Most of the efforts by Big Ocean Women to help in Ukraine lately has been coordinating the sending of gathered and donated medical supplies, quilts, and bulletproof vests to those in need through the organization, Backroads Foundation. They are able to get these much-needed supplies to the hardest hit areas, including most of the smaller or out-of-the-way places that are being missed or overlooked by the larger relief organizations. I was recently able to get some insights from the leader of Backroads Foundation, Solomon Smith, and two of their dedicated volunteers, Kelli Rohrig and Oliver Nilsson.
Solomon Smith and his wife started praying to know what they could do to help within the first week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said, “The same day I was offered a flight to Poland from a random stranger. When I called my wife about it, she felt it was the answer to what our family could do. Three days later, I was in Poland.”
He had spent ten years working internationally going to different countries to start businesses and operations. “I felt that my background would help enable myself to show up to the area and identify what issues or lack of support was happening and within a short time be able to figure out solutions to the identified problems,” he explained. According to Kelli Rohrig, that’s exactly what Solomon was and is able to do.
Kelli said that the first time she flew over to help in Ukraine, all of her plans for whom she was going to meet fell through. She became involved with a large group called Signal where she met Solomon. She said they both had the same outlook and decided to work together outside of the larger group and she went to Lviv with him. She said the Backroads Foundation is a group of people who want to “DO GOOD,” and described them as “likeminded but incredibly different people from different backgrounds.” She said they are not doing it for recognition and that she appreciates that Solomon “just gets stuff done.”
Solomon said, “I founded Backroads Foundation shortly after arriving in Poland. It became very clear to me within the first week that there was a vast divide between the destination that large non-profit organizations were providing aid and many small towns and communities that weren’t receiving any aid or support. I felt compelled to focus my attention on helping out the smaller groups that no one was able to get to. This focus transformed into key missions that we are currently doing. We spend our resources and time supporting orphanages, refugee centers, hospitals/clinic and small communities. These groups are the ones that represent the hardest hit demographics from the war and very little was being done to support them.”
Earlier in her life, Kelli was an intern at the European Parliament with the Scottish government, and she speaks French, German, some Spanish, but not Ukrainian or Russian, but she does have an increased understanding of the impact of international affairs. She explained that her grandfather’s family were Belgian Jews, and she felt compelled to help others as her family had been helped. She said she loves the Ukrainian people and they “are amazing and as tough as they come.” She was an ENT briefly, and has avalanche education, so she is good at sticking to protocols and recognizes the safety in doing so.
Oliver Nilsson had spent time in the Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Belarus as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 2018 to 2020. While he was there, he worked with many Ukrainians and formed lasting friendships. He had continued to stay in touch with those friends.
Two weeks before the war started, one of his good friends in Ukraine reached out to several friends outside Ukraine and asked for help in building up emergency reserves for people he knew in Kiev, Ukraine that would need help. “So, we started fundraising. I asked just about everyone I knew to help out in any way they could.” Oliver explained. “I spent a lot of my own money too. No question. My friends needed help.” Then, he shared, “When the war started, I was in a car, traveling from California to Arizona, and I somehow got involved with helping to organize evacuations for friends and friends of friends through my cell phone.” Even though he was about to start his second year of school and was recovering from an ankle injury, he wanted to do more. He tried to join the foreign legion. “I never heard a reply from the Ukrainian embassy, and after waiting two weeks I decided that it would be better if I instead went to help with humanitarian things. So, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Poland, and headed out the door three days later.
Kelli told about having been in the trenches in Ukraine because “a kid” had reached out to her on Facebook, and she has been to visit him and his battalion. She described him as being so very young and having PTSD and acting as the mouthpiece for his battalion. She is glad that they have been able to help them with safety and medical supplies and they are “like family” and “keep in contact almost daily.”
Solomon explained that their organization has “partnered with many other non-profit organizations, the Southern Baptist churches, Catholic Church, LDS Church, Slavic church, and many others. Most of these organizations are able to provide various types of supplies, but needed our support to ensure they were being delivered to actual places in need throughout Ukraine.” He told how their biggest struggle being a small non-profit has been funding to help cover the cost of supplies and goods that they are taking to the many communities.
Oliver described seeing many miracles as he has been involved. “As a need arises, somehow it gets met practically immediately. As people are needed, they somehow show up. As times change, everything fits to match it.” He related that he is frequently asked how he is able to survive in the war zone. He said there has been, “one miracle after another.” He went on to say, “Somehow, I always have a place to sleep (even if just at the park in a sleeping bag) and somehow, I always have food to eat (even if it isn’t as often as I used to eat).
Solomon said that the biggest surprise for him in this experience has been seeing “how much direct impact small non-profit organizations are having in these circumstances. They are filling the gaps in support that my group believed was being done by the large non-profit organizations like the Red Cross.”
Solomon said what keeps him going are “the many smiles and lives touched that we see as we take care of the many people affected by the war.”
Kelli wants everyone to care about what is happening in Ukraine, but she realizes that not everyone does. She said, “Even if you don’t have the ability to donate money, please just try to understand the situation. It’s in everyone’s best interest to care.” She has been to Ukraine twice now and plans to go back in July with her husband.
Oliver said, “The Lord is helping Ukraine. I am simply honored to be a part of that process in any way.” He has been there for over two months and plans to stay as long as he can be helpful.
Solomon says the best way people can help their organization is by donating because they are able to purchase many things locally to take into Ukraine. That saves on logistical costs and supports the local economies that are being hurt by the war.
To find out more, visit their website: backroadsfoundation.org
Donation links for Venmo and PayPal can be found there.