The parish hall of the Epiphany of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church was a flurry of activity Friday, as more than 50 volunteers collected, sorted and packed donated relief supplies for Ukrainian refugees fleeing their homeland from Russia’s advancing military forces.

Ukraine has been in the international spotlight for nearly four weeks, following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of the country. Almost 2 million residents have fled to neighboring countries, oftentimes with little more than clothes on their backs.

As the world has turned its eyes to the war zone, countries from all over the world have stepped up to support the refugees.

Thousands of miles away from the battlefield, Pinellas County residents are doing their part to further the humanitarian effort. In Seminole, three Rotarians helped lead the charge last week, rallying their own troops to help collect disaster items such as first-aid kits, toothpaste and toothbrushes, shampoo, baby wipes and snacks.

After attending a candlelight vigil at the St. Petersburg church organized by congressional candidate Amanda Makki, Seminole resident and Rotary Club of Seminole member Dr. Terry Collier decided something needed to be done — and done quickly.

“We know that there are things going on at national and international levels," Collier said. "Rotary International is gearing up, but they (Ukrainians) need things now."

Collier, executive director of Anona United Methodist Church’s Counseling Center in Largo, reached out to friends and associates, seeking donations of emergency supplies.

Dr. Sandra Lilo was among those Collier contacted. As chairperson of international services for the local Rotary district, Lilo is no stranger to global disaster relief efforts. This effort, however, hit close to home for her.

"My grandfather came from Ukraine on a boat through Ellis Island in 1908," Lilo said, adding that she has visited Ukraine seven times, volunteering at an orphanage and helping to set up a medical clinic in the southwest area of the country.

Lilo, who served in the military during the Cold War, said the Russian invasion is an unconscionable act.

“We thought we had finished that chapter in history and now here we are,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to think about what they are going through.”

According to Lilo, the Rotary Club of Lake Seminole, of which she is a member, has donated $1,000 to the relief effort.

Lilo and Collier joined forces to send out an email blast to 1,700 district Rotarians. Within an hour, Collier said Brad Piche, owner of Ricky T’s Bar and Grille in Treasure Island, wrote a check for $10,000.

“I was happy to help," Piche said of his donation. “A lot of people want to help out.

“I felt sending a check was the fastest way to get supplies to those in need,” he continued.

Collier used Piche’s donation to purchase 1,000 backpacks, which have been stuffed with supplies and are ready to be shipped.

And thanks to Werner Enterprises, a transportation and logistics company, 25 pallets of supplies will soon be on their way to New York and later on to Poland. According to Collier, the company has agreed to pick up the items and transport them act cost.

"This is how a community comes together," Collier said.

Due to the dramatic increase in the price of oil over the past two weeks, shipping the supplies overseas has become much more costly, said retired financial adviser and Seminole resident Gene Stern.

According to Stern, who attended a meeting Friday with church and community officials, said the backpacks have weighed in at 23,000 pounds, and will cost $53,000 to ship by air and $29,000 by boat.

“The group felt that this was an unnecessary expense and that sending money was the best option,” Stern said.

Which is why officials are now seeking monetary donations to both help offset shipping costs, as well as getting money directly to refugees.

Like Lilo, recent events have hit hard for Stern, whose Ukrainian parents met in a slave labor camp in Germany during World War II.

As a charter member of Rotary Club of Seminole Lake, Stern said the organization is already taking steps to help.

"As one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations, Rotary International has made peace the cornerstone of its global mission," Stern said. "Rotary is made up of people of action, especially in difficult times. In response to the deepening refugee crises, The Rotary Foundation Trustees have decided to prioritize contributions made to the Disaster Response Fund through April 30 to support disaster response grants for Rotary Districts affected by these events.

Coming together

Volunteers of varying creeds gathered together, side by side, day after day at Epiphany of Our Lord, and church members have been amazed by the support of the local community.

Olya Czerkas has been a member of the church since 1983 and serves as president of the local branch of the Ukrainian Women’s League of America. She also manages volunteers for the church, which is why she seemed to be in a million places at once as she answered questions and gave out directions Friday.

No matter how busy she was, Czerkas never lost sight of the day’s goal — helping those who need it the most.

“It’s been hard, just as it has been for many Ukrainians here,” she said. “We can’t imagine what they are going through right now. I think the people here are devastated, as is the whole world. This is something that was never expected.”

Czerkas said she has been overwhelmed by the community response to the crisis.

“I have to tell you, I have been working with volunteers and volunteer organizations for quite a few years,” she said. “I have never felt the outpouring of care, love commitment and the desire to help as I have felt in this community.”

Volunteer and organizer Natalia Boszko said her Ukrainian parents were displaced during World War II, which is one reason she was called to action.

“These are people who left absolutely everything behind,” she said. “And I know that’s what happened to my parents and grandparents. We can’t just sit here with our arms crossed not doing anything. … We just had to take action.”

“The world is united,” Boszko said. “Our message is one of hope, it’s one of unity. In some way, shape or form, the whole world is part Ukrainian right now.”

Donations to the Rotary Disaster Response fund can be made online at my.rotary.org/en/disaster-response-fund.