When Russia launched its full-scale military invasion into Ukraine on February 24, Mariya Kemper-Reiss of Boca Raton, Florida, couldn’t turn off the TV as dramatic scenes of buildings being bombed and Russian troops advancing unfolded before her eyes. While Mariya and her immediate family left the Soviet Union in 1989 as political refugees with thousands of other Jewish Ukrainians, she still had many friends and family that lived near the capital of Kyiv.
“I was just in shock,” Mariya said. “I probably slept a couple of hours because it was so nerve-wracking to see how close they were getting to Kyiv.”
But after the initial shock wore off, and Mariya saw her fellow Ukrainians holding out against all odds, she knew that she had to help. She quickly reached out to friends and contacts inside Ukraine to see what they needed. Then with the help of a longtime friend who is the head of the Ukrainian postal service, Mariya was able to figure out the logistics of how to get supplies on cargo planes and delivered from the United States to Ukraine.
She enlisted the help of her friends Summer Faerman and Brittany Suarez. Together, they created an Amazon wish list, which allowed purchased items to be delivered directly to a facility in New Jersey, where the supplies were put on pallets and loaded onto planes. With the generous donations of the Boca Raton community and beyond, they were able to send more than $30,000 in medical supplies to Ukraine.
But their efforts didn’t stop there. Mariya started a website called Boca Helps Ukraine and secured a donation drop off site in Boca Raton so that people could donate nonperishable foods, hygiene products, diapers, baby formula and other essential items. Using her marketing skills acquired during her prior work experience in advertising, Mariya was able to get the word out successfully.
“It started on day one with one box, and then soon enough, we could barely move in this sea of boxes,” Mariya said. “A ton of volunteers came in from the community, from my synagogue, from churches, from schools. We loaded a 40-foot container in two days.”
Summer Faerman was able to see firsthand the impact that Mariya made.
“She was able to engage hundreds and thousands of people to know that they can make a difference and let them know that although we’re thousands of miles away, what they’re doing mattered,” Summer said.
The container was filled with more than $60,000 worth of humanitarian aid and it shipped out in early June. Once it clears customs, the Ukrainian postal service will distribute the donations to people living in the direst areas.
Mariya says her inspiration for helping others comes from her grandmother, who passed away ten years ago.
“Her entire life was difficult from the day she was born. She lived through the Soviet regime and went through World War II so she barely had any time to enjoy her life until we immigrated to the U.S.,” Mariya said. “But even then, she was sending care packages back to Ukraine to her friends. She’s shaped me into who I am today.”
No longer having access to the space that hosted the drop-off donation site, Mariya’s efforts have shifted to fundraising money for organizations working on the ground in Ukraine. She hopes to soon adopt a shelter for displaced people that she can help by providing supplies and other means of support. Even after the war Is over, Mariya says she will continue to help Ukraine. Her plan is to organize a volunteer group to rebuild homes and other buildings in Ukraine or possibly build new affordable housing for those who have been displaced.
“I want to make sure Ukraine gets back on its feet and is better than ever after all of this is done,” Mariya said.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Mariya? Find local volunteer opportunities.
This post was written by Alicia Lee. Points of Light collaborates with voices from various writers to help tell inspirational stories of leadership, volunteerism and civic engagement. We recognize that there are many ways to be civically engaged, as outlined in Points of Light’s Civic Circle, and we are grateful to our writers for helping us illustrate the impact of how everyday actions can change the world.