A camouflaged Santa
Before the war, Volodymyr Rehesha worked in construction and liked to write. “I described myself as a writing slave: I was doing all kinds of advertising and other articles for any possible website or outlet,” he says jokingly. Then the Maidan erupted and the war followed. Initially, Volodymyr was not going to war. He didn't understand or realize the things that were happening around him. “Then my friends died in the AN-30 plane that the separatists shot down near Sloviansk in June 2014,” he recalls. “The entire crew was killed; they were my good friends. Itwaslikesomeone hit me on the head. I thought that my turn would come no matter what. So I packed up my things and joined the Right Sector.” It was the easiest shortcut way to the frontline. “No training fields or exercises. When I got there, I liked it so much that I decided to stay. I'm not registered anywhere. Officially, we are not there. But we have been in Avdiyivka for over a year now, surrounded only by the industrial zone,” Volodymyr shares. He had no experience in the army before. “I was kicked out from the military department at the university after four years for speaking rudely to the lieutenant colonel. And I didn't serve in the army because I had children early,” he laughs.
The name Santa came for a reason. Before the war Volodymyr had been helping orphans. He started with average orphanages but that changed after he visited a shelter for the disabled children. “I actually got scared there,” he recalls. “I cried, went home and was heading back a mere week later.” Volodymyr's friends spent a year asking him to go public with his activity, tell a broader audience about the things he does. Eventually he gave in and started writing posts on Facebook. These were followed by TV reports and many people started helping him. “We are now helping two orphanages for disabled children in Vinnytsia and Khmelnytsky Oblasts,” he says. The assistance started with diapers and other small necessities and has grown to a remarkable scale now.
“We are now helping to fund rehabilitation physicians for these children,” Santa shares. “Government funding only covers half-time positions of nurses and cleaning staff. We are paying extra so that these people work full-time and a full week.” Donors help pay for renovations and purchase many necessary things. “It often happens that urgent needs come up unexpectedly,” Volodymyr says. “Sometimes the kids need some medicines or equipment. For instance, now they need chest drainage equipment or pressure reducing support matrasses. The state cannot fund all this, so we try to find the money on our own.” The same goes for kitchen ap-
pliances. “Some children here eat blended food, they are fed through tubes,” Volodymyr explains. “Normal blenders used in an average kitchen can't handle the intensity, so we buy industrial ones. Again, the state does not provide money for this. And even if it does have some reserves, you will hardly get the funding quickly. While in some cases you need it here and now. For instance, when the sewage system breaks: it takes a month or two to assess the cost of the repair, then file a request to the respective authorities to get the funding for repair. Then, the request is processed. Meanwhile, the breaks need to be fixed within a matter of days. That's why we go to the bank and transfer the money to cover the necessary expenses on rehabilitation physiology, bonuses for the best staff and so on.”
Where does the money come from? Well, from the good people, Volodymyr states. “95% is what people donate. Some do on a regular basis, sending something to our account every month. They trust us. Sometimes I write a post on Facebook and give my account details – that's when many people donate. When my friend, artist Andriy Yermolenko made a new logo for the UKROP party, he gave me his UAH 50,000 fee for it right away. And what we lack I take from the bedside table drawer in my bedroom.”
Santa's visits to his disabled friends have been less frequent lately. Earlier, he used to come back from the frontline, load his van with goodies and head to the orphanages every month. Today, he is only able to take the trips every two months. There have been problems with the orphanage in Ladyzhyn, Vinnytsia Oblast (the authorities were planning to shut it down). Therefore, whenever Volodymyr had a chance to get out of the frontline, he rushed to solve the administrative issues, and only then did he go to visit the disabled kids.
“In fact, we are trying to help both in a way that is functional, and in a way that brings some aesthetic joy to those children,” Santa shares. “We've set up a sensor room in the Ladyzhyn orphanage, and a billiard room in Medzhybizh, Khmelnytsky Oblast. Our friends donated a new table for it.” In Medzhybizh, Santa and his team set up a mini-farm where the disabled children can take care of the animals, feed and walk them, clean after them. “We try to encourage those boys and girls to not just laze around, but actually do something. So many people have joined the project. I asked my friends from the DakhaBrakha band and they did a charity concert. All revenues went to fund the farm: renovate the premises and buy the animals.”
We've become friends with those kids by now, Volodymyr concludes. “They call me every day and ask me whether I'm still alive.”