Anna Vereshchak, the co-founder and publicist of the Charity Foundation «Starenki», is convinced that «It’s easy to help». It’s not just words; the girl confirms them with her actions. She spends all her free time working for the Foundation and helping lonely elderly people in their difficult life circumstances. After all, it is so important for them to feel needed.
It all started in 2014. Then Anna, together with her acquaintances, began to notice more and more elderly people on the street selling small stuff. The prices for food and utilities rose sharply at this time in Ukraine, and this forced the elderly to sell all they had. Therefore, Anna, along with other enthusiasts, wanted to help and volunteer in organizations that support low-income elderly people. However, it turned out that there are no such organizations in Ukraine. Then the girls decided to create their own.
We communicated with Anna about the big dream of the project; why it is important to spread the idea of good neighborliness and what the wards of «Starenki» would advise to themselves beings 30-year-old.
Why did the idea to create a charity initiative that will systematically help lonely elderly people with food come in 2014?
At one point, elderly men and women started to appear en masse on the city streets. It was very tangible. They could be found near the subway, near houses, in public gardens. They did not ask for alms but sold something from their modest possessions: old potted plants, china sets, books, and clothes. The dollar exchange rate has risen significantly, and prices for utility bills and food have risen. The pension the lonely elderly people had wasn’t enough. Obviously, they had no other choice but to go outside and sell something. Then I felt an inner need to help elderly people.
When I thought about what exactly I could do, I saw a post on Facebook by Iryna Baranenko, who also wrote that she wanted to help, but did not know how. This idea came to me. I wrote her a message, we met, and in fact from that moment our team began to form. Later, other co-founders joined us in our rush to help: Varvara Tertychna, Nadin Demydova, and Yulia Fituni.
Initially, we did not have a goal to create a large system organization. We were looking for foundations and projects that were already taking care of elderly people. We wanted to become volunteers in these organizations. We were convinced that these organizations and funds should exist. However, we did not find them. Of course, some projects wrote on their websites that they help elderly people, but we saw that these were inanimate initiatives. Then we had to create a mechanism that grew into a system project and foundation. We understood that we wanted to help with food because this is a basic need. Because when there is enough food, money can be released for medicines and utility bills.
We were thinking a lot about how to organize it properly, where, relatively speaking, to find those elderly men and women. We have already had some experience: the fact that an elderly woman is sitting in the underpass does not mean that she is asking for alms or that she needs some help. I lived in Obolon, and an elderly woman with a dog often sat in the subway underpass. What is your first impulse when you pass by? To give money and go. Rarely does one stop and communicate. I also just gave money. However, when I talked to the sellers nearby, in a simple conversation they explained to me that the woman does not beg. She has a family. She comes to the subway to communicate because she is bored at home. And people just pass by and think that she is asking for alms. The old woman does not refuse and takes the money. Then the thought flashed through my head: «How to distinguish those who need help from those who don’t?»
At the same time, we thought about how to organize activities clearly and transparently to protect elderly men and women as much as possible, and, in addition, to involve as many people as possible? And obviously, help those who really need it.
Everything turned out cool. The «magic» (meaning «spells») worked. When we can’t find an answer to a question or solve it, but there is a great desire, the situation comes as good as possible, and people with meaningful suggestions come. That’s when we found a way to help lonely elderly people with food packages.
We officially registered the legal organization, the Charity Foundation «Starenki», in 2017. Before that, we worked as an initiative based on the Let’s Help charity foundation. From the first day of our own foundation’s existence, we decided to divide fundraising and accounts into product and administrative accounts. The donor chooses where to spend his money, and can be sure that his contribution goes exactly where he wanted. We often invest our own money into some administrative expenses. Although by law, any foundation can spend up to 20 percent on administrative needs. However, it was important for us to give this choice option. I see that some other projects have eventually come to this account-sharing model.
It is also important that we do not have cash incomes and expenditures. We only have a bank account. There aren’t even any cards. This is a fundamental point that ensures the complete transparency of our activities.
How does the foundation continuously manage its volunteer staff for the fourth year in a row?
Probably, because we are growing gradually, we are also gradually expanding.
At first, we had three or four active people who took care of organizing the work of the foundation. From the first day, we’ve identified the areas of responsibility of each, based on their professional experience. Some were involved in auditing and finance, some in PR and marketing, and some in logistics. It happened so that everyone had experience in one or another area of responsibility that we needed.
Currently, the permanent volunteer team consists of about 20 people — it’s 5 co-founders and 15 volunteers who are engaged in daily routine: reports, procurement, content, coordination of deliveries, management, organization of various events, development of flyers, and other things. These people spend a lot of time administering the foundation.
