By Peggy Taylor
From their south-facing balcony overlooking the northern end of Central Park, Irwin and Karen Redlener watch children, gleeful and carefree, running, jumping, and climbing on one of the park’s 21 colorful, well-equipped playgrounds. But since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the Redleners have been focused on children 4,660 miles away: Ukrainian children, displaced, orphaned, kidnapped, and maimed; children whose lives have been disrupted in countless, devastating ways by war.
To help those children, the Redleners, who have been married for 48 years and have four children and seven grandchildren of their own, co-founded the Ukraine Children’s Action Project (UCAP) to support children’s psychological needs and the continuity of their education. Irwin, a pediatrician, explains: “The big NGOs (non-governmental organizations) do a good job meeting children’s physical needs for food, clothing, and shelter, but little to address their psychological needs and the disruption in their education. Untreated psychological trauma may keep these children from leading productive lives and contributing to the country’s recovery once the war ends.”
Karen and Irwin were each focused on children, even before they met at a free clinic in rural Arkansa in 1971. He was the director of the clinic and local doc, making house calls. She was a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer. In 1987, together with legendary singer Paul Simon, they founded the Children’s Health Fund, introducing mobile medical vans to the city’s streetscape. Now a national network, the Children’s Health Fund treats thousands of children who otherwise would not have access to health care.
Nearly 15,000 small donors have contributed to UCAP, thus allowing it to fund a variety of desperately needed programs. UCAP has given schools back-up generators for electricity since many Ukrainian children have missed school because the schools are unheated. For unheated homes, it has distributed hundreds of wood-burning stoves. Because so many schools have been destroyed and so many children displaced, UCAP has provided computer tablets for remote learning. Since so many teachers lack experience in helping traumatized students, and are often traumatized themselves, Karen has created an online training program to help them manage classrooms of disoriented children. When students in the town of Chernihiv couldn’t attend school because the Russians had destroyed or stolen all of its school buses, UCAP bought six refurbished buses from Poland and replaced them. To relieve children’s stress, UCAP established one-day and five-day “Recovery Camps,” where children can paint, sing, dance, learn a craft, and get needed psychological support.
From February 1-10, the Redleners made their fifth visit to Ukraine since the war began. “The reason we keep going,” says Irwin, “is to meet the people running the programs we support or are considering supporting.” During their February trip, the Redleners opened a small office in Lviv for their new regional director’s home base. They also have a cadre of dedicated volunteers who make direct donations to areas like Chernihiv where the school buses and many homes were destroyed.
Noting similarities between Ukrainian children, impoverished children in Arkansas, and homeless children in New York, Karen said, “These children need a chance like every other child. It is critical for children, wherever they are, to be safe, nurtured, and able to thrive.”
On their last two trips to Ukraine, the Redleners lived through air raid alerts and felt firsthand the fear and anxiety that Ukrainians have felt over the past year. They met with the mayor of Lviv in the shelter at City Hall. Karen met with a representative from UNICEF in the shelter of their hotel. “It was a dramatic day,” said Irwin, “with three serious air raid alarms; fortunately, the Ukrainian military shot down almost every Russian drone and missile fired at Lviv.”
The situation in Ukraine is all the more wrenching since Russia is not only killing its soldiers and civilians but also trying to destroy Ukrainian culture and identity. When the Russians invaded Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine at the start of the war, they razed its churches, theaters, and museums. “Lviv is a beautiful, lively city, full of culture and art,” said Irwin. “It is on the list of UNESCO’s Heritage Sites. Russia is trying to rob Ukrainians, including its children, of this heritage. It is trying to terrorize and demoralize the entire country.”
During a trip last October, the Redleners visited an orphanage where Irwin asked the question he, as a pediatrician, always asks his patients: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” One child said a computer programmer, another a policeman, another a jeweler. “Then a little 12-year-old girl whom I had almost overlooked, smiled shyly and said: ‘I want to be president.’ “President of what?’ I asked. ‘President of Ukraine,’ she answered.
“Bottom line?” Irwin concluded. “You have to work very hard to extinguish hope in children.”
‘THANK YOU, Redleners!’
Wonderful work, thanks for the story.
What the Redlener’s are doing is great!! If Putin/Russia don’t stop the war then the need for such great volunteerism will only continue to grow.
The entire free world and most of the rest of the world sees clearly the crimes Russia is committing in/to the Ukraine. And the Ukraine is, with limited free world help, valiantly militarily defending it’s homeland. Unfortunately the Russian propaganda control is preventing the good Russian people any honest perspective or reality about what Putin is doing to the Ukraine under the Russian banner.
Inside Russia there is a great need for a second information front that helps the Russian people learn the truth. How this is best done is really up to those few inside Russia that truly know the truth and for them to mount a Civil resistance of information about what Putin’s crimes in the Ukraine are.
How Civil resistance to Russia’s war against it’s Ukraine neighbor/brother is best pursued is really up to those who embrace the task. As angry as the Ukraine people are, I don’t believe they want the same for their Russian brothers. The Civil resistance could/should start a clandestine information front inside Russia. Perhaps leaflets are distributed at Russian schools, church’s, civilian centers, hospitals asking/pleading with the Russian population to stop Putin’s war crimes within the Ukraine. The leaflet should point out that instead of a leaflet it could have been a bomb but they don’t want their Russian brothers to feel the pain Putin is inflecting upon the entire Ukraine.
How can one contribute a small amount to their work?
Hi neighbors! We’ve been looking for a place to donate gently used clothes for Ukrainian refugees in America. Haven’t found that place. Can you help?
We have dozens of students and families from Ukraine at P.S. 145 The Bloomingdale School. Please get in touch, you can find my email address on the DOE PEP members page. There is also a solidarity rally after school on Monday March 20th at 2:25pm West 104th St & Amsterdam Ave. Come join!
Beautiful! How does one do something for this organization?
There is a link to their site in the article
I have followed the Redleners on Nicole Wallace’s show and have such admiration for them! Heroes. We need more of them. Thank you, Redleners!
This beautifully written article raises hope in me, an otherwise jaded elder.