November 20, 2023
Meet British Volunteer Richard Woodruff founder of Front Line Kit.
My name is Richard and I’m from London, the capital of Great Britain. I’m 30 years old, I’m volunteering in Ukraine. I’ve been in Ukraine for over 500 days now and I was inspired to come here by seeing the horrors happening here on Sky News, specifically Bucha made me book my flights to head on out.
Luckily, I found a wonderful person on a bus on the way over the border, and they very kindly helped me ask someone at the train station. When I arrived in Lviv, there was a lady in a blue jacket standing outside the train station. We went over and asked her where can I help? Where can I volunteer in Ukraine? She told me about Dobrobat in Kyiv, which is on the VolunteeringUkraine website and Lviv Volunteer Kitchen, which is in Lviv. So I went the next day to start helping cut up veg, and then a month later I went to Dobrobat in Kyiv and helped rebuild a school.
The project list is endless, everything from rebuilding to aid deliveries to the Front Line, both military & civilian, going to the very Front Line in Kupiansk, being in Kherson Oblast for months at a time under intense shelling, delivering humanitarian aid, whether in Kherson Oblast or the little towns around there, also Mykolaiv. Anywhere that needed food and help, Ernest from an NGO “Angel of Life” and I were delivering humanitarian aid packages, normally provided by the Canadian Ukrainian Aid Foundation. Apart from that, any time a soldier or someone needed something, we would be there to help them out. Our current project is energy bar-making. We’re knitting a lot of camouflage nets as well. Anything that the troops need, we try to source, and if we can’t source it, we make it ourselves because it’s normally cheaper to do that with our incredible volunteer workforce.
We had lots of requests from the Front Lines when we were travelling around the country for very quick nutrition that they can get at a trench level where they are not able to cook. One option is the meal packets that you can buy at any Epicenter (hypermarket chain in Ukraine) that have a self-warming patch in them, which will heat the food without a heat source. Also, you have the Western MREs, which you can also eat in a trench but apart from that there was no other food source, so we turned to energy bars because that was specifically what they had requested, and we had also met with lots of different organisations that were making ready-to-eat options, such as crackers with the Kyiv Kitchen Hub “Ants” and also beef jerky, chicken jerky, pork jerky. There was lots of need for instant yummy protein. So, the idea of energy bars actually came from the troops themselves.
First, I love food and always eat as much as possible all the time. The second reason is that you can’t invent new medical devices as they have to go through years and years of testing, and if you screw things up, then our guys end up dying. It’s the same with military equipment - you can’t make a new grenade or a new mortar. I spoke to one of the troops about this and said, Why don’t we make a more efficient grenade for the drone drops, some kind of high explosive, because we had a chemist with us at the time and he very simply said the weapons industry has been spending billions figuring out how to make these things. The guys on the Front Lines have said, We’re reworking and adjusting mortars and grenades to be able to be dropped. This is way better because these military-industrial complexes are geniuses and they know how to make a grenade or a mortar that can be easily dropped, and it’s much better than us attempting to make some C4 and strap some ball bearings to it to be dropped from a drone, so that’s why we haven’t got involved in munitions. We have considered making drones, but there are lots of drone makers out there and I think it’s much better to fund the guys who have all the equipment and know what they are doing, but it’s an option we’re still thinking about in case we need to increase supply and if the drone makers can’t handle the capacity. We are speaking with one guy at the moment who makes drop rigs about helping him with the manual labour parts, so putting together the parts of the drone which are just gathered and don’t require any specific expertise.
I had always planned to leave Ukraine after the war but after taking my break abroad, I’ve realised it may not be as possible as I thought, the reason being that every second of being out of Ukraine feels incredibly strange. The war is still going on and we are still losing guys every day, so we need help. So my plan is to let more people in the world know what is going on and keep them interested in the topic of Ukraine because it is disappearing rapidly out of the news. In terms of volunteering, I really want to start teaching some kids English, as I think the English language is one of my specialities. I want to do some more hands-on stuff myself because everything recently has been about trying to have a maximum effect, which means showcasing everything that’s going on and telling people about opportunities so that they can find them, but I want to start doing more myself physically. I know that’s not the most efficient thing for Ukraine but it will give me a bit more hands-on experience and allow me to speak to more Ukrainians again. I definitely want to do some more camo-netting because that was quite nice and relaxing, and especially with the winter season coming on, everything is going to be all white so it’s going to be very easy as we won’t have to fixate on creating patterns anymore, so we can just mindlessly meditate and knit a net.
