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‘Every little bit counts’: Lebanon graduate, former Peace Corps volunteer, raises funds for Ukraine

By Jennifer Moody

For Lebanon Local

Dane Steeves is keenly aware the war in Ukraine is hardly the only humanitarian crisis facing the world right now. It might not even be the worst.

However, it happens to be where his heart is, and where some of the people he loves most are struggling to survive the largest ground invasion in Europe since World War II.

He’s doing what he can to help, including organizing a benefit dinner this Saturday, April 2, in his current home city of Washington, D.C. He also stands ready to make connections with anyone who wants to join him, whether that’s to an individual, an organization or a group project.

“Every little bit counts,” he said, “and this is my whole world right now.”

Steeves, a 2010 graduate of Lebanon High School who now works for the U.S. Department of Commerce, spent two years in Ukraine in the Peace Corps.

The wife and children of his Peace Corps partner – including a 2-year-old girl to whom Steeves is godfather – are currently refugees in Poland. The partner stayed in Ukraine to fight.

His host mother and sister have evacuated to an area considered, for now, to be a safer part of Ukraine. They had lost contact with his host father, who stayed behind. The village has been destroyed.

People Steeves hasn’t talked to in years are now hitting him up as an expert: What’s going on in Ukraine? What’s going to happen with Russia?

He doesn’t know, and says so. He’s just a guy who lived there and loves the people and is doing what he can to help.

“I recognize my role in this,” he said. “I really make it real for some people because of how real it is to me.”

Ukraine never used to be real to Steeves. Growing up in Lebanon, he doesn’t remember ever hearing about the country. He doubts he could have found it on a map. He figures plenty of other residents couldn’t either, even now.

Initially, he had no intention of learning any more about it, or about the rest of the world. After graduation, he was more interested in continuing running track and field events, which is why he enrolled at Lane Community College in Eugene. He later transferred to the University of Oregon to finish a degree in economics.

That’s where the Peace Corps comes in, although how that connection was made is hard to explain, Steeves said. In a Zoom interview from his home in D.C. on March 22, his 30th birthday, he recounted the steps.

“It’s really a silly story that people don’t believe, because it sounds like a book, or like a tale or something,” Steeves said.

He was taking a course called “Developing Economies” that explored efforts in rural Asia and impoverished areas of Latin America. During his night bartending job, he got to talking about the class with some of the patrons.

“Literally, one of the patrons says, ‘You should totally think about joining the Peace Corps, doing international volunteering,’” Steeves recalled. “I had never even considered it. I was 21, 22 years old. I’d never thought of that as a realistic option.”

Steeves decided to apply. To his surprise, he got an interview, and then a few months later, a letter of welcome.

“I didn’t really say where I wanted to go,” he said. “I figured anywhere. Anything.”

Ukraine, the Peace Corps said. Community development work. Steeves accepted.

“That was the craziest thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “And the best thing.”

Steeves arrived in a village called Kyinka – very close to the Russian border – in 2016 for three months of language training before his post placement. He lived there with a host family: parents and a sister, whom he called Mama Tamara, Grisha and Lena. (Steeves asked to withhold surnames for safety reasons.)

The family couldn’t speak a word of English, and Steeves was just starting his language lessons.

“It was totally crazy, a lot of me pointing to a fork and them explaining how to say ‘fork,’ and then me pointing to a plate,” he said. “You pick it up pretty quickly because you don’t have much choice.”

In the three months Steeves lived with them, he said, he felt he became part of their family – so much so that even after his posting in the city of Bar, every holiday or special occasion, he’d spend a full day traveling the nearly 300 miles back to see them.

By the standards of Western countries, the family had very little. Bringing home ice cream from the store was cause for a celebration, he said. Yet their only concerns seemed to be about him as their guest: about how much he ate, whether he was taking care of himself, whether he was cold, whether he was safe.

Steeves remembers Mama Tamara talking matter-of-factly about how her savings had gone down from depreciation, changes in currency and general instability.

“She genuinely seemed completely unfazed,” he said. “‘I have my greenhouse, my cast iron pan that my grandma gave me.’ It was a total perspective change for a little 23-year-old who didn’t know anything.”

After the language training, the Peace Corps sent Steeves to Bar, population about 15,000. He found that funny: a bartender sent to tend Bar.

He’d expected to be linked with an agency, a board of directors or at least some sort of formal office.

Instead, he said, “It was just a guy. It was literally a guy who wanted to be active, so he opened an organization. It was really a means for him to be active in his community and be official about it. He applied for a volunteer and the Peace Corps matched us.

“Now,” he went on, “that guy’s my best friend and his daughter his my goddaughter.”

