Opencast seeds frontline Ukraine support

16 May 2022

Opencast is supporting people escaping the war in Ukraine, investing £30,000 into a volunteer-led frontline operation. As OC co-founder Charlie Hoult explains, it’s an approach that has encouraged others to support the effort

How can we help the people of Ukraine? That was the question we all asked ourselves this spring as Russia’s brutal invasion inflicted miseries on to millions.

In a world facing numerous humanitarian crises, a natural question came to mind: why should we help Ukrainians and not Rwandan, Ethiopian or Syrian refugees?

Photo of Ukrainian mother, daughter, grand daughter and their dog
Olga with daughter Yuliya and grand daughter Ksenia: the first Ukrainian refugee family matched with hosts in the North East by Operation Safe Drop

Unprecedented and urgent need

What is happening in Ukraine is an exceptional act of horror that's created an unprecedented need – and at Opencast we felt we should respond, and fast.

We still care about supporting a range of charitable causes – Opencast’s people recently voted to support 10 UK charities this year with a donation from our profits totalling over £50,000.

Our support for the Ukraine aid effort – to the tune of £30,000 – is additional to this. The scale of the crisis in Ukraine in our view has made this an urgent need.

Through internal fundraising, Opencast people had already raised over £5000 for charitable donations to Ukraine, and individuals working for the company are doing voluntary work in various forms.

Opencast has committed to a novel approach to show that there are meaningful, practical things that businesses like ours can do to support the Ukraine aid effort.

Raw work at the sharp end of the crisis

Early on in the conflict I was approached by John Lawler, an international aid worker and an active member of Newcastle’s Entrepreneurs' Forum.

John (pictured loading supplies) was organising Operation SafeDrop, a determined volunteer effort to get vital medical supplies into Ukraine and to evacuate displaced Ukrainians from danger. Safedrop operates from a hub at the key Polish border crossing at Przemyśl, a two-hour drive from Lviv in eastern Ukraine.

When we tracked John’s story it became clear that SafeDrop was doing raw work at the sharp end of the crisis, supporting people who were falling between the cracks. SafeDrop also helps with visa paperwork and operates a translation service.

At Przemyśl they have 400 beds, and the hub there is processing refugees who can get three days or three nights of sleep before their onward travel away from Ukraine.

SafeDrop was operating in some ways like a start-up. It was set it up with volunteers had done some fundraising and sourced a few vans for transport. But it also faced delays, and needed to scale.

Support like first investment in a start-up

So Opencast committed to providing the first serious investment in SafeDrop, donating £10,000 a month for three months. What we have provided has in some ways been like a first investment in a start-up.

Because of the faith we showed, Safe Drop was then able to go to Siemens, who donated another £100,000. Combined, this has supported the base in Przemyśl, as well as vans and a translation service in Warsaw.

Our ‘seed’ support has provided a platform for SafeDrop to do more good work.

What then of the UK government’s response? It has a visa processing centre – but it’s a 10-hour round trip from Przemyśl. Our government has also been slow with its Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme, and the scheme itself is very complex.

Responding to this, the SafeDrop effort now includes a matching service, with one element matching people so they can find a place to stay in the UK, and another making contact with Ukrainians with UK contacts. In April SafeDrop matched the first Ukrainian refugee family with hosts in the North East (pictured) and they are now housed in South Shields.

In the UK, Tom Warburton, a former acting chief executive of Newcastle City Council, came on board to help raise funds for a SafeDrop minibus. When we’d raised the funds, Tom went to Eden Valley commercial van company in Penrith to buy the minibus.

The owner of Eden Valley gave us a discount because, coincidentally, his wife was from Odessa. We filled the van with publicly donated medical aid requested by those on the frontline, then Tom drove the van to Ukraine.

Sending things people in Ukraine really need

At Hoults Yard in Newcastle, we’ve allocated a space for stock for the things people really need in Ukraine. It arrives, then it's sorted and boxed.

Among the supplies being sent in the vans are Celox ‘haemostatic’ bandages that absorb blood in injuries, as well as trauma support supplies like inflatable stretchers, so that people with injuries don't get banged and keep everything in the right place.

Because of the profile created through our support and others, and a bit of networking,  a much bigger support effort has come from the North East than would otherwise have been the case.

There is still so much to do for Ukraine – donations have started to dry up and more co-ordination and input from other organisations is needed. I hope that our response is making a real difference to people on the ground, helping one organisation to provide the kinds of practical, targeted and critical support people need.