The team also has 4 full-time employees. Initially, we only had an accountant — because an accountant cannot be a volunteer; such instability can have negative consequences, up to the closure of the foundation. Then we realized that, depending on the scale, we need certain people to do certain processes regularly, otherwise we will not be able to maintain the quality of the processes and provide the help we want to provide. So we have a manager, a volunteer coordinator, and an assistant accountant on our staff. They provide most of the operational processes, clarity, and transparency, but the contribution of the volunteer part of the team should not be underestimated.
Everyone has their area of responsibility. Here again, the «magic» is worth mentioning — because we were joined by «our» people — people with an incredible desire to help the elderly and surprisingly strong inner motivation! Together we are a great team and we are moving forward.
Our volunteers and donors also support us with their initiatives — they offer to do something and then make it, and they introduce us to someone useful. For example, one volunteer designer now has the opportunity to make a telegram sticker pack. We are always happy about such offers.
How can one help «Starenki»?
You can support our project financially on the website. There are two options for this: you can donate money to food packages for elderly people regularly or case-by-case or support the initiative itself. You can also donate money to the foundation and take the food package to an elderly man or woman to see whom exactly you are helping. It definitely changes consciousness. This is the key to success. People see how they can help, even with the smallest comfortable sum or participation, and how important it is.
In addition, you can support the project not only financially, but also become our volunteer in the food delivery or help administer the foundation. We always need initiative and socially active people (photographers, designers, organizers, etc.). We always emphasize that it’s easy to help.
By helping others, you help yourself. There is an opinion that charity is free giving away. However, it’s not just about giving. It’s also about getting. This is an energy exchange. When you help someone, someone helps you.
From the very beginning of the «Starenki» initiative, we held educational work among the people. Ukrainians were a little confused (because there was no fundraising before that) and scared (because the one that existed in the form of donating to the plastic boxes and begging in the subway no longer seemed honest to people).
We were one of the first volunteer projects with a systematic approach to activities and modern views, which needed the support of the community: both financial and physical. Realizing the need to build trust, we devised a slightly different communication strategy: we set up a foundation page on Facebook, where we published the photo and video stories regularly, tagged our volunteers, and published reports and feedback. In addition, we openly published information on how to determine whether the project really exists (and not just on paper) and whose it is. Over time, there appeared more projects like ours and it was no longer a surprise.
It’s cool that now volunteering is becoming the norm and a full part of everyday life for most people. Ukrainians understand how to determine whether a project is «alive», they know how to search and read reports, and they know those who started everything. We just had to be the pioneers and show by our example how it is possible to volunteer and do good deeds for a common goal selflessly.
The country began to emerge an understanding of volunteering and its necessity, role and the consciousness of many citizens changed after the events of 2013. Yes, there are still those who don’t believe that not only big and rich businesses can create the foundations, that changes depend on us and that many people join and give their own time at no charge. Nevertheless, we are open to everyone and happy to share our own experience, tell how everything is built and why we chose this path.
In recent years, the approach to charity has changed in general. For example, there is the project «Klub dobrodijiv» («The Club of benefactors»), which completely changes the concept of helping children in orphanages. Earlier the orphanages were mostly visited just to bring gifts for Nicholas, and few thought about the more important issues: how do orphans adapt to society, where can they get a job, who will help them by the advice in adult life.
What criteria are determining those who really need help?
We’ve learned that there are such state organizations as Territorial Centers for Social Services. There are departments of daycare and targeted assistance on their base. The elderly people come there and register. This gives us a clear idea of who needs help. We have signed agreements with several Territorial centers. They make lists, and we fundraise, purchase, and provide logistics.
We have clear criteria for selecting recipients: lonely people aged 65+ with an income of no more than 2,500-3,000 hryvnias. For safety, we bring food packages only together with an employee of the social service, whom the elderly people know personally. That is, the center prepares lists, selects a social worker who visits with our volunteers, and shows where to go directly at the time of delivery. The Territorial Center makes a waybill in advance, but our volunteers find out about it on the way. For example, we go to the Shevchenkivskyi district of Kyiv. A group of volunteers arrives; a social worker gets into their car and says, «Today at this address».
What exactly is included in the food package from «Starenki» and does it change from year to year?
These are exclusively long-term storage food packages. When compiling the list of products, the choice was based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization. We took a list of humanitarian aid. Our average basic set includes cereals (buckwheat, oatmeal, rice), pasta, 3-4 types of canned meat and fish, and oil. In addition, we optionally included condensed milk and sweets. Because buckwheat is, of course, good, but lonely elderly men and women don’t buy sweets for themselves. We also give a minimum set of household chemicals. The price of one such set ranges from 300 to 400 hryvnias. We delivered more than 9,000 such packages last year.
