Ukrainians get help, hope from central Illinois as war enters second year
CHAMPAIGN — As Russia’s war against Ukraine enters a second year, it seems like the forces of Vladimir Putin have the upper hand. They might be surprised to know there are forces at work that they don’t understand, however.
One is the desire of a young girl from central Illinois to help people she didn’t even know, half a world away.
Another is the goodness of people who “came out of the woodwork” when they were offered a way to do something.
And last, but certainly not least, is the power of prayer.
All three have come together in U.S. Ambulances for Ukraine, which was founded by Chris Manson, vice president of government relations for OSF HealthCare in Peoria, soon after the war began. To date, the organization has sent 28 ambulances and one fire engine into Ukraine.
Another shipment of six ambulances — he hopes to make it 10 — and three fire engines is set to follow in mid-March.
“They’re in the fight. That’s something I always tell everyone — if you give me an ambulance, I will get it in the fight,” said Manson, who picked up the skills needed for this outreach in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, as a volunteer firefighter, and as a health care worker.
He recently told members of Champaign Rotary Club 3256 that he has received photos of Ukrainian soldiers being transported and people being treated in the vehicles that have been sent since the first shipment on March 29, 2022.
It was important for the Rotary Club to know that and receive his thanks, he said, because Rotarians in the Chicago area provided $400,000 in medical supplies in the early days of U.S. Ambulances for Ukraine.
There is another benefit, although it may not seem as vital as the medical care being provided by the ambulances filled with supplies, according to Manson.
The fire engine that was taken to the war-torn country came from the Chillicothe Community Fire Protection District and was signed by people in that community. Many of the ambulances have also been signed by the communities donating them.
“The reactions I get from the Ukrainians when they see the words of encouragement or hope, it’s that human connection that’s just amazing,” Manson said. “You can’t define it. You have to witness it to feel it and understand it.”
It was Manson’s daughter, Lily, then 7 years old, who provided the impetus for U.S. Ambulances for Ukraine.
He said they watched the news like everyone else when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. While Manson tried to shield Lily from the most disturbing images, she saw enough of the continuing coverage to be concerned.
“At one point she finally said, ‘Hey, Dad, is there something that we can do?’ That’s where this all got started,” he told the Rotarians last week.
Thinking the Ukrainians might need an ambulance, Manson called the Ukrainian Consulate in Chicago. Two hours later, they called back saying, “Yes, we need it. Yes, we want it. When can you get it to Ukraine?”
He reached out to Advanced Medical Transport of Central Illinois with his “crazy idea” only to be told by CEO Andrew Rand, “What do you need — gas or diesel?”
He said OSF HealthCare was very generous in providing supplies needed to fill the ambulance, and after conversations with other health care providers and ambulance runners around the country, more started to arrive.
The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, who own and operate OSF HealthCare, arranged to have Father Dennis Spohrer on hand to bless the ambulance — packed from top to bottom, side to side — before Manson drove it to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. In addition to the Ukrainian Consulate, he worked with the Ukrainian Medical Association of North America and the UA-Resistance charitable foundation to make the shipment happen.
“Inside I was like, ‘I’m done. This is great. Mission accomplished,” he said.
But the need continued, so U.S. Ambulances for Ukraine did, too.
Manson has accompanied subsequent shipments, one of which included an ambulance from El Paso, Illinois. He drove it into Ukraine himself, but he wasn’t alone.
“Since (the ambulance) was from El Paso, I had a prayer card of Fulton Sheen. . . . He was basically with me the whole way in.” — Chris Manson
“He was basically with me the whole way in” Manson said.
Another convoy, named Operation Archangel in honor of St. Michael the Archangel, had to go in at midnight due to Russian bombing during the day. After saying the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, he saw an image of the patron saint of those in law enforcement, including soldiers — although he couldn’t be sure if it was a statue or a church window.
“To me, it was an answer to prayer,” he told The Catholic Post. “Every time I’ve needed some help, I’ve said a few prayers and it always works out.”
The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis have been behind him, too.
“When I first wanted to do something I approached my Sisters and I said, ‘I feel this calling to help out.’ And they said, ‘If it’s a calling, we’re going to support a calling.’ It’s been like that all along,” Manson said.
Lily, now 8, is happy that the Ukrainians are receiving assistance, according to her father. For her recent birthday, she blew out the candles on her cake and made a wish. Later she would ask Manson what was happening in Ukraine.
“She wished the war would be over and wanted to know if that had happened yet,” he said. “I told her, ‘Not yet.’”
But he has no doubt the Ukrainians will be victorious.
“One of the guys I first met made it very simple: ‘I’ve been alive long enough to experience what it’s like to be under the Soviet Union and I just want to be free. I don’t want to go back to that,’” Manson recalled, adding that he was told by a young interpreter that the only way Russia would prevail is by killing every single Ukrainian.
“You’ve got a desire to be free and you’ve got that kind of determination. You can’t help but want to help them,” Manson said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To follow Manson’s work with U.S. Ambulances for Ukraine, see @AmbulancesU on Twitter.