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Jack Knox: Two years later, Ukraine relief effort shows who we are

It's go time at the two sprawling operations where the Compassionate Resource Warehouse collects and prepares donated goods for distribution; Ukraine is their focus now
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Dell Marie Wergeland, president of the Compassionate Resource Warehouse, organizes items dropped off for a container of medical and other supplies bound for Ukrainian refugees in Poland. “Canadians care,” says Wergeland. “They will do whatever they can when given the opportunity.” DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

It was exactly two years ago, in the week the world fell apart, that the Compassionate Resource Warehouse filled its 500th shipping container.

The 40-foot unit was jammed with everything from school supplies and stethoscopes to winter boots and wheelchairs, all bound for Jordan, where ­Syrians and Iraqis displaced by war were stranded.

It was the five wedding gowns that had Dr. Bridget Stirling particularly pumped, though. On the charity’s loading dock at what used to be Babe’s Honey Farm in Central Saanich, the Victoria epidemiologist spoke of how much the donated dresses would mean to those who wore them.

Even refugee brides want to feel special for a day, she said. In Jordan, women would borrow these Vancouver Island wedding gowns like a book from the library.

Islanders probably don’t realize how much such donations mean, Stirling added. The year before, excess soap from Victoria hotels had saved children from a cholera outbreak in Lebanon. “Soap is life,” she said “If you can get soap into the hands of people, that’s going to make the difference between kids getting sick or not. Soap is like gold.”

It was a good news story, one that could be multiplied by the 500 containers that the all-volunteer Compassionate Resource Warehouse had sent to schools, hospitals and the like in 67 countries over 20 years. The organization had done so by partnering with the likes of ICROSS Canada, Stirling’s Victoria-based humanitarian-aid group, which does relief work overseas.

But then, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and all that good work crashed to a halt. When it resumed, the flow of 20 to 22 containers a year slowed to 13 or 14.

The Warehouse is still hanging in, though — which will ease the pain of some of those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The TC’s Pedro Arrais wrote on the weekend about the current effort by the Warehouse and another Victoria-based charity, Soap For Hope Canada, to fill a container for refugees pouring across the border into Poland.

Ukrainian and Polish authorities asked ICROSS, which has a history of setting up medical facilities for refugees, to assist there. The list of needs includes medical supplies, hygiene products, sleeping bags, camping mattresses, long underwear….

That means it’s go time at the two sprawling operations — the one in Central Saanich and another in Esquimalt — where the Compassionate Resource Warehouse collects and prepares donated goods for distribution around the world.

The scene at both sites is impressive and uplifting. Stacks of clothing, bedding, tools, kitchen supplies and mobility aids climb toward the high warehouse ceilings, a testament to the willingness of ordinary people to help others.

“Canadians care,” says Dell Marie Wergeland, the longtime leader of this operation, which grew out of the Church of the Nazarene in 1999. “They will do whatever they can when given the opportunity.”

That includes the volunteers, many of them nurses, teachers and others transferring skills from their working lives. They’re good at what they do, anticipating and solving problems that could arise at the containers’ destinations. Nurses ensure the medical gadgets going overseas are married with the components they need to work.

Over in the sewing-supply area of the Esquimalt site, volunteers have assembled kits that will allow recipients to repair hospital linens should they tear. (“What happens if they rip?” Wergeland asks. “They don’t have more.”) Power tools and sewing machines are shipped with the right voltage ­converters.

It’s a community effort. Soap For Hope Canada came up with 12,741 bars of soap and 2,228 disinfectant wipes, among other goods, last year.

This week, Wergeland pointed to towers of cartons packed with blankets, diapers, masks and more from yet another Victoria-based outfit, the Canada Comforts Society. Against another wall were boxes of child-development materials for countries where mothers take their kids to work, not to a daycare or school.

Over in a corner Wergeland calls Man Land, retired guys contentedly sort tools and fasteners, making sure the right bolts go with the right nuts. Around the corner, totes hold enough sewing supplies for 25 students.

In yet another nook, trauma-counselling and art-therapy kits are being assembled for children. Tools are being packaged for job-training programs in Africa.

Donors come big and small, and in unexpected ways. Small bits get packed into empty shoeboxes passed on by shoe stores. Larger boxes come from Island Farms (“We always get more at Christmas because of the eggnog,” Wergeland says). Three pallets of medical supplies from the Yukon showed up the other day.

Island Health is a big supporter. When hospital beds are replaced, the Warehouse gets the old ones (and Victoria firefighters volunteer to load them; they’re heavy).

At the Central Saanich site, nurses sorted gauze, catheters, intravenous sets, surgical gowns and myriad other bits deemed surplus. It’s amazing how recycled items can be put to good use: After the civil war of 2011, Stirling assembled an entire training lab for Libyan ­nursing students with nothing but ­materials no longer needed by Vancouver Island hospitals.

Hundreds of bicycles are refurbished and sent abroad. (A couple of marked police bikes donated by the Central Saanich department went to a police force in Zambia.)

KMS Tools, which runs a program called Tools for the World, sent 20 pallets to the warehouse last year.

The Compassionate Resource Warehouse can always use money, of course. Sometimes its shopping lists contain items that no one has donated, so they must be bought.

Shipping containers are expensive: Two years ago, that Jordan-bound 40-footer cost less than $2,000, but the one being packed for the Ukraine-Poland border cost $5,900.

Some donations are particularly touching, Wergeland said. A Ukrainian refugee child will end up wearing a beautiful, hand-knitted baby sweater and cap made by an older Victoria woman who dropped off the garments. “There’s going to be a baby over there who’s going to wear that,” Wergeland said. The child’s mother will know it was made with love, not merely knocked out on an assembly line. That matters.

So does the work at the Compassionate Resource Warehouse. It says something about who we are.

After two years of COVID, and after seeing so much ink and oxygen devoted to the noisy, the self-pitying and the outraged, it’s good to know our community has so many selfless people quietly working to make a better world.

jknox@timescolonist.com