A connection to the Peace Corps and Ukraine has spurred a Lakewood woman and her son to make a trip to Poland to help those on the defensive.
“I’m a 61-year-old woman — I was kind of like this is sort of out of my league,” Sally Naetzker Baer said on Sunday afternoon, the day before she and her son left for Poland. “If you are civilians and you’re given a gun, which these boys and men are in Ukraine, they don’t have any protective gear. They don’t have any medical aid kits. They have nothing but the gun.”
Naetzker Baer and her son, Willson, decided they wanted to help and are traveling to Rzeszow, Poland, to help provide protective gear and other necessities to those who are fighting in Ukraine.
Naetzker Baer, who lives in Lakewood, was in Ukraine in 1995 in connection with the Peace Corps. She recently returned to the area to be close to family and helped create the gift shop that operates inside of Ashville General Store. After Russia invaded Ukraine, she said Peace Corps volunteers from that time got together on Facebook along with a man in Ukraine.
“I reached out to these two groups saying basically with all my years of experience, I knew that there was an opportunity for me to serve somehow in this situation,” she said. “I just didn’t have any idea what that looked like.”
Naetzker Baer said a few weeks ago, the group had raised $50,000 for military defensive vests that the group has coordinated individuals to bring over to Ukraine.
“I had a friend in South Carolina that left (Saturday) and brought the first load,” she said. “He’s bringing 1,500 pounds next week. That group … has access to a cargo plane that can go directly into Lviv, which is basically where all of this defensive gear and stuff is funneling through and all the refugees are funneling out into Poland. I threw up a Facebook fundraiser and was shocked at the sort of support and just the pain that people are feeling about this whole situation.”
Naetzker Baer said through her Peace Corp friends on Facebook, she networked with a “whole web of people in Europe, primarily focused in Poland.”
“It became really clear that Europe was responding super well to this refugee situation — 40,000 to 50,000 people a day at times are going into Poland, but they have this incredible network, mostly online, through ex-pat groups and other organizations that have been thrown together that disperse these people into homes,” she said. “Oftentimes, governments of the countries are giving them visas for a certain period of time and giving them food, insurance, SIM cards, basic things like that when they get to the border. It’s really an incredible event that’s happening there.”
Naetzker Baer said she teamed up with a pastor from Charlotte, N.C., and a pastor from Irpin, Ukraine, to help deliver the military protective vests and medical kits.
“(Irpin) is just a suburb north of Kyiv and it fell to the Russians maybe a week ago now,” she said. “It’s basically been bombed to obliteration – there’s nothing left there.”
Naetzker Baer said she has just secured a hotel in Poland, where she plans to stay for a month, but was told she could be needed longer. Her son, a photographer, is accompanying her for the duration.
“As soon as we get there, they’re trying to secure a van that would allow me to transport the military supplies and aide into Ukraine,” she said. “Once in Lviv, (we’ll) give that to our contacts that will bring it to Kyiv, the capital city, and (we’ll) then turn around with refugees and bring them into Poland. (We’ll) basically do that back and forth in order to keep this stuff moving through.”
Her son hopes to capture what is going on on the ground there during their time in Poland and Ukraine.
With the money she has fundraised, she has purchased $10,000 worth of military gear; however, an anonymous church ended up paying for that gear.
“That got paid back, so the rest of the money is going directly into Ukraine and we’re going to start giving gas money to these guys that are ferrying gear from Lviv to Kyiv because they don’t have money,” she said. “We’re going to start helping with the gas money, and then obviously working with the refugees and buy gear and stuff there.”
Naetzker Baer is no stranger to providing international aid, having done so in Ethiopia, Kazakhstan and Nepal in previous years.
“This idea of international travel or independently just throwing up our hands and going somewhere and saying ‘We’ll do it,’ has really been driven by our faith,” she said. “Every time we’ve said yes. It’s been an incredible experience. All those experiences led to this moment.”
Naetzker Baer said she saw the recent attack on a military training base near the border of Poland.
“It’s kind of at a point where there is no other choice but to go,” Naetzker said. “This is not just about Ukraine. … It’s about a much larger thing threatening the whole world at this point. That’s why we’re doing it.”
The Lakewood woman and her son left the area on Monday and flew out of Erie, Pa. She estimated that they will land in Krakow, Poland today around noon.
“If you’re not a person of faith, if you could watch the story unfold, you would be a believer,” she said. “It’s really incredible what’s happened — all the way down to the way you can’t find hotels in Poland right now … but I found this hotel near this town and for whatever weird reason, it has four beds in the room. So this means that we can now post a couple of other volunteers in a room with us, which is fabulous.”
Naetzker Baer said she will be updating her Facebook page regarding her journey and invites those who are interested to follow along by friending her. Her page can be found under “Sally Naetzker Baer.” Her fundraiser can also be found on her Facebook page.