By Lindsay Peyton
Getting needed medical supplies into war-torn Ukraine might seem like an insurmountable task. Routes for delivery by sea are blocked, and there are customs requirements to consider. On top of the logistical challenges are the surmounting costs, especially with jet fuel prices soaring. Nonetheless, a homegrown nonprofit in North Zulch, Texas is undertaking the cause – the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation. Founder and president Lena Denman is a member of FUMC Madisonville in the Texas Annual Conference.
Before Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation was delivering supplies to hospitals in the country. For instance, last September, a 20-foot container filled with medical supplies and equipment went by sea through the US Department of Defense’s Funded Transportation Program. “We had a pipeline, and everything was in order,” Denman said.
But Russia’s naval blockade put an end to that. “Going by ship became untenable,” Denman said.
She was well aware that medical supplies would be needed more than ever as violence escalated, hospitals were hit by missiles and countless Ukrainians were injured.
Denman already had relationships with doctors and medical staff in the country and could find out exactly what was needed. Supplies were donated from Ohio Health, a nonprofit health care ministry of the UMC, and Baylor Scott & White’s Faith in Action Initiatives.
Denman discovered AEC Parcel Service, run by two Lithuanian brothers, who donated warehouse space in Poland and understood how to navigate custom requirements.
Still, funding was the key to making everything possible. “When you’re going by air and not sea, it’s so much more expensive – and it’s going up every month,” Denman said. “We knew the more we could send, the faster would be best. We needed to get supplies over as quickly as we could.”
That’s where the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), part of United Methodist Global Ministries, came to the rescue. Denman applied for a grant – with a letter of recommendation from her pastor Jim Jackson at FUMC Madisonville.
Pastor Jackson met Denman two years into his appointment – and was excited to learn about her nonprofit. “It was an area we really didn’t have covered in our outreach,” he said. “She started talking to Sunday school classes and often, we’d take up an offering for the cause.”
When the recent invasion occurred, Jackson recalled brainstorming with Denman about how to fund the nonprofit’s efforts in the face of increased need – and increased difficulty. “Why don’t you get hold of UMCOR?” Jackson suggested. “And she did.”
Denman applied for a grant in early March and received $160,000 in transportation costs for one shipment from UMCOR.
The Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation came in under budget. Instead of sending one shipment of 25 to 30 pallets, the Foundation was able to send three shipments, thanks to its relationship with Ohio Health and AEC Parcel Service.
Then, the Foundation received a second grant for more than $199,000 to further support the needs of hospitals. That allowed a fourth shipment to be made to Ukraine on June 10. There were 23,000 pounds of medical supplies and equipment, valued at $290,000 delivered to the State Institution Ukrainian Health Ministry Heart Institute.
In a video message, Dr. Vitaly Demyanchuk, deputy director of the State Ukrainian Health Ministry Heart Institute in Kyiv, said that the supplies “provide tremendous support to our patients and staff in need.”
“It’s impacting so many Ukrainian people by bringing us a feeling of hope . . . during a time of barbaric war against our country,” he continued.
With the four shipments, the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation has made four shipments with more than $1.2 million worth of medical supplies and equipment. Already 7,000 individuals have been helped at three hospitals.
Denman explained that the situation in Ukraine was dire long before the current invasion. Her first trip to the country was at age 16 in 2000. She traveled alongside Arlene Campbell, a woman who had a ministry to help immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Denman’s father, a minister at a nondenominational church in California, introduced his daughter to this extraordinary woman. “She asked if she could take me to Ukraine,” Denman recalled. “I had never been abroad.”
Campbell shipped medical supplies to Ukraine and maintained connections with doctors to help meet their needs. She also coordinated deliveries of clothing and food.
Campbell began working with immigrants from the former Soviet Union as a teacher in 1985, joining with her sister Laverne Campbell in the effort. Her humanitarian aid work began in 1989 under an organization called Russian Relief. She then started the Former Soviet Union (FSU) Cultural Exchange program in June 1999 and sent containers of donations and medical supplies to numerous cities in Ukraine and Russia.
Denman’s first meeting with Campbell in 2000 was to assist with sorting medical supplies. The trip to Ukraine soon followed.
“I toured the hospitals and met doctors that I kept in contact with for many years to come,” Denman recalled. “Arlene had such high-level contacts that she got me a pass to Parliament and introduced me to Ukrainian members of parliament.”
On the visit, Denman’s translator was only two years younger and spoke four languages, despite having just three textbooks at her school. “It was humbling, to realize how much I had in the U.S. and how much I took it for granted,” Denman said.
She also saw how highly-trained doctors were underpaid and did not have the supplies they needed. Many would leave to other countries, contributing to a “brain drain” in Ukraine.
“The people who stay are dedicated and they want to help their country and care for their people,” Denman said.
Denman’s travels with Campbell were life-changing. She was inspired to pursue an undergraduate degree in international studies and political science at California State University East Bay. She later earned her master’s degree in international/global studies at Texas State University San Marcos.
Now a professor teaching government at Blinn College in Bryan, Denman is also pursuing a doctoral degree at Grand Canyon University in organizational leadership with an emphasis in higher education.
She often reflects on her experience with Campbell – and wonders if her mentor was trying to pass on her mission on their trip. It was not long after their travels together that Campbell passed away from diabetic complications in 2002.
After finishing her master’s program, Denman asked her father what had become of the ministry. Together, they tracked down what they could. “I thought, ‘I bet they still need medical supplies,’” Denman recalled.
Before long, she took up the task – and in 2016, founded the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation.
“When Arlene was here, I don’t think she could imagine the scale and scope of the need today,” Denman said.
She believes that there was divine intervention in her meeting of Campbell years ago, the friendships she maintained with doctors and the connections she made along the way.
“The relationships, I really believe, were set up years ago by God,” she said.
The main hospital the Foundation works with is the State Ukrainian Institution Health Ministry Heart Institute, which distributes supplies to other hospitals as well. “They are also trying to raise funds to restore a 14 building-clinic that was devastated by Russian forces in Irpin, a site of Russian war crime atrocities,” Denman said.
More supplies have been donated to the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation, but more funding is needed to allow for continued shipments. “We could go further,” Denman said.
She continued, “With what the need is now, what we’ve given, it’s just a drop in the bucket. This is not something we can say, ‘The job is done.’ There is a lot more that we need to do. At the end of the day, it’s important to find the little ways we can help.”
With her board members and local volunteers, many from FUMC Madisonville, the Foundation loads up palettes of supplies. “We’re a small operation,” Denman said. “But we’re able to do large things.”
Pastor Jackson said that Denman’s faith carries her forward on the mission. “This is a true call story,” he said. “God called her to do this and empowered her to do this. God is opening up doors for her.”
Jackson said that God planned years in advance for this – even to connect Denman with Campbell in the first place. Now, with the UMCOR grants, the connectional system of the UMC has been put into play.
He encourages others to help the ministry – and to spread the word about their work. “This is making a difference,” he said. “And we know that we are getting supplies into the right hands.”
In this ongoing struggle, Denman said Ukraine still needs our help. “The need isn’t less,” she said. “It’s only increased. The more we can help, the better.”
More on the story here