From Santa Barbara with Love: Wheelchair-Accessible Van Makes It into Ukraine

On the sixth floor of an apartment building on the outskirts of Kiev, Sasha, a Ukrainian man with cerebral palsy, was strapped to a red spinal board and carried down ladders by firemen after a missile strike demolished the complex. Air raid sirens echoed through survivors’ ears and smoke billowed through the broken windows as Sasha’s rescuers carried him to a transport vehicle, and he received an immediate medical assessment.

Firefighters carry Sasha from his building in Ukraine after a missile strike. | Credit: Courtesy

“Thankfully he survived,” said Alina Tupchyk, Ukrainian-American and occupational therapist at Cottage Hospital. Along with her colleagues at Cottage Hospital, Tupchyk organized a fundraising project to help those refugees, and her first effort was the acquisition of a wheelchair-accessible van from Slovakia. She learned in recent days that it had successfully made it into Ukraine.

Bomb drops and missile strikes have destroyed city buildings, homes, and streets, making it near impossible for handicapped Ukrainians to get past the rubble or down to shelters unaided. But the direct hit on Sasha’s building underlined the fact that Ukraine had sparse resources for its citizens reliant on wheelchairs for mobility.

Tupchyk managed to purchase the wheelchair-accessible van and ship it before all the funding was in place. “We made an agreement where we are able to get the van and then pay back the money,” she explained, saying they needed to raise $20,000 to cover the remaining costs of the van and its transport to Ukraine. Currently their fundraising efforts have reached 15 percent of their goal.

The wheel-chair accessible van located in Slovakia, purchased via Santa Barbara, and now in Ukraine. | Credit: Courtesy

Tupchyk has been visiting her home country for the last decade, delivering medical supplies and living essentials to disabled citizens like Sasha. Each year the occupational therapist travels to a retreat center in the village of Olexandria in the west of Ukraine, where disabled people in surrounding villages are offered a welcome while also having full accessibility and the necessary accommodations for their disabilities.

Sasha’s building after the missile strike | Credit: Courtesy

But that retreat center is now a refugee center, accepting dozens of people seeking shelter from the threats bombarding them on the warfronts in the eastern and southern parts of the country. “There are a lot of people dying left and right, and the true counts are unknown,” Tupchyk said. She added that Russian forces have hidden bodies in mass graves, disguised the deceased with rubble from explosions, and even cremated citizens on enemy lines in order to conceal the true death count.

The large van they bought in Slovakia can transport six wheelchair users at a time, and Tupchyk hopes to continue raising funds for more vehicles to help get disabled refugees out of the warzones.

Tupchyk has a scheduled trip in June to visit Ukraine and learn about the availability of transportation in the various regions. “My goal is to visit the different sites, evaluate the needs, and help in whatever ways I can,” she said. “After gathering an assessment of the situation from people in clinics and people we can help, I’ll come back to the US and make a plan on how we can meet those needs.”

Even if conditions worsen, Tupchyk said she would stick with her plans to fly to a neighboring country and cross the Ukrainian border by train or automobile. Based on the information her contacts have been reporting — including friends, family, and Tupchyk’s in-laws — she will be bringing in an abundance of medical supplies and other essentials during her June travels.

As badly as Ukraine needs global assistance in its war with Russia, Tupchyk stressed that Ukraine will also need help picking up the pieces of their fallen cities when the fighting ends.

Sasha | Credit: Courtesy

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