How often can one elderly person receive these packages?
Maybe monthly, maybe quarterly. It depends on the financial situation of the retiree first. 12-16 wards are assigned to each social worker. These elderly people find it difficult to provide for themselves. Often these are people aged 75-80, who most likely do not leave the house, and if they do, it is not far. Therefore, a social worker visits his wards about twice a week. They help to prepare food, clean the house, and go to the store for food and medicine; they take the elderly person to the hospital if necessary. The social worker is best oriented in the situation.
For example, this month someone did not spend money on medicine, so he still has food. Another retiree fell ill this month, the money for food has run out, so he needs the food packages more often.
Social workers are quite attentive and caring to their wards. Sometimes they say, «Friends, do you have the opportunity to bring more packages? Because our Vasyl Petrovich, Nadiya Viktorivna, and Halyna Petrivna had additional expenses this month. They have an empty fridge». We form the packages surely. We visit someone once a month, and someone — once in two, and someone — once in three.
I suppose that often the aid is not limited to the food package delivery?
Definitely, yes. The volunteer crew consists of two people: an experienced volunteer and a novice volunteer, as well as a social worker. These three people travel in one car and deliver 10-12 packages in one day. We optimized the mechanism so that the delivery took two to three hours. Sometimes it takes six hours, but it depends on the process of communication during the visit.
Volunteers usually talk to the elderly people for 10-15 minutes, learn about their health and well-being, and move on. They may stick around some retirees for 20-30 minutes. All the volunteers agree that 90 percent of the elderly people want to communicate. Because they really have no one. The only friend and person they see most often is their social worker. However a social worker comes twice a week, and that’s not enough.
When we realized that there was a need for communication, we began to organize tea parties with workshops, concerts, musicians, songs, and treats on the base of the social center. This was the second area of assistance that we developed before the quarantine. However, the pandemic made its adjustments, and we were forced to give up tea parties and close contact with the elderly people for a while. We even built a help system in such a way as to leave the package at the door of the apartment. We did not wait for the official announcement of the quarantine. These security measures began to be applied last year in early February.
Now communication is reduced to a minimum. This is very sad both for the volunteers and for our elderly men and women. We are waiting for the possibility to hold tea parties again. The elderly people women want to communicate. Sometimes this is more important to them than food.
What about the geography of the project?
We are currently actively working in three Kyiv districts: Shevchenkivskyi, Podilskyi, Dniprovskyi. We have offices in Lviv, Dnipro, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, Kolomyia and Boryslav. Moreover, we want to continue and scale to other cities. It’s not as easy as it may seem. Because the mechanism of assistance and the internal structure of the organization is complex. First, the coordinator should be a person who shares our principles and understands why it’s all necessary, a person who is ready to join systematically.
Who are your volunteers? Did you make their typical portrait?
This is a very difficult and interesting question. I am a PR marketer and I tried to build a portrait of our volunteers several times. But they are all so different. Some students are 18 years old, and for us, it’s just wow! The younger generation is insanely cool. They are aware of and respect elderly people.
We also have those who are 45-55 years old. The volunteers, who already have their own adult children engaged in certain activities, are very active but have free time on weekdays. Quite often, they pack food kits, deliver them, come for tea parties and give masterclasses. These are office workers, IT specialists, freelancers, and mothers on maternity leave.
By the way, we have girls-volunteers who go to the elderly people with their babies in slings. One of the regular members of the administrative team and active volunteers of the fund is Yulia Tarantsova. She often visited the elderly with her young son, who slept in her sling. Some parents take their children on deliveries. Because they listen to what their parents say at home and want to go and see. These portraits are so different.
However, we have catastrophically few male volunteers. We’ve been trying to understand why for a long time. We agreed that it is harder for men. They are ready to donate money, but it is very difficult for them to experience what they have seen and heard emotionally. Our friends agreed to take us to the address, brought the packages to the floor, and then said, «I’ll wait in the car, and you deal here yourself». This is definitely a trend, and the reason lies in the emotional moment. Men do not know how and/or do not want to show their emotions.
New volunteers have a stereotype that delivery is difficult. However, this is not the case, most of these visits end positively. People then are so emotionally uplifted, so full, that they come back to us repeatedly.
Therefore, our volunteer is 16 to 55 years old. Most of them are self-sufficient women who drive cars, freelancers, with an active social position.
What are your mission and vision?
Our volunteers return from deliveries more conscious. We are trying to form a responsible attitude of the young generation of Ukrainians to their own aging and growing up. At each delivery, you meet someone who has not lost heart and loves his life.
