Tandridge’s strong community spirit has risen again this year, with residents and businesses demonstrating a united show of support for the people of Ukraine.
Having already dedicated almost eighteen months of her life to co-ordinating donations from local residents to Surrey charities Stripey Stork and Their Voice, Penny Kirk began working with British Humanitarian Aid (BHA) in August 2021. The Canterbury-based organisation has been regularly delivering aid to the Chernihiv region in Ukraine since the 1990s.
When Russia invaded the country in February, Penny's expertise was sought by a local resident to help organise a donation drive for people in need, which would be taken to Ukraine by a convoy of lorries. Penny appealed for items on social media and the community responded. Every room in her Hurst Green house, plus the garage and the two family cars, was transformed into a hub for clothing, food, medical supplies, sanitary products and more. She estimates that at one point her son's bedroom was storing approximately £1k of nappies and that, over four days, she and her team of volunteer helpers sorted and labelled food, toiletries, nappies etc., to reduce the labour required by the recipients, who are working with huge volumes, in extremely difficult circumstances. Nearly 1,000 bags of clothes were transported from Penny's house in the week commencing 28 February 2022.
(Penny Kirk (sitting) with Philip Edmonds, director of registered charity, British Humanitarian Aid (second left) and two of her key helpers)
Thinking on her feet
On top of the logistical challenges that in itself presented, Penny also had to think on her feet when she was informed, at the last minute, that the â€‹planned transport to London was now not able to take the donations. The community came to Penny's aid when she put out a call for help on local social media: more volunteers from the community came to help, both at the house, and as drivers, taking donations firstly to the British Red Cross collection site in Sevenoaks but on discovering it was full, they were then diverted to Mid Kent College in Maidstone.
Transport included estate cars, 4x4s, a horsebox, and two minibuses from East Surrey College, one of which was full of students ready to help. Penny says:
"I refer to these groups as 'the cavalry that came in Ukraine week'. "
When the Maidstone site also closed because it was full, Penny found local residents with empty barns or garages, enabling every one of her drivers with a still-packed car to temporarily unload in one of them, while she arranged for BHA to collect it all the next day. The woman with the horsebox was able to drop her load directly at a Polish club in Balham, who were also taking donations for Ukraine.
Penny has since set up two WhatsApp groups, for helpers and drivers, that she can call on whenever the BHA contacts her with a request for more items. Between 20 March and 14 April, BHA collected another three full loads from Hurst Green, with food and mini-toiletries filling the majority of the load dispatched on Maundy Thursday. More than 25,000 nappies, 7,000 sanitary products and 6,000 colouring books with accompanying packs of crayons have now been provided by the local community, and transported. Penny's team have been on hand for bagging and boxing throughout, all working to Penny's mantra:
"If it isn't properly sorted, counted and labelled, it doesn't go on the lorry!"
(24 March 2022: 'Nappy Day' – when Penny and her team dispatched 16,000 nappies in one load!)
“We live in an amazing community who want to help, and she can’t believe the welcome she’s received. Ukrainian flags fly throughout the village, and many people have donated items, like a fridge and kettle for her room, so she can be independent. She’s already met and become friends with other refugees who are here.”
Lee Pearce is opening her Woldingham home to a Ukrainian mother and daughters: “We were introduced to them by an employee of my husband, Ben. They are currently in Italy, after travelling to Poland: it must be so difficult, when you don’t know where you’re going, but hopefully their friend will reassure them that we’ll look after them.” Lee is also liaising with the headteacher of her local primary school, in the hope the children will be able to attend while here.
Many people have had issues with visa applications. Lee found the system frustrating:
“I had a confirmation email for the mother’s application, but not the girls. I rang the helpline, saying I was concerned I hadn’t heard anything, but they weren’t able to use the mother’s reference number to cross-check the other applications. They couldn’t tell me how long visas were taking to process; in fact, they couldn’t give me any information that wasn’t already on the government website.”
Contact your MP
Sponsors seeking help from East Surrey MP Claire Coutinho have found the experience hugely positive, with aide Jack Powell singled out for particular praise. Shashi Fernando, from Caterham, who will be hosting a family of four, said:
“I received a quick, articulate response from Jack, who was able to update me on their visa situation.”
Lee was also impressed with Jack’s communications:
“He has been brilliant. He visits the Home Office for updates on our applications, and is in regular contact with information.”
Get in touch with Claire’s office via 0207 219 5972 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find events and support available for Ukrainian visitors and their hosts in Tandridge here. This page is regularly updated, so please keep checking it.