'I had to do something': Yorkshire couple swapped honeymoon for aid mission to Ukraine, say life will never be same again

When a Yorkshire couple tied the knot, rather than treat themselves to a lavish honeymoon, they chose to change their plans and spend their time travelling to Ukraine to lend a helping hand.

Valerie and James Pawlowski from Wakefield, who were married late last month (April 2022), decided to travel to Ukraine the day after their wedding with a van full of supplies donated by people throughout Yorkshire.

Valerie, 39, said: "A week after Russia invaded Ukraine, I watched the news and found the images of people very difficult to watch. A child was screaming, which was very harrowing, and it was like a switch clicked in my head - I just knew I had to do something."

Valerie, a mum to Georgia, aged nine, decided to set up a drop-off for donations at her local community centre, and Wakefield for Ukraine was born.

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A child refugee helps to carry aid offloaded from the van, newly arrived from Wakefield.

Valerie said: "On that first night we were open, nobody turned up. But just as I was about to lock up, a group of Girl Guides walked in with a bag of donations, then someone else arrived with three carloads - and it just snowballed from there.”

With Valerie, her daughter, and James volunteering alongside others locally, they began to bring in more donations than they could distribute to their partners who had convoys already going to Ukraine.

One volunteer, a local businessman Mick New, a former soldier, offered to drive supplies to the Polish/Ukrainian border.

James, 46, said: “Mick is a former soldier who wants to help and doesn’t like bullies. He believes Putin is a bully.”

James and Val on their wedding day.

Wakefield for Ukraine is working closely with Halifax Ukrainian Club’s Saving Ukraine 2022 campaign and is currently working with Jubilee Outreach Yorkshire to supply aid. Since its opening, Wakefield for Ukraine has gathered and distributed more than 12 tonnes of supplies.

“Saving Ukraine 2022 were our first partners and have been key in helping us to set up and distribute the aid directly to Ukraine from day one”, said James.

When Valerie and James, who both work full-time, realised they had more stuff than they could distribute locally, James said they turned to each other and knew what they had to do.

“We had planned a relaxing staycation for our honeymoon, but we wanted to use this time to do something worthwhile,” said James.

James and Val pose with the “humbling” volunteer crew from ReactAid, who kindly hosted us for our time in Ukraine and Poland.

Each convoy can cost up to £1300 alone without added ferry crossings.

James said: “This was the fifth load of aid we were sending from our Yorkshire base and our second load directly from Wakefield.”

Undeterred, the couple decided to make plans shortly after exchanging their vows to drive to the Polish/Ukrainian border to transport supplies as well as helping where they could when they got there.

James and Valerie married on April 29 at The Old Barn at Esholt, in West Yorkshire - then at 10pm the next day, they set off to Ukraine with a van filled with aid and donations made by the community.

Valerie said: "I felt as though I didn't have a choice but to help. And I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else than there with my husband.”

After two days of travel, the couple arrived at the border between Poland and Ukraine before making their way into the war-torn country.

"We were initially going to Lviv, but it was considered unsafe after being shelled the previous night. We were told by a group of volunteers about a nearby school, which had been turned into a refugee centre.

"When we arrived, we found they were almost out of food and didn't know what they would do next,” said Val.

When the couple handed out some of the donations, including 50 shoeboxes with toys put together by a local pub, James said that the moment would stay with him.

“The noise of the children opening these packages will live with me. It was just mind-bending how grateful these kids were for a few basic toys, books and games,” said James.

Valerie also took part in a music lesson held at the school, which aims to provide musical therapy for the kids dealing with trauma.

James said: “The humanitarian need is not shown on the news. The need is only growing, but as the news coverage dwindles on Ukraine, it leaves people’s consciousness.”

James decided to film the journey and make a documentary so that people could see the true side of what was happening in Ukraine.

“There are around 4 million displaced Ukrainians in Poland and 6 million displaced people still in Ukraine. Many people are struggling to leave or even get supplies as fuel dries up.

"While there is quite a bit of support in Poland for those crossing the border, it is up to small volunteer organisations to supply aid into Ukraine,” said James.

The couple who visited a refugee centre at the border discovered a centre “the size of a Tesco Superstore and rammed wall to wall with just six inches between beds.”

James said: “People were arriving in the clothes they got up in, clutching the few life possessions they could grab.

“You can’t unsee the sheer volume of people traumatised and living in awful conditions.

“It was truly humbling to see how grateful they were for any aid provided and the tireless work of the volunteers who had given up their livelihoods to help in any way they could.”

He said that as Lviv is close to the border with Poland, the population is swelling, with more people than ever relying on the humanitarian support of small charities.

James added that he didn’t see many of the big charities in Ukraine, and small, independent volunteer groups did most of the work he saw.

“Standing just inside the Polish border brought home how close this conflict is. Nothing more than a day’s drive.”

“You could sit in McDonald’s, just across the border in Poland and be nothing more than a few miles from death and destruction. If the wind was in the right direction, you could hear the sirens in Lviv from where we were staying,” said James.

Valerie and James, who met online during the Pandemic, said their trip changed them.

Valerie said: “I think it’s fair to say I haven’t returned from our honeymoon the same person.

“It’s taken me two weeks to realise this, and no amount of cleaning my house, work, sleep, or lack of, I can’t seem to shake that feeling of slow heartbreak.

“What we saw, what we helped with, what we witnessed will stay with me for the rest of my life. I still feel as if I’ve left my life behind even though my life is here. I’m a mum. I have a normal happy life, a very happy one, but I continue to feel that we are not doing enough.”

Valerie and James have said that donations are drying up, but the situation is ongoing and getting worse.

They hope that by making the film, they can raise more awareness to encourage people to donate money or add a bit extra to their shopping.

“You see the war but not the humanitarian aspect. It’s not just about tanks, guns, and bombs,” said James.

James is returning to Ukraine with Mick New this week to deliver aid to a Children’s Hospital in Lviv.

He will be documenting his journey on YorkshirePost.co.uk as he makes his way to the hospital and while there.

The fundraising and raising awareness continue for the newlyweds, who are busy organising their next big day, the Saving Ukraine 2022 ball being held at Dean Clough in Halifax in June.

Valerie urged people to buy tickets or donate to Wakefield for Ukraine.

“Please help me, us, and our wonderful volunteers to continue.

“We need your donations, and we also need to fund fuel for more vans,” she said.

For more information, go to @WakeyforUkraine (Facebook/Twitter) or donate at: https://gofund.me/d1447e5a