By Madeline Hartjes ‘05
This year, Ted Bechtold ‘13 was awarded the Alumni Service Award from Cathedral for his remarkable dedication to helping Ukrainian civilians and refugees in need. Ted was teaching in Ukraine when the war with Russia broke out. Amid the chaos and confusion, he felt called to help. He started a nonprofit organization to raise funds and personally deliver food, clothing and other resources to citizens of Ukraine most impacted by the brutalities of the war. With donations primarily coming from family, friends, and parishioners from Ted’s hometown parish in St. Joseph, Minnesota, Ted was able to raise over $100,000 towards his relief efforts.
Ted gave a presentation sharing his experience in Ukraine to students at Cathedral, and another presentation to community members at St. Joseph Parish, St. Joseph, many of whom had contributed to his humanitarian efforts. The audiences listened with great respect for one among us who had willingly put his life on the line to help others. The following is a summary from Ted of the experiences he shared.
In February 2022 Ted was living in Kyiv when Russia first attacked Ukraine. He moved to Romania and spent March through May of 2022 working in a refugee camp. He reached out to his Minnesota community for donations to help refugees, many of whom were former students and their families, flee to safety and relocate to countries in Europe, the US, and Canada. He returned home briefly during the summer months while planning his next steps to help those in need.
Ted and another teacher he had befriended in Ukraine saw the need to get vital supplies to the devastated villages at the frontlines. Together, they founded a charity organization called Atlantic Aid to raise money for the cause. Ted returned to Kyiv in September of 2022 to get started. It was then that Kyiv was first attacked. The Russians dropped dozens of kamikaze drones over the city about once a week, aiming to take out the power grid. “The drones sound like a moped or lawnmower overhead – they say if you hear a moped, take cover.” After the attacks, blackouts occurred across the city. Ted’s plan was to teach class during the week and deliver supplies on the weekend. Regular power outages forced his class to frequently cancel.
Every Friday through Sunday, he and his friend Andy would go to Kharkiv, a large city about 20 miles from the Russian border, and pack their truck to the brim with a couple thousand pounds of food and supplies. Then they’d spend two days delivering them right to the doorsteps of civilians living amidst the turmoil and wreckage. Often they were driving right into danger. “Our outpost for deliveries was a safe house in Saltivka within Kharkiv. It was the most bombed area in the whole country due to its close proximity to the Russian border.” In Kupiansk, just one mile from the Russian front line, they were close enough to be in sniper range of the fighting. “Everywhere we went we could hear drones flying overhead and bombs being dropped.” Land mines were also a constant threat.
Many of the villages they went to were recently liberated from Russian occupation. They were the first people to arrive with aid. “The further from the big cities, the fewer other charities you’d find. We were crazy enough to go where no one else would. We’d drive around honking, trying to get people to come out. They were completely terrified. As it got colder we’d look for smoke from the chimneys to see where people were living.” After they got to know some locals they had an easier time finding survivors and getting them to trust that they were there to help. “In the countryside, grocery stores were destroyed, and gas stations too. For many, they had no one else to turn to, nowhere else to go.”
One of their biggest projects was helping out in the city of Izium. The pictures of this town, a little smaller than Saint Cloud, were harrowing – almost every building over two stories was damaged. People who survived were scraping together makeshift residences in the ground levels, getting by without electricity, heat, or water. “The Russians dropped cruise missiles randomly over villages. We’d see places where there used to be a home and now there was just a gaping crater and shards of wood.”
Besides the horrific pictures of destroyed villages and homes, Ted also shared stories of the remarkable bravery he had seen. The war has inspired a powerful sense of pride in their homeland as people band together. Their Christian faith also keeps the Ukrainian spirit alive. Ted’s team visited a church filled with people praying in Izium, and another site where locals would go to collect holy water. Ted shared stories of survivors who credited Jesus’ hand with saving their life. Everywhere he looked there was evidence that the Ukrainian people rely on their faith as a source of strength and hope.
As the war continues on, the needs also shift. Over the winter months, the Atlantic Aid organization partnered with groups in the Netherlands and Poland to provide warm clothes, blankets, and other essentials. His team coordinated with a couple other charities to deliver Christmas presents to children. Now, as the season shifts again, the organization has returned to delivering food and medical supplies.
“The war is changing all the time,” Ted said in a recent phone call. “The Russians just bombed a major hydroelectric dam in Southern Ukraine – now my team is helping out people from Kherson, a city nearby, escape to safety as their homes are flooded. We want to be where the need is greatest.”
As for what we can do, Ted says the most important thing is to keep the aid coming. “ The people of Ukraine are incredibly thankful to the US in particular.” Through the Atlantic Aid organization Ted estimates that they have helped over 2,000 families with over 60,000 pounds of supplies. While funding has slowed down, every week Atlantic Aid is still delivering food and supplies to the frontlines. Ted has returned to Minnesota to continue raising funds while others on the team remain in Ukraine delivering supplies. The more money that comes, the more they can do. It remains their priority to follow closely behind the frontline distributing supplies to newly liberated villages.
“The war is horrible. I don’t see it ending any time soon, but I’m hopeful that Ukraine will prevail.” Ted stresses that staying engaged and aware is very important. The need is still great. He encourages everyone interested to follow the Atlantic Aid on instagram for updates. You can also donate directly to their instagram account at @Atlantic_Aid, or to his paypal at email@example.com.
To read the entire Cathedral Magazine Summer 2023 edition, visit: https://cathedralcrusaders.org/cathedral-magazine