence and hand were indeed on us without us fully realizing it at the time and only clearer looking backwards.

After dinner and driving to the hotel, we said our goodbyes, and I was up at 3:30 am for an early morning flight to Munich and then home Tuesday afternoon.

What Next?

This war and the needs surrounding it are far from over. It will be a long road ahead with multiple phases in different places at different times. But here is a quick snapshot as we plan the best we can. In fact, “planning” was something we talked about because Ukrainians are living day by day, and long-term plans are nearly impossible even as dreams for a better future are ever hoped for:

  • Monthly: We need between $20-30,000 a month for most efforts combined simply to help people survive and get some rebuilding assistance/help.
  • Home Repairs (doors, windows, roofing material, home material): $600 a family.
  • Rent for Families: $350 a month per family.
  • Summer Camps: We would like to host 2-3 summer camps this year for kids. Each camp will cost $30,000 or $450 per kid per camp.
  • Feeding Program: $10 a person per month.
  • Small Business training/grants: $22,148 for all combined on the year.
  • Medical Containers: $15,000 per full container
  • Children’s program: $4,000 a month.
  • Christmas Gifts: $15,000 total for 6,500 gift boxes.
  • Winterization Program (Blankets, Wood, Generators, etc.): $100 a family.
  • Rebuilding Homes: $85-100,000 per home (3 families we know personally desperately need new homes).

Any and every amount helps. Consistency also conveys that we care and will continue to be with our friends in Ukraine. Galatians 6:9 statesLet us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. And 1 Corinthians 15:58 states: Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

To Donate to the needs in Ukraine you can visit our website, select “Where Most Needed” and put Ukraine War in the comment section: Donate Today. Or you can send a check to ServeNow at 1817 Austin Bluffs Parkway #110, Colorado Springs, CO 80918. Or call our office at: 719-900-1800 for more information.

Please continue to pray and support our friends in Ukraine!

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