The children of Ukraine, the ones who have survived, are traumatized.
As the war — which began in February 2022 with the invasion by Russia — rages on, U.S. officials have estimated that the number of people killed or injured in the 18-month conflict is nearing 500,000. And among the estimated 70,000 Ukrainians killed and more than 100,000 citizens of the country wounded, at least 1,500 of the deaths and injuries have been children, according to an estimate in June by Denise Brown, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine.
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“Children are experiencing severe psychological trauma because of the war,” says Dr. Irwin Redlener, co-founder of the Ukraine Children’s Action Project (UCAP), a nonprofit that he and his wife, Karen, started soon after the war began last year. The charity is working to help kids in the country — as well as children who are refugees in Poland — gain access to mental health services, health care and education at a time when services have been disrupted and grief and psychological stress from the experience of war is all around.
The nonprofit — whose advisory board includes celebrity supporters Joan Baez, John Cusack, Michael Keaton, Brad Paisley, Paul Simon and MSNBC anchor Nicolle Wallace — directs donations that it raises to partner organizations on the ground in the war-torn region, and the Redleners personally travel to the area with the aim of ensuring that money is being used efficaciously and responsibly.
In June, the couple — accompanied by Baez — made their fifth trip together to Ukraine since the war began, also visiting refugee children in Poland. Redlener, a pediatrician and children’s health advocate who is also a senior adviser at The Columbia Climate School’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, has now been six times, having first visited war-torn Ukraine on his own.
“We’re now supporting over 20 programs focused on Ukraine,” says Redlener, explaining that the reason he and his wife have made multiple trips to Ukraine is that “We want to make sure money we distribute is going where it is supposed to go and there’s transparency and we can tell our American donors, in essence, ‘You’ve never heard of these organizations we’re supporting, but we are your eyes and ears in Ukraine.’ We’ve met the leadership of every organization that we support and we’ve seen the children who are benefiting. That’s critically important to us.” Working with their fiscal sponsor Entertainment Industry Foundation, the Ukraine Children’s Action Project has received donations from more than 12,000 individuals to date.
Among the projects supported by UCAP are special six- and one-day Recovery Camps in Poland and Ukraine for traumatized children, run by Sincere Heart, a partner nonprofit. UCAP has also purchased and refurbished six buses to take Ukrainian refugee children to school in Chernihiv, a town in northern Ukraine not far from the Belarus border. “There’s been an extraordinary educational discontinuity for children displaced internally or who are part of the refugee population,” says Redlener. Back in January, the Ukraine Ministry of Education released figures that, at that point in the war, more than 2,600 schools in the country had been damaged and that more than 400 had been destroyed. At that time, UNICEF warned that education for more than 5.3 million children in Ukraine had been hampered. Additionally, the Ukrainain government said, last May, that as many as 16,000 Ukrainian children had been forcibly deported to Russia. According to Redlener, that number has now grown to 20,000.
“The scale of this is massive,” continues Redlener, “so obviously we aren’t going to fix this, but we can set examples. We’ve also made it our business to meet with leaders in Ukraine and in Poland, so that when we develop a program that seems to be working, we can suggest to people that maybe this is something that can be scaled up.”
As an example, Redlener points to an online training program for teachers who have classrooms filled with children who are traumatized by the war. “Karen worked with a team at Columbia [University] and developed a highly perfected and carefully reviewed online program,” he says. “Teachers never get trained in this kind of subject.” UCAP is now working with the Ukraine Ministry of Education to plan for a broad distribution of the course to teachers throughout the country. “This is one of the strategies we take in support of children — scaling up small programs that come closer to meeting a big need,” he says.
Working with celebrities helps UCAP raise awareness and funds. The stars that support the nonprofit “go through their social media networks to help us attract donors,” says Redlener, whose experience working at the intersection of philanthropy and the entertainment world dates back to 1985, when he joined the board of USA for Africa. He served as director of grants and medical director for the group responsible for the charity single “We Are the World.” Later, he and his wife joined with Simon (one of the singers on “We Are the World”) to found the Children’s Health Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing health care to kids in under-resourced communities.
Redlener’s connection to Baez predates all of that. He met his wife when he was the medical director of a health care clinic in Lee County, Arkansas, and she was working there as a child development program coordinator. “Lee County was the sixth-poorest county in the U.S. at that time. I was a 27-year-old pediatrician. Federal funding was being eliminated by President Nixon. It was a desperate financial situation,” recalls Redlener, who decided he wanted to try and reach out to Baez for help.
“In 1972, Joan was at the peak of her extraordinary activism and her singing career as well. I saw somewhere in a newspaper article the name of her manager,” he recalls. “I called him. A very gruff guy [who told me] in much more flowery language, ‘Write her a letter and I’ll send it to her.’ I did, and a few weeks later, Joan called me at this clinic in Arkansas. She came down and did a benefit concert for us in the closest big city, which was Memphis, and literally financially rescued the clinic. She’s been helping me throughout my career.”
The experience emboldened Redlener not to be shy about asking Hollywood figures for support. “When Joan helped us, I was not all that worldly. I was like ‘Jeez, I wrote to Joan. She responds. This is kind of easy,’” he says.
On their most recent trip to Ukraine and Poland, Baez and the Redleners visited a children’s hospital in Lviv, Ukraine, where, among others, they met with a 14-year-old recovering from burns, a severe head injury and PTSD resulting from a direct hit on his home; they traveled to the capital, Kyiv; and went to the town of Borodianka, “a town that had been fundamentally destroyed by the Russians,” says Redlener. “Joan sang John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ there with these bombed-out buildings in the background.”
On their last night in Lviv, the trio heard air raid sirens go off in the city. “This has happened most of the times we’ve been to Ukraine,” he says, “and usually it’s not anything close to where I am. This was 2 o’clock in the morning. I got a call from a friend of mine who’s an adviser to President Zelensky who said, ‘Take this seriously. There are cruise missiles headed your way.’ That was all we needed to hear. We gathered up Joan and went to the basement and heard explosions that shook the building until 3:30 in the morning. And then at 8:30 a.m., Joan and I did a live CNN interview; we went up to the rooftop of the hotel.”
He admits that “our own families — our kids and grandchildren — think we’re kind of crazy. We don’t feel in danger, by the way, at all. We feel, for whatever reason, pretty secure. Really, the intense fighting is in the east of the country and the south, not that there aren’t cruise missiles and drone attacks all the time.”
Nevertheless, Redlener is determined to keep going and continue to fundraise and “try and keep people focused on helping Ukraine. Until something will resolve with this fighting, a lot of children are being affected.”
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