As the shocking imagery of Russia’s first steps into Ukraine spread across social media, so did a wave of uncertainty and confusion for those across the world who were detached from the history and context of the conflict.
Though unsure of how to process the news of the invasion, many looked to see how they could play a part in the relief effort to come.
Organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have led campaigns to aid in humanitarian support in the past, but the sheer scale of their efforts often leave donors without the confirmation of how their money is being used, and whether it ended up being worth it.
Aware of that sentiment, a group of faculty members at Columbia River High School in Hazel Dell — David Douglas, Ewa Teipel, Tim Smith and Natasha Flak — felt they needed to launch a fundraiser to support Ukrainian refugees that’s more immediately helpful than many of the larger crowdfunding campaigns in recent years.
In just over a week’s time, their campaign has raised over $8,500 for three primary groups supporting and housing Ukrainian refugees in Poland.
“It seemed to us that there should be a way to help that isn’t giving to a large organization where you don’t really know what happens to that money and how it really gets used,” said Douglas, a history teacher who his fellow faculty members credit as the leader of the fundraiser’s efforts.
Just a few days after the war began last month, Douglas recalled how his school had organized a fundraiser to support one of their fellow faculty members whose family and community had been displaced as a result of a storm in the Philippines last year.
“They’d send us pictures and video of how our relief efforts directly impacted that town,” Douglas said. “That confirmation helped a lot of people get involved.”
As the crisis began brewing in Eastern Europe, Douglas and Smith reached out to Teipel, a paraeducator with extensive family living in her hometown of Jozefow, just southeast of Warsaw, Poland.
“The crisis is overwhelming,” Teipel said. “My friend has nine people in her house. She did not know how she was going to be able to do that for some time. It was their understanding that this is not something that is going to go away soon.”
In between classes, during lunch periods and through text and email chains, the group of teachers — using Teipel’s connections — reached out to city officials in Jozefow to find a way to directly wire money to support refugee shelters in the town.
Douglas reached out to several schools in Poland, taking advantage of Columbia River’s connections as an International Baccalaureate school. He was able to reach principals and leaders at the International School of Krakow and the British School of Krakow — each of which had converted dormitories into refugee centers and had created funds to purchase bedding, food and clothing for students and young families fleeing Ukraine.
“I think those are very good partnerships we’ve created,” Douglas said. “One of the focuses with an IB school is to produce global citizens.”
After launching the campaign on March 8 using just word of mouth, the group had raised over $4,000 by the end of the week. Douglas said he successfully wired an initial $4,500 over the weekend, which was used primarily for food, clothes and toiletries.
“I’m planning on visiting my family in Poland this summer,” Teipel said. “To be able to see the shelters and maybe meet some people who decided to stay in my town and talk to them, to see how our money helped people maybe live or be able to get food and a place to stay. I’m really looking forward to that.”
A teaching moment
As history teachers, Douglas and Smith felt they had a responsibility to their students, too, who would come to them with questions about the videos and news they’d been seeing on TikTok, Instagram and elsewhere.
The two began holding regular lessons to update students on the conflict, teaching them how to go about doing their own fact-checking of sources and conduct research on the complicated history between the two nations.
“It’s like they’re looking out a train window at things that are going by, they see images that are confusing and often disconnected,” Douglas said. “Our role as a school is to tap into that interest and give some context to what they’re seeing on the Ghost of Kyiv and other things that are coming out that they don’t know how to respond to.”
Smith said though some of the lessons have been difficult and often stressful, they have invited a liveliness in discussion that he hasn’t seen since before the pandemic.
“There’s more of a sense of vitality in conversation and a sense of urgency,” Smith said. “Again, this could get resolved in a couple weeks, though I don’t think it will, but I feel like you just have to address what’s happening as it’s happening.”
Separating fact, fiction
On Tuesday, Columbia River teacher-librarian Shana Ferguson led lessons for a handful of classes in the school’s media center specifically on internet fact-checking in recognition of National Misinformation Day. Many of the strategies came from things she had taken from professors at the University of Washington and Washington State University Vancouver.
Using the Ukraine-Russia conflict as a focal point for the lessons, Ferguson probed as students evaluated the validity of widely spread images and claims from the past few weeks, such as the Ghost of Kyiv, audio clips from Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island and more. Given just 15 seconds to make flash judgments on the claims, students debated in small groups why they thought things were true or false.
“It’s crazy to see how convinced some of the kids are,” Ferguson said. “But these are really important questions to ask of themselves.”
The lessons continued to walk students through how media organizations like CNN went about confirming eyewitness reports and how individuals can go about doing the same for themselves.
Ian Fairgrieve, a junior, said he’s appreciated the lessons from Douglas and Ferguson in recent weeks.
“I was up late watching it all go down. It was a lot. I really appreciated that on the first day, we talked about it,” he said. “It’s really helpful to get more information.”
As Douglas and his fellow teachers involved in the fundraiser continue to educate students and the community on the conflict and some of the ways they can get involved in relief efforts, he said there’s no immediate final goal or plan for it to stop.
“The need is not expected to end any time soon,” Douglas said. “What I assume is that most people felt like they didn’t know where to or what to send donations. I think it’s enormously gratifying, it’s confirming of our community.”
Editor’s note: The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Natasha Flak’s name.