Really, donate, that is the main thing and continue talking to your friends about Ukraine. If you’re talking to your friends and they’re getting bored with talking about Ukraine, talk to them in a way that’s interesting to them or maybe show them a beautiful city; Ukraine’s a beautiful place. We understand that always talking about the same topic all the time becomes monotonous, but if you’re listening to this or reading about this, then you probably deeply care about Ukraine and you also haven’t stopped thinking about it for however long the current invasion has been going on now. We need collectively to try and get the message across to those people who have fallen asleep at the wheel. We need to show them the beauty of Ukraine, what they can do to help, and show them stories that are going to keep them interested. Obviously, donate.
We need drones and we need medical supplies. They’re consumables, so we’re going to need the exact same amount this month as we did before, so please, please just donate. Everything is now going through the registered NGO “Angel of Life”, so any funds for drones or medical supplies can go straight through there or we can make the purchase directly and post the receipts, so there’s still accountability and transparency which are incredibly important, especially at this point in the war. You need to know that every penny that you’re donating is getting to exactly the right place 100% of the time, not 99, not 50% of the time.
What I have realised after tweeting three or four times on the subject is that I need to stay well clear of the topic. One, because I’m not an expert and two, because it’s horrendous on both sides. People are very divided into camps, just like being pro Trump or against Trump. I think it’s important to come to the middle of this and see it’s not good from both sides.
One of the most heart-warming stories, and I replay this clip quite often in my head, is when we were dropping off housing supplies to a house down in Stanislav, their home was completely destroyed by Russian missiles and mortars, and the whole roof was gone. We went to visit this guy and he said, All I want is just some metal sheeting for my roof and a bit of cement. So, we’re talking a few hundred bucks. We came back a few weeks later with all of these supplies and his little daughter, who must be about one or two years old and was just learning to walk, stumbled over from her mother to give me the biggest hug. We’ve got it on video and it’s just so sweet and so heart-warming, knowing that this little girl will grow up to have a roof over her head and her life will be restored to some sort of normality, because she has no idea that the war is going on.
It was very, very lovely and we gave them a puppy too. Apart from that, the most gut-wrenching, horrifying moment was being in Kherson Oblast. We got the news that morning that a few hours earlier a mortar had gone through the roof of a grandmother’s house. The roof had collapsed, her husband was buried under the rubble and she couldn’t dig him out in time and therefore he died. I was standing in their home and reliving this moment with this babusia and her whole world had fallen apart and she and I completely broke down into tears because I had seen so many homes that were completely destroyed by the war, I’d been in Kharkiv, I’d seen Kupiansk, I’d seen Izyum, I’d seen all of these areas that had been nearly eradicated and to actually see it in real time, to still have the heat coming off the building where it had been burning, to see the people whose lives had been destroyed and to be there for that moment brought back the reality of the destruction I’d seen in the past.
This was what every one of those buildings that I had seen destroyed was like in that moment. So, I gave her a massive hug and I told the story through Twitter. Within five or six hours we had raised $10,000 to completely rebuild her home and had guys working on it from that hour itself. We started to clear up the rubble and then we had a team of ten people to work on it all day every day. Now, I can happily say that her home is rebuilt and she has a roof over her head. She’s got a new fridge freezer, a new kitchen, we’ve replaced everything inside of her home, we’ve replaced the ceiling, she has a whole new roof. We still keep in contact with her, bring her food and check in on her as obviously she’s just lost her husband and we are her new rock. All of the people who are helping rebuild her home have a special connection with her too and are there for her. They’re not just builders, they’re her family because all these people are volunteers and they’re doing it for free. We just have to buy the building materials.
The architecture around Ukraine is incredibly beautiful and I’m meeting people with one common cause together. It’s a different world in Ukraine that gives meaning and purpose, which your life before may have not had. I fortunately had meaning and purpose before and had a career. I felt like I knew who I was, so I wasn’t coming to Ukraine through being lost but wanting to help, but there’s a deeper understanding when you decide to give every day of yourself to a specific cause like Ukraine.
Just come knowing that it is going to change you and be ready for the stories that you are going to hear. Don’t come thinking it’s going to be some light-hearted holiday; come realising that these people have been through a lot and they want someone there who’s going to be a strong person who can be there for them. Just be there and really truly listen. Don’t just give empty sympathy, just give your understanding and care because you’ve come to this place at a point in the war, so you probably do care. Let them know that the whole civilised world is standing with them and we will be with them to the end because they do need to hear that because sometimes they feel like everyone’s forgotten.