Amanda Kaulins ’13 heading back to Poland-Ukraine border as volunteer
In February 2023, Amanda Kaulins ‘13 volunteered on the Polish-Ukrainian border, helping to provide relief for refugees of the Russo-Ukrainian war. She did everything from assembling and distributing care packages to creating lesson plans and teaching English, painting walls, tilings, floors, and packing supply trucks headed for the front lines. In August, Kaulins plans to return to the border to continue this life-altering work.
Beyond her life-long dedication to volunteering, Kaulins explained that the war in Ukraine feels highly personal to her. “I’m half Latvian. Latvia is one of the three, small, Baltic countries in Northeastern Europe and has its own history with Russian occupation, including, like Ukraine, being a part of the Soviet Union. During that period my grandparents and other family members were forced to leave their homes and placed in refugee camps,” she said.
“When the war [in Ukraine] first started, I felt very helpless and began looking for trustworthy organizations to get involved with and came across All Hands and Hearts, which ended up being the best fit for me. Their signature purple shirts also caught my attention,” she said with a smile.
Kaulins explained that All Hands and Hearts (AHAH) is a volunteer-centered organization that aids in crises all over the world. Using their “Smart Response” model, they can address both the immediate and long-term needs of an affected area while also becoming a part of the community.
A United Nations connection
Working in tandem with AHAH, Kaulins also became involved with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an organization connected with the United Nations that assists both migrants and their host countries. Through the partnership between AHAH and IOM, Kaulins and other volunteers were able to create care packages for the new refugees arriving in Poland.
While she created an invaluable impact in the surrounding community, Kaulin’s experience volunteering on the border was also incredibly emotional and challenging from a personal standpoint.
“While picking up care packages to distribute, we saw hundreds of soldiers coming back from training abroad, getting into transport to go back into Ukraine to fight. I was shocked at how young and how old some of these soldiers were. They should have been at school or playing with their grandchildren, not going to war,” she said.
“Another day I was distributing care packages at a train station the day after a very serious bombing in Ukraine. There was a steady flow of young mothers and young children arriving. Half of the train station had been turned into a temporary shelter, filled with beds and a food distribution site. It was a stopover place for the refugees to make plans moving forward. Many did not want to go far from the border because they wanted to go home as soon as possible, to be close to the family and friends that had to stay behind.”
Remembering the tragedy she saw on a daily basis, Kaulins said the best solace came from the camaraderie among staff, volunteers, and the refugees themselves. “I met some truly amazing people while volunteering, both volunteers and Ukrainian families. The AHAH and IOM teams were wonderful to work with and I made some truly great friends. The families that I worked with are so resilient and hopeful, even based on all they’ve been through. It is so inspiring,” she said.
Despite the hardships, Kaulins readily awaits her return to the border this August. One of her greatest motivations is a sentiment she heard while volunteering on the border in February.
“While volunteering, someone said to us, ‘you may feel like you’re not making a difference because you are across the border from the war, but you need to realize that by helping the families that make it here, you are allowing the soldiers who stayed to fight the ability to focus on fighting and staying alive because they know that their families are taken care of. They know they are safe.’”
“For me, I just want to leave the world better than how I found it. I’ve always been drawn to working with families and at-risk children because I believe that every child has the right to be a child,” said Kaulins, who majored in history at Saint Michael’s. “The kids I work with now, and have worked with in the past, have found themselves in difficult and horrible situations that I cannot even begin to imagine, through no fault of their own. So if I’m able to give them a bit of time to be kids, to laugh and play, have a break from thinking about being forced from their home, or worrying about their family members who had to stay behind, whether by building playgrounds at their refugee shelter or ensuring that we have fun games to play in our English classes, I’m happy to do that.”
After her time on the border this August, Kaulins plans to travel to Asia, hoping to start a teaching job in Japan in early 2024.
“Follow your bliss,” she advised any current Saint Michael’s College students. “It was one of the best pieces of advice that I ever received.”