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Around the Valley: The Traveling Alphabet brings help to Ukrainians

They knew traveling to Germany and Poland to assist refugees was not going to be a pleasure trip. But there was no doubt it was going to be ABCD.
Gillettes_Traveling Alphabet
The Gillette family of Pleasanton.

"We struggle to process and make sense of the situation in Ukraine. Images of bombed apartment buildings, civilians dead on the side of the road and long lines of people fleeing their home haunt our thoughts. We feel drawn to do more than watch..." 

Pleasanton's Bryan Gillette posted this March 29 as he shared his family's plans to help refugees from war-torn Ukraine and a plea for help funding supplies and other necessities. 

Bryan and Audrey Gillette and their sons, 15-year-old Colin and 13-year-old Decker, took only two hours to make the decision to travel halfway around the world to help the Ukrainian people.

Picking up and traveling thousands of miles "isn't out of our character," Bryan said.

The "Traveling Alphabet" -- self-named because they are A(udrey), B(ryan), C(olin) and D(ecker) -- is all about meeting and connecting with new people. In 2017, Audrey and Bryan took Colin and Decker out of school for a year to travel the world.

They knew traveling to Germany and Poland to assist refugees was not going to be a pleasure trip. But there was no doubt it was going to be ABCD. 

"I think we knew what we were going to do was going to be impactful," Audrey said, "not just for other people but for us as well. I don't think it ever crossed our minds to not take the kids. Either all four of us were going or we weren't going. We operate as a family that way."

Through GoFundMe donations, the Pleasanton family raised more than $57,000. They left for Berlin on April 10.

"The support from this community blew me out of the water," Bryan said. 

Because they knew they would need more than just financial help, as soon as the decision to go was made, Audrey "put it out to the universe" by sending an email to everyone in her contact list.

"I knew people knew people who knew people that were going to help open doors," she said.

Audrey was contacted by a former Pleasanton Police Department employee who said a current PPD lieutenant, Maria Sarasua, was volunteering at the Ukrainian border. Sarasua put the Gillettes in touch with others who helped transport $10,000 of medicine purchased with the donations from Germany to Kyiv. 

Much-needed tourniquets, costing $7,000 for 442, are making their way to Kyiv right now. Several thousand dollars were used to purchase household supplies, food, clothing, toys and medicine for a refugee center in Swidnica, Poland, a city that has taken in more than 2,700 Ukrainian refugees. 

ABCD was also able to outfit 10 Ukrainian children living in Berlin with Chromebooks and headsets so they could attend school online with teachers who are still in Ukraine. "It sort of speaks to the tenacity of the people there, trying to maintain some sort of normalcy."

There is an orphanage in Swidnica, and ABCD asked for a list of items they could bring when they visited. 

Knowing a sense of normalcy is so important to mental health and wellbeing, the family indulged the children with some list items that were more "want" than "need," like towels and swimsuits and cosmetics for two older girls. 

"You try to put yourself in their shoes, which is a very difficult thing to even comprehend," Audrey said. "They had good lives in Ukraine. They were probably living in a comfortable home, they had jobs and the children were in school. They had what they needed -- clothes, food, whatever."  

"And now their world has been turned upside down and they are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers," she said, adding that nobody knows how long this will continue.  

Looking ahead, the Gillette family is looking to provide 17 Chromebooks and wardrobe armoires for clothing and storage for the orphanage, as well as supplies to the Swidnica refugee center. They are also considering purchasing more medicine to be sent to Kyiv. 

That is why the fundraising account at GoFundMe.com/ABCDforUkraine is still accepting donations.

"We hope we inspire people to do something," Audrey said. "And it doesn't mean you have to go to Poland. What can you do for your next-door neighbor? What can you do around Pleasanton? What can you do to make things a little bit better for somebody else?"

Editor's note: Gina Channell Wilcox has been the president and publisher of Embarcadero Media Group's East Bay division since 2006. Her "Around the Valley" column runs the first and third Fridays of the month.