One of Whitefish’s newest residents, Yurii Zinchenko, recently gave a presentation in Kalispell that illustrated the amount of destruction that is occurring in Ukraine, particularly in his hometown of Kharkiv.
His talk moved Whitefish resident Heidi Rickels and inspired her to spearhead a campaign to send solar-powered generators to Kharkiv. The first two units were delivered in early March to supply electricity to a local hospital.
“We’ve raised about $17,000, enough for the first two generators, but hope that more people will contribute to help us reach our $50,000 goal,” Rickels said. “Because of the local connection, we’re hoping that more citizens in the valley will contribute to our campaign.”
Zinchenko’s presentation included two short videos of his hometown, one taken in 2021, showing fountains, white stone cathedrals with gold domes and children playing in colorfully landscaped parks.
The second video shows the destruction the town has experienced since war broke out in February 2022. The once vibrant town is gray. Buildings are gone or barely standing, adorned with twisted metal, broken glass and burnt, collapsed walls.
“It’s just horrible. I don’t know how to explain and to make you imagine the situation that people lived in this city after the war started,” Zinchenko said. “Russians use not only missiles, they use aircraft … they still continue to destroy the city because they consider that all the city has is thanks to Russia.”
Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine with a pre-war population of about 1.5 million. It’s located in the eastern part of the country, close to the border with the Russian Federation. According to a report by Reuters, the mayor of Kharkiv said over 600 buildings in the city have been destroyed, including schools, nurseries, hospitals and clinics.
“When invasions started on Feb. 24, it started with our city, with Russian tanks and troops,” Zinchenko said. “Within one month, the population of the city was 300,000. A lot of people moved because everyone was scared and all these shots and missiles all over the city.”
He said there are over eight million Ukrainians still in various parts of Europe and that many people stayed in some western territories of Ukraine.
Zinchenko, his wife, Vitalina and their daughter, Anastasia, were all born in Kharkiv and had never planned on leaving. The couple fled the town they loved because they needed to find a safe place to raise their daughter.
“If we didn’t have a child we wouldn’t move somewhere, we would stay in Ukraine and find a (way) to help inside the country, but when you have a child it’s completely just changing everything,” Zinchenko said.
THE ZINCHENKO family’s story and the videos of Kharkiv touched Rickels and she became determined to find a way to help.
“When I met Yurii and saw that video, I was just shocked at what a beautiful, modern, well-kept, advanced city that it is and my heart was really broken,” Rickels said. “I thought, ‘What can I do to help?’ I can help with connections through the Rotary network.”
She rallied her Rotary network and with the help of the Zinchenkos, identified a maternity hospital in their home city of Kharkiv, Ukraine, that was in need of uninterruptible emergency power for critical medical equipment.
The Kharkiv Regional Clinical Perinatal Center is the hospital where the Zinchenkos’ daughter, Anastasia, was born just a few years ago.
“They still need a lot of generators because they have incubators for small babies and when they have blackouts … all these small babies, they can die, because they have no electricity and they cannot support these incubators,” Zinchenko said.
In early March, Rickels’ Power Up campaign had raised enough money to send two generators and one solar array to the perinatal center. Each unit costs $6,200 and the solar arrays are $2,000 each.
The units are portable, on wheels, and will be used for years to come, as backup power. One generator supports one room of incubators for eight hours of constant electricity and will support surgeries, too.
Rotary is a service club with 1.2 million people worldwide doing service projects. Having recently moved to Whitefish from Colorado, Rickels belongs to The Rotary Club of Evergreen, Colorado, who had been working with the Rotary Club in Kharkiv.
“I still have connections with people who work for the government and people who work in hospitals in Kharkiv,” Zinchenko said. “The Russians started to destroy all our critical infrastructure that made energy and heat … so a lot of our people, they stay in blackouts without heat and electricity for several days.”
Rickels’ research led her to New Use Energy, a company based in Bellingham, Washington, that manufactures lithium battery-powered generators that are able to be charged with solar, grid power or a diesel generator.
The CEO of New Use Energy, Paul Shmotolokha, is a first-generation Ukrainian-American and is well aware of the situation in Kharkiv. His company manufactures the units in Nürnberg, Germany and has a distribution warehouse in the western Ukraine city of Lviv.
From there, his team delivers and installs smaller units to power hospital equipment using solar energy and larger units to power humanitarian hubs. Rickels says they are working with the Ukrainian Rotarians who run giant hubs, warehouses that store and distribute food, medical supplies, clothing, blankets and other humanitarian goods.
“This is a way you can provide direct support and you can see that support delivered,” Rickels said. “These are people we know, Rotary Club to Rotary Club.”
Donated money goes through the Evergreen Rotary Foundation.
“This way people don’t get money, they just get the things that they need,” said Zinchenko. “Right now they need generators. In the future, maybe we’ll be able to get some kind of equipment and supplies also for perinatal centers… just some things that can save a lot of lives.”
AFTER FINDING safe havens in provinces within Ukraine and in France, the Zinchenko family landed in Whitefish, Montana, in August 2022, with help from the Uniting for Ukraine program in the United States and their local Sponsor Circle.
“I never had a dream to immigrate somewhere from Ukraine because I liked my country and I liked the way of life that I had before war and I never had a thought of going somewhere to Europe or the US. It wasn’t my dream,” Zinchenko said. “So right now I’m very grateful that we (are in the U.S.) and have a safe place for our family.”
Zinchenko has a Ph.D. in law and worked for 20 years as a lawyer in Kharkiv. He and his wife are pursuing more education here with the goal of helping others.
“My goal is to be some kind of a bridge and not to help people to earn money but to help my country to become better,” he said. ”We should fight against corruption. We should do something, not for the government but for the people.”
The family is thankful for the support they’ve received in Whitefish. They are safe, but with their parents and Vitalina’s three brothers still in Kharkiv, their minds are always on their homeland.
“When you understand that you are right now in a safe place your brain is always working because a lot of Ukrainians right now, millions of Ukrainians they are not in such good conditions, not in such a good environment like our family, so you are thinking how you can help other people.
“Because it’s some kind of a circle,” he added. “This community in Whitefish helped our family and we shouldn’t stop, we should continue this circle to make happier and safer other people. If someone helped us we should find a way we can help other people.”