I once came across an 85-year-old grandmother who said, “Can you imagine? The exercise machine in the territorial center broke down. I can’t go and exercise. I have to run in Babyn Yar with my friend in the morning. I have to tell them to repair the exercise machine». After such words, I was surprised and puzzled. It is good that many of our wards are not in despair. In general, such life should not exist. A person deserves harmonious and self-sufficient aging without the need to beg or count each hryvnia until the pension payment.
We do not have big plans for decades. We plan everything for the next year only. Just the other day we met with the co-founders’ team and planned how we will develop this year. We really want to scale to the regions. This is a focus on the social campaign that we are ready to implement gradually. We have faith that change will come soon. I always want to believe in the good.
What about the fund’s projects? In particular, how do you spread the ideas and practices of good neighborliness?
We can’t say that we have a single project that we are proud of. Each project affects people in its own way.
Six years ago, when we started all this, this activity was out of trend. We gradually informed our friends, colleagues, and surrounding people about why it is important to support people of respectable age. However, it took time for transformations within people.
We are now actively developing the area we call good neighborliness. We say, «Pay attention to those who live nearby». We want to simplify this chain. Because there are volunteers who go from Troyeschyna to the «Polytechnic Institute» metro station to bring something to an unknown elderly woman. At the same time, this volunteer can treat his neighbor to dinner. And just ask, «Do you need anything?»
Lonely people simply lack the usual communication and help with buying food or medicine. We have been making explanatory leaflets on how to approach a person and offer them help all this year. This year we launched another series of videos about good neighborliness, which we were helped to shoot. From these videos, it is heard, «Pay attention to your neighbor, to your own grandmother». Because the idea of good neighborliness is that we should not forget about our grandparents, call them, ask how they are doing, visit exhibitions, and cafes, share new books with them, and teach computer literacy. Because they really want to learn how to communicate with us via Skype.
Where did this idea come from? For example, I have lived in the house for three years. Only a few days ago I learned that two of our wards also live in my house. That is, we bring help through the foundation to these people. If the idea of good neighborliness permeated everyone, then perhaps there would be no need for social centers. There would be care and communication.
In addition, before the New Year, the project «Stan mojim golosom» («Become my voice») was launched. We recorded five audio stories of our wards. We made a beautiful postcard, and behind this postcard is a text and a QR code with an audio message. We sent these to the bloggers to show them that they can become the voice of our elderly men and women and draw attention to the problems of aging, and the problems of social insecurity of this generation.
What stories of lonely elderly people have made you personally rethink many life moments?
Most of these people have worked tirelessly all their lives and have 40-50 years of experience. These are teachers, researchers, and factory workers. They are ashamed. They cannot go outside and beg. When we asked them to take their photos sometimes, they said, «What if my neighbors or students will see me? They will know the conditions in which I live now».
I am ready to tell you about Zinaida Mykytivna for hours. This is an incredibly beautiful woman, professionally engaged in sports; she traveled a lot. Five years ago, when she was 93, she was a volunteer and had a hundred sports veteran wards. She had a dream to see Paris. I am struck by the desire of elderly people to enjoy life.
Once during the delivery, we met a blind elderly woman: she was thin, small, and very beautiful. When we came to her, she boasted that she sewed bed linen. I still have no idea: how she did it. Her house was very poor but clean. You are amazed at every such story: when no one blames anyone but sees joy in the little things.
When we interview the wards, we ask, «What would you advise a 30-year-old you or any 30-year-old?» They often say the same thing, «Work less. Travel more. Enjoy life more». They also talk a lot about children.
Continue the phrase «charity for you is about…» About what?
About people and cosmic energy. Our project unites an incredible number of cool, responsive Ukrainians. These people have become friends with me, who inspire me and help me get better. We are all united by a common idea, both donors and volunteers. It’s very cool. Thanks to the foundation, I met a huge number of elderly people who have wonderful stories. I listen to them, get inspired, and move on.
What is the big dream of your foundation?
We dream that our fund does not exist, that there is no need for a project like ours at all. Elderly people should not live in the conditions in which they live now.
We understand that we cannot help everyone. There are, on average, from seven hundred thousand to one million lonely retirees in Ukraine. This is a very large number. However, we want quality change and we will do everything possible to improve the quality of elderly people’s life.
We believe that happy aging in Ukraine is possible.
However, for this, each of us must think about it now, prepare, and take care of one’s health, not because it is fashionable, but because it is important. Moreover, you know, it seems to me that this is already partially working: our volunteers are returning from deliveries more conscious — they begin to think about their lives, change their attitude to many things and call their family more often.