From Journalism to Volunteering: A Single Step

The war has compelled many to change their professions, and the editorial team at Kherson Plus TV was no exception. They pivoted their primary focus towards helping people during these challenging times, leading to the formation of a volunteer group within the local CSO, the “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’”.

Journalism at the Brink

Despite this shift, journalism remained a crucial part of the team’s mission. When the great war began, there was an intense demand for accurate information about the city from both national and international media outlets. However, on March 2, 2022, the invaders shut down Ukrainian broadcasting in Kherson.

Operating as a media representative in frontline areas carries significant risk. Pictured: Stas Ognevsky, a camera operator and CSO volunteer, at work.

Operating as a media representative in frontline areas carries significant risk. Pictured: Stas Ognevsky, a camera operator and CSO volunteer, at work.

In the days following, the editorial team convened to strategize. Traditional news stories were no longer feasible due to the heightened danger, prompting the Kherson Plus team to adopt covert methods of documenting the events unfolding around them.

Risking their lives, journalists used hidden phone cameras to expose russia’s occupation of the city to the world. They revealed how “suitable” individuals were installed in leadership positions, people were forced to obtain Russian bank cards, and an unlawful referendum was conducted.

“September 2022 was the most psychologically taxing month. The russians were tightening their grip in preparation for the referendum. Billboards proclaiming ‘russia is here forever’ were ubiquitous throughout the city. Everything was enforced. I had never witnessed such injustice. But we survived until the de-occupation and breathed a sigh of relief,” Volodymyr Kosiuk, the head of the CSO “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’” reminisces.

The Kherson Plus TV channel team began volunteering in the early months of the invasion. Pictured on the right: Volodymyr Kosiuk, head of the CSO “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’”.

Kosiuk emphasizes that the Kherson Plus team is the only one currently operating in the city with its original full roster. Despite the circumstances, they managed to pay salaries thanks to three grant projects aimed at highlighting the occupation of Kherson.

“You should’ve seen the faces of those people when we brought food…”

The Kherson Plus TV channel team began their volunteer efforts in the early stages of the invasion.  It soon became apparent that the city was on the brink of a famine. Bakeries ceased operations, markets closed, and the last ATB store managed to stay open until the end of April 2022.

The situation was even more dire in the villages, where no stores remained open. The volunteers decided to step in and assist the local residents. Miraculously, the Russians had not destroyed the wholesale food warehouses, allowing Volodymyr and his colleagues to organize a purchasing process.

“We reached out to the village head or an activist to determine their needs. We then purchased and delivered about a ton or a ton-and-a-half of products. Modern Ukrainian villages no longer rely solely on homegrown produce. While some livestock is kept, most goods are purchased from stores, which were now closed,” Volodymyr recalls.

Photo: Volodymyr Kosiuk, head of the CSO “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’” (left), found that transporting food products in sacks was more reliable.

The products were not pre-packaged but weighed and distributed on-site. This approach was not only cost-effective but also drew less attention from the russians, who inspected volunteers at every checkpoint. For instance, the journey to the village of Sofiivka, a destination point, spanned 25 kilometers and included six checkpoints. The trip to another village, Stanislav, was 40 kilometers long and had 15 checkpoints. And they were stopped at each one.

“On Easter 2022, we delivered packaged Easter cakes and gingerbread. They stopped us and took the tastiest items for themselves. So we decided to transport everything in sacks, believing they wouldn’t be stuffing pasta into their pockets,”  Kosiuk explains.

Initially, volunteers collected funds on their personal bank cards. Later, they received funding from foundations. Their collaboration with East Europe Foundation began in September 2022. “We applied while still under occupation. However, joint activities with the Foundation began after the de-occupation. We then designed a project focused on aiding frontline villages. We submitted it to East Europe Foundation, and it was approved.”

Kosiuk notes that they were fortunate. Since the bank serving the civil society organization and the tax office relocated to Ukrainian-controlled territory, operations could proceed swiftly and smoothly.

The aid provided by East Europe Foundation under the Shelter program was particularly relevant at the time, as the city was grappling with a severe humanitarian crisis. During the first month after the de-occupation, many vehicles were not allowed into Kherson due to shelling, making deliveries challenging.

Photo: The Kherson region continues to have high humanitarian needs. Aid provided by partners or purchased by volunteers is stored in large warehouses.

The team delivered a standard set of products – pasta, sugar, flour, and oil. It was enough to last a few weeks: “You should’ve seen the faces of those people when we brought food to their villages with closed stores. They examined the packaging to ensure these products were indeed Ukrainian. It was important for them to know that these were Ukrainian products brought by Ukrainian volunteers. It signified that their country had not forgotten them.”

