Volunteer Spotlight: Upper Valley effort to aid Ukraine starts with adult diapers

  • Laura Perez, executive director of the Special Needs Support Center, packs of boxes items to be shipped to Ukraine. (Photograph courtesy of Laura Perez) courtesy of Laura Perez

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/17/2022 7:56:31 AM
Modified: 4/17/2022 7:55:13 AM

As Laura Perez was reading about the war in Ukraine in mid-March, she came across a story that hit her like no other.

It was about Natalia Komarenko, a mother whose son has a condition that gives him intellectual disabilities and seizures, making it nearly impossible for them to evacuate and to even find safety in basement bomb shelters, where she wouldn’t be able to act if an emergency arises.

The story made Perez, who leads the Special Needs Support Center in White River Junction, think of the families she knows who have children with disabilities.

“Every family here can relate to the intensity of the challenge of what it would mean for their families if they were in similar situations,” Perez said. “Everyone in our community was thinking about it.”

She reached out on Facebook to Komarenko, who leads an organization in Kyiv called “Z teplom u sertsi,” which translates to “With Warmth in the Heart.” The nonprofit leads programs for people with disabilities and provides support to around 1,200 families.

“It’s so similar to SNSC during non-war times,” Perez said.

Perez asked Komarenko what she could do to assist the families she serves who are sheltering in place and what supplies the organization needed. The answer surprised her: adult diapers.

“There is a lot of humanitarian aid and there are a lot of diapers, but for people who have big kids or adult children who are not toilet-trained, there were not any adult diapers available,” Perez said.

Perez started up a collection for adult diapers and other items to help people with disabilities. Special water filtration systems that don’t require power or sucking through a straw and noise-canceling headphones were another big request.

“Any kind of loud or unexpected noise can be very dysregulating for people with sensory processing challenges,” Perez said. “In a war zone, there are sirens and the sounds of shelling, which are just overwhelmingly dysregulating.”

They also printed hundreds of communication boards translated from Ukrainian to Polish and Ukrainian to English, in case someone with special needs gets separated from their care provider and need to communicate their basic needs.

“These are the things that are just heartbreaking to include that we felt were really important,” Perez said.

A Dartmouth College professor made a video of a breathing exercise in Ukrainian, and SNSC printed postcards to include in packages with a QR code that are also being included in the packages.

Children who attend SNSC programs made drawings to send along, and self-care kits were put together for Ukrainian mothers. Area businesses helped SNSC put the boxes onto pallets and ship them. To date, SNSC has raised more than $15,000 to support With Warmth in the Heart.

The majority of the donors were parents who have children with disabilities, including Kevin Keller, who along with his wife offered to match $5,000 in donations. The Kellers’ daughter, 27-year-old Allison, has autism and has attended many programs at SNSC over the years.

“It does hit you kind of emotionally, just how vulnerable they are and just how basic those needs are,” said Keller, of Etna. “I think it’s because you can relate to both the problem and the need in a way that others might not be as able to.”

In particular, it was the realization that people with disabilities were not having their basic needs met, including adult diapers and clean water.

“At some level, there’s day to day life that’s going on over there and it’s being impacted in ways that are especially problematic for people with special needs,” Keller said. “The special needs, that’s the kind of the thing that can fall through the cracks.”

When the war started, Keller donated to UNICEF right away.

“You feel like you’ve got to do something,” he said.

But the campaign for With Warmth in the Heart is more personal.

“You can get kind of caught up in the numbers, which are important, but it’s just so nice to put a face on things and really make it very human,” Keller said.

SNSC will continue to support With Warmth in the Heart for as long as they need it, Perez said. She hopes to find a business that will sell SNSC adult diapers at a wholesale rate so that they can continue to send them to Ukraine. People in SNSC’s cooking club want to do a bake sale to raise more money.

“The other thing that I’ve found is that people here have really needed a way to do something meaningful and supportive,” Perez said. “It’s been really meaningful for people to have a way to support Ukraine.”

Editor’s note: For more information about SNSC’s efforts to support With Warmth in the Heart visit snsc-uv.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.

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