Katya Portnaya, president-elect of the Weston-Wayland Rotary Club, was born in St. Petersburg and emigrated to the U.S. at 11. Her husband is from Ukraine. Last February, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion into Ukraine, the pair stared at the TV in dread. “I realized you can’t just sit around and cry. It’s always better to do something,” Portnaya says. Soon she and Roy Balfour, Rotary Foundation Chair, got together to brainstorm with four other members of District 7910 leadership, including Past District Governor Diana Nestorova. Immediately, they reached out to Rotary International and applied for a $25,000 Disaster Response Grant.
It was a landmark action as the district became the first in the world to be allowed a Disaster Response Grant that was not a disaster area; as a result, Rotary changed its worldwide policy. Now any district can apply for the grant. Last fall, District 7910 obtained a second $25,000 Disaster Response Grant to continue the effort.
The traditional focus had been on providing victims food, shelter, and water. But the work of District 7910 –– which contains 50 clubs –– paved the way to provide medical supplies and two temporary housing units for bombing victims. Now, 7910 is working to join forces with 5,000 Rotarians from five other districts to also provide medicine, ambulances, fire equipment, water purification systems, mobile homes for bombing victims, generators, and more.
Balfour, who launched the first Rotary Club in Kiev when he was president of the Shrewsbury Club in 1991, agrees that it was now amazingly synchronistic. “I just reconstituted the original groundwork,” he says, adding that it was great to already have contacts. Meanwhile, he adds: “Politically, the hope is Mr. Putin stops killing innocent civilians and that Rotary can use its influence to help build Ukraine.” But he adds that Rotary International raised $15 million in Disaster Relief Grants, which was quickly depleted.
“The only way to help is to donate more,” Nestorova says, adding that Rotary’s three-fold goal is to meet Ukraine’s immediate needs, rebuild, then build peace. She adds that Disaster Response Grants even have come from districts in Colombia, Bolivia, the former Soviet Union “countries that put aside their own social, political disasters to help their friends across the world. Our vision is to see a world where people unite and take action to create lasting change. But peace-building there and in the world won’t begin until the war ends.”
Fundraising will continue throughout 2023, when Rotary will reassess the political and financial landscape. “Donating to the Disaster Response Grant is crucial now,” Nestorova says, adding, “Anyone can donate directly to the Ukraine Response Fund.” https://my.rotary.org/en/donate
Meanwhile, the Weston-Wayland Rotary Club also singularly raised $25,000 for the push. “We continue the work,” Portnaya says. “We think of this as a humanitarian crisis and people need help. And when people need help, you figure out ways to help and just do it. My hope is the Ukrainian nation will be able to end suffering for these people. Meanwhile, we just put our heads down, and we work.”
-Liz Karagianis