Over six months, the CSO received two grants from the Foundation under the Shelter program to purchase and distribute food sets. The total amount of the grants exceeded UAH 1 million.

From Food Supplies to Rubber Boats

The terrorist act at the Kakhovka HPP presented a new, formidable challenge for the Kherson region. The CSO “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’” transitioned from providing food supplies to delivering a different level of humanitarian aid. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, they sought rubber boats and boots, along with equipment to pump out water. Parts of the city were submerged, with private homes underwater. “We could navigate over their roofs in boats,” Volodymyr Kosiuk recalls.

The floodwaters persisted for over a week. As the water level receded, residents began to return, only to find everything covered in sludge and mold. “They had to discard everything. Some household items could be cleaned, but not all,” he continues.

In September 2023, as part of another Foundation program, ‘Together We Shelter’, funded by the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, the CSO secured a new grant for direct humanitarian aid to the Kherson residents affected by the environmental disaster. They anticipated the nature of the first request from the flood victims, and they were not mistaken.

Photo: The village of Sadove, located on the banks of the Inhulets River amid ponds and lakes, was severely affected by the flood, with 75 houses damaged. Volunteers provided the necessary aid to the affected people.

“We assembled a pack containing a foam mat, a sleeping bag, a pillow, a towel, and a lantern with a power bank. Basic necessities for people who had lost everything in the flood, enabling them to sleep in their homes with a modicum of comfort,” Kosiuk says.

That’s precisely what people did. According to the CSO head, they endeavored to clean up and repair what they could. If they left the house as it was, it would only be fit for demolition later: “So they worked every day. The said pack helped people to stay at home and furnish at least some part of it.”

Photo: Water engulfed entire districts in Kherson, leaving people without housing and basic necessities. In the photo, residents of the flooded Zabalka district receive the necessary aid.

The grant funds, totaling nearly UAH 1 million, enabled the CSO to purchase and distribute non-food packs to 358 families. The primary advantage was that this aid could be delivered promptly and swiftly, while the process of getting restoration funds was lengthy due to bureaucratic hurdles.

However, even this was not enough. The support provided to the Kherson region was tragically insufficient. Therefore, in December 2023, the “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’” collected applications from those affected and requested additional assistance from the Foundation. They received another grant – the fourth one from East Europe Foundation. This support enabled them to provide another 156 families with non-food packs.

Photo: The village of Chornobaivka was flooded after the Kakhovka HPP was blown up and is under constant enemy shelling. Local residents have lost almost all their property, so any help for them is worth its weight in gold.

With the upcoming winter, people’s needs have also changed, as their requests have. “Half of the city is without heating due to the shellings. They manage to repair some boiler station equipment, but it often fails a few days later due to missile hits. So, many people are asking for warm items,” Kosiuk says.

The volunteers initiated the “Warm socks under the Christmas tree” campaign. They have already collected and sent the first packs to those in need. At the same time, Volodymyr anticipates new requests for scarves, hats, blankets, and gloves:

“The houses are cold, and people need to keep warm somehow. People say that the temperature in their houses ranges from eight to twelve degrees. I mean, if it’s eight degrees, of course, you’ll be sitting in gloves and a hat.”

“We understand that all these deeds contribute to the treasury of our future victory”

At the onset of the invasion, the CSO team comprised about 15 individuals. Today, the team has grown to include 50 dedicated volunteers. While the core team has remained consistent, new members have joined over time. The head of the NGO “Union of Journalists ‘Alternatyva’” emphasizes that each team member is a permanent employee and receives a salary. Consequently, they have developed several projects in collaboration with international and Ukrainian organizations:

“Those responsible for physical resources, vehicles, and the warehouse are all compensated. When you’re paid, you feel valued,” he asserts.

Photo: Throughout their operations, the CSO team has already assisted more than 100,000 people, and the volunteers have no intention of stopping.

Volodymyr notes that the blend of volunteering and journalism has proven to be a valuable asset for their team, enabling them to accomplish twice as many good deeds. And they will continue:

“During the occupation, our volunteers assisted 25,000 people, while the total number of people helped throughout our operations now exceeds 100,000. The demand for such activities will only grow. It will take considerable time to rebuild everything and people will need our help all the while. However, we understand that all these deeds contribute to the treasury of our future victory.”

The Together We Shelter Program is implemented by East Europe Foundation with financial support from the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of East Europe Foundation and the Ukraine Humanitarian Fund.