The CEO of Ukraine Friends, Joe Sullivan, Reflects on His Recent Humanitarian Trip to Ukraine and the Ongoing Mission of Ukraine Friends

20 June 2024

The CEO of Ukraine Friends, Joe Sullivan, just returned from his third humanitarian trip to Ukraine. His primary goal was to visit Kyiv and Lviv, meet with the Ukraine Friends team, and personally deliver laptops to families participating in the “Digital Wings” program.

Now Joe shares his reflections on visiting Ukraine in the third year of the war, how the mission of Ukraine Friends continues to evolve and accumulate resources for greater impact on the ground, and how businesses can make a significant impact on the lives of Ukrainian children.

What was the main purpose of your recent trip to Ukraine?

The main goal of my trip was to visit Krakow, Kyiv, and Lviv, meet with the Ukraine Friends team, check on logistics facilities, and personally deliver laptops to families participating in the “Digital Wings” program. These families have children who have lost one or both parents due to the war, and the laptops are crucial for their remote learning since they cannot attend school in person. Every time I go to Ukraine and talk to these families, I feel even more encouraged and motivated to allocate more help for our mission, spread the word about the actual situation on the ground, and have a clear understanding of the children’s needs and how we can support the families.

What stood out to you the most during this visit?

I am always amazed by the resilience and unity of the Ukrainian people, but this time was special. During my last few trips, I was lucky not to experience electricity and power outages, but during this trip, power outages happened almost every day. Despite this, people around me would just turn on generators and continue to work, and restaurants would even switch to an “already prepared” menu when there is no power.

One memorable moment was hearing the sirens blaring over Kyiv, alerting us of incoming missiles. Despite the danger, people remained calm and resilient. I captured this moment on video to show how they cope with these threats daily, which is a testament to their strength and resolve. No one seemed scared or panicked – everyone kept doing their thing, and I clearly felt that continuing to work and having a purpose gave special strength to the people around me.

Even though it is impossible to normalize the shortage of power and the danger of drone or missile attacks, I am fascinated by how people adapt to their conditions and keep thriving, united by a shared goal – a better future for their families and country. Despite the hardships, there is an incredible community spirit and a determination to live life to the fullest.

Would you call these the most challenging moments or experiences of your trip?

You understand the full tragedy of this war when you talk to families and children directly affected by it. The day my team and I visited the participants of the “Digital Wings” program was the most emotionally challenging. I thought about it all night and have revisited those moments many times since the trip. It is heartbreaking and devastating to see children of different ages losing the most important thing anyone can ever have – their parents. In addition to this huge psychological trauma, they continue to experience the inability to attend school in person, live in the conditions of war, face financial difficulties in purchasing devices for education, afford healthcare, and find the strength to live and believe in a better future.

One 11-year-old girl had her birthday on the day we delivered the laptop to her and her older brother. It was heart-wrenching to think that their dad was killed on the battlefield, and they will never celebrate their birthdays together again. It was so touching to see how thankful they were to receive this device because it means the world to them. Another teenage boy played a song for us using a traditional Ukrainian musical instrument. He plans to go to music school, and his father was killed last year. His father’s guitar still sat in the corner of the room, a remembrance of when they used to make music together.

Each participant in our program has a tragic story, and our team gets to know every one of them. It is impossible to get used to it or grieve fully – it is horrible, tragic, and unjust. We have over 500 pending applications, and behind each of them is a story of a family whose lives were forever changed by the war that is still going on and taking more lives.

How do you feel about the support you’ve received for the “Digital Wings” program?

I am immensely grateful for the generosity of our donors. Their support not only provides educational tools but also brings relief and hope to these families. It’s heartening to see so many people coming together to make a difference in these children’s lives. I am especially grateful for the help of the security community – these people are always aware of the global situation and step up to support those who need it. A month ago, the Chief Security Officer of a large bank in the UK swam from Spain to Africa to raise help to support our program. Many people reach out to see what they can do within their companies after hearing about Ukraine Friends at the conferences and events I speak at. It is very inspiring to receive this support, but of course, we always want to do more, especially after going to Ukraine in person.

While we are deeply thankful for in-kind donations of laptops, logistics remain a significant challenge to coordinate and cover the costs. It always takes the work of our team to coordinate the delivery of technical equipment from the US to Poland, from there to Ukraine, and then deliver each laptop individually to each family. That is why we always welcome financial donations to support logistics.

How do you see the future of Ukraine, given the current situation?

I am optimistic about Ukraine’s future. The resilience and unity of its people are incredible. Despite the ongoing war, there is a strong sense of community and a determination to rebuild and thrive. I believe that with continued support, Ukraine will emerge stronger and more united. Supporting children and education is already a significant investment in Ukraine’s future. By empowering children with tools to learn today and helping them in times of extreme challenge, the hope they are given will help them rebuild their country. Every time I meet Ukrainians in Ukraine or any other country, they always express their gratitude for foreign aid and support. I know that after the victory, Ukraine will be a strong strategic partner to their allies who all cooperate to live in a world of democracy and mutual support.

Meanwhile, I encourage everyone to support the mission of Ukraine Friends and help us make a difference in the lives of Ukrainian children.