Fonda and the Johnstown duo describe their efforts to help Ukrainian refugees

JOHNSTOWN – Two local women share their experiences on the Ukrainian border in the hope that others will be moved by the plight of refugees fleeing the Russian attack on their homeland.

Laurie Garramone of Johnstown and Cheryl McGrattan of Fonda say their time in an emergency kitchen in eastern Poland was both harrowing and uplifting.

The two friends said those fleeing Ukraine are mostly women and children who have no way of knowing when they will be able to return home or what will be left for them to return home. Yet they remain proud of their country and want nothing more than to be able to live there in complete safety.

“We watched family after family walk past us, some with just a shopping bag, that’s all they had,” Garramone said. “You could see they didn’t know what the next step was.”

“I saw a woman straightening her little boy’s hair before he entered a refugee center and I looked at Laurie and said, ‘How can you parent through this? “Said McGrattan.

Garramone is rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Johnstown. McGrattan is vice president of marketing, communications and community relations at Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville. She and her family are members of the Garramone congregation.

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, McGrattan did what a number of other Americans did: book (and pay for) nights at Ukrainian Airbnb rentals she knew she couldn’t. would ever actually use, as a way to support people who were losing their lives. livelihoods.

That option ended, but she had already taken other steps, including collecting medical supplies from Nathan Littauer for donation, while Garramone encouraged monetary donations.

“Laurie and I were just compelled by what we were seeing on the news,” McGrattan said.

She knew and respected the work of World Central Kitchen, and when two volunteer positions became available on very short notice, she asked Garramone if she wanted to go.

The two arrived in Poland on April 3 with a suitcase full of gifts and supplies for a woman who owned one of the Airbnbs McGrattan had booked. She had fled as the shelling got closer to their home and was living with her mother and daughter in a convent in Warsaw with 20 other Ukrainians.

McGrattan had exchanged messages of support with the woman, whom she will only identify as Anna, and Anna was delighted to meet her.

“My heart is warm,” she told McGrattan in imprecise English over dinner, apparently meaning the two New Yorkers had warmed her heart by traveling to help her. Anna said she doesn’t think Americans care about Ukraine.

Work began for two volunteers the following day, when they reached the southeastern border town of Przemysl, a gateway for refugees fleeing Ukraine.

“There was an incredible amount of fatigue,” Garramone said.

For 10 to 12 hours a day, they were on their feet, preparing thousands of nutrient-dense, high-calorie meals at once.

“We made sandwiches and baby food and bread pudding all day,” McGrattan said. Baby food is the most requested item at the border, but sandwiches are a key food in this situation: they are less perishable, easily transportable and can be eaten without utensils or seats.

“The day we made 8,200 sandwiches,” McGrattan said.

Around 4 million Ukrainians had already fled their country before Garramone and McGrattan arrived, and then a new wave began.

They sat one night and watched the arrival of the people they were helping to feed.

“There were people who had been on the train for three days or on the bus for a week,” McGrattan said.

“I wasn’t sure my heart would be strong enough to see what I was about to see,” she said. “You feel a bit of hope because of all the people working on the border.”

“They did their best to create an atmosphere that would create a sense of comfort,” Garramone said. “There were so many needs on the border that people here have no idea how much needs to be met.”

McGrattan said it was clear there were problems just across the border: military vehicles were present along the roads in Poland and there were helicopters overhead. But they have never been threatened by war.

However, another threat lurked: COVID-19.

“As someone who works in a hospital, I knew I was going to a high COVID area,” McGrattan said. “We were testing all the time.”

On the return trip on April 10, during a stopover in Italy, she tested positive.

McGrattan self-isolated near Bologna for 10 days and spent time reflecting on what she had seen.

“I had a mild case, and if I had to do it all over again, I would,” she said. “I really feel like my job is half done – now I have to tell people this is an accessible war, there are ways to help.”

Garramone, who posted the daily blog “Thoughts from the Frontier of Ukraine” while in Poland, said she and McGrattan were inviting the public to their presentation of “Stories from the Frontier of Ukraine” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 19 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 1 N. Market St., Johnstown.

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