Silicon Valley Soroptimist, Jodie Fillhardt, made the questionable decision to travel to Poland to aid Ukrainian women, children and elderly flooding into Krakow to escape the war. Then, she had to figure out how to do so safely and without, herself, becoming a burden.
“Everybody was terrified for me but behind me,” said Fillhardt, a Scotts Valley entrepreneur, wife, and mom.
A life-long student of history, she was not content to send money and watch history unfold. She wanted to be a part of the humanitarian effort underway.
As an untrained aid worker, Fillhardt was unable to join relief organizations such as the International Red Cross. So, she devised a plan to be a solo voluntourist—a tourist who rolls up their sleeves to do volunteer work. In this case, refugee aid.
Wanting to boost rather than be a drain on the local economy, Fillhardt stayed at a first-class hotel in Krakow’s Old Town and near the main train station, where refugees arrive and temporarily shelter. Sightseeing, dining at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs capped days of volunteering.
Key to the success of her trip, before departing California on March 20, she contacted the Soroptimist International chapter in Krakow, arranging to connect with its leaders.
Fillhardt flew KLM from San Francisco via Amsterdam to Krakow, a 17-hour journey. At the airport, she rented a seven-passenger van to hold her five huge suitcases, stuffed with snacks, crayons, collapsible water bottles, etc. to fill 100 kids’ pouches. She packed 50 boxes of Girl Scout cookies.
Her sister Soroptimists in Krakow connected her with Caritas, the largest charitable organization in Poland. With Caritas, Fillhardt found a volunteer niche as a “gopher.”
Spending donated U.S. dollars, she shopped daily, courageously maneuvering unknown city streets with her van. She filled the van multiple times with essentials such as toilet paper and bottled water, which she dropped off at Caritas distribution stations. Her dollars went farther than Polish zlotys.
“I was lucky. Gophering happens to utilize some of my best skills!” said Fillhardt, who flew home March 29. “Ultimately, driving in Krakow was a fun adventure and no one was hurt because of my ignorance.”
“One of my first observations of Krakow was the immense outpouring of support from residents and businesses in solidarity with the Ukrainian people,” she said. “I was blown away by the amount of yellow and blue that festooned the city.”
Fillhardt was moved to tears when war protesters in Old Town’s main square sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
Conversations in Krakow with sister Soroptimists, the mayor, other volunteers and aid leaders convinced her that ongoing need for refugee support will be even greater than present need. So, she’s planning a return trip in August and invites others to join her in traveling for a cause.
Fillhardt lists ways to maintain the pressure for peace in Ukraine on her website: www.FatMamaTravels.com.
“I feel that I must bear witness to events of today,” said Fillhardt. “While I am an insignificant, unknown person, the more people who collectively hold and witness our history in the making, the clearer view we will have in the future. This will make future decisions easier.”