Steeves and the “guy” – Roman – worked on several community development projects together, funding them through grants when they could successfully apply. Their big project was setting up a recycling program, something Steeves was particularly passionate about.

Bottled water is ubiquitous in Ukraine, so Steeves and his partner set out to recycle all the used containers. They placed recycling bins at the four schools in Bar, then held training sessions with all the students on the importance of recycling and how to use the bins. On weekends, Steeves and Roman would sort the gathered plastics.

It worked. Businesses started asking for recycling containers, too. So did people in neighboring communities. On Steeves’ last trip back to Ukraine in September 2021, he saw dozens of containers all over the city.

By 2018, Steeves was back in the United States, trying to adjust to Western rhythms of life and to the new person he had become: someone with direction, purpose and the knowledge he had marketable skills and experience. It took him about a year.

In 2019 he got a job with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Based in Washington, D.C., he is now an international program specialist working in eastern Europe. Specifically, he puts together international development conferences for Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.

Steeves stressed his work to help friends in Ukraine is completely separate from his job and should not be considered a reflection in any way on policies or beliefs of the Department of Commerce or any other governmental organization.

Even with access to embassies and other international positions, Steeves didn’t hear much about Russia’s pending invasion.

“There wasn’t a lot of panic or buildup. Most people that I was speaking with did not believe this was going to happen,” he remembered.

When the invasion became reality, Steeves organized a fundraiser with another American Peace Corps volunteer, Nellie Petlick, who took a post in Bar six months after he did. The two immediately began working on a Facebook fundraiser, initially planning to purchase food, clothing, diapers, sleeping bags, boots, pet food and other humanitarian aid.

A separate Peace Corps colleague connected Steeves and Petlick with a contact in Germany who already was leading a convoy of those same supplies to the Polish border, but didn’t have a destination.

“We connected with them and helped pay for fuel and toll costs,” Steeves said. “Working with the Polish organization, we were able to get the stuff transferred to a warehouse in Ukraine and then delivered to Bar.”

Fuel is one of the biggest needs right now, to move supplies and people around the country, he said. In addition to the convoy fuel, donated funds were used to purchase fuel for other humanitarian aid and transfer needs, as well as to buy walkie-talkies, binoculars and night vision goggles for the war effort.

The fundraiser has been closed but still has a balance of about $6,000, which Steeves said he is working to get where it’s most needed, “balancing what our people in the community tell us they need versus what is most cost-effective or plausible.”

Another convey from the German contact is set to leave this weekend. Petlick, a graduate student at Yale, spent spring break on the Polish border, facilitating the aid distribution.

“We’re constantly looking for effective, reliable ways to spend the money in the ways we told donors we would,” Steeves said.

Steeves said he knows of a multitude of options for people who want to help. As the war continues, he said he would like to work with potential donors directly who want to get funds to people in need. He acknowledged some donors might be more willing to work through a group than an unknown individual, and said he also can recommend organizations.

“If (donors) want to support the Ukraine military, if they want to help refugees in Poland, if they want to donate to the fund that’s going to get my host mom and host sister safely out of Ukraine, I’m ready to facilitate that,” he said. “I would encourage people just to contact me.”

He also said he understands if people struggle with giving to help for one war but not another.

“I want to be very clear,” he said. “People caring about or donating time or money to this crisis in Ukraine should not and does not take away from what the people in Syria, or Yemen, or anywhere else on earth have been experiencing and would continue to be experiencing that are not receiving the same amount of media attention.”

At the same time, he added, “I don’t think we need to be saying, ‘Not Ukraine but Syria, not Ukraine, but (whomever). It needs to be inclusive.”

Wars don’t discriminate in terms of who is hurt, something Steeves said he feels we all should keep in mind.

“The only reason it’s not happening to you, and it is happening to them, is luck. You were lucky enough to be born where you were,” he said. “This goes for every refugee out there.”

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How to Help Dane Steeves’ Ukraine Relief Efforts

Dane Steeves is organizing a benefit dinner Saturday, April 2, in Washington, D.C., in hopes of raising $10,000 to purchase first aid kits for communities in need. People can donate the cost of tickets or can make direct donations to the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine at https://www.allianceforukraine.org/cpages/home .

 

Steeves also suggests donating to:

 

He also welcomes contact through his personal email, [email protected], for direct donations through people and organizations he is helping to support.

Photo courtesy of Dane Steeves
Dane Steeves and goddaughter Solomiya, 2021 Solomiya and her mother are safe in Poland for the moment while her father, Roman, is fighting in Ukraine.

Photo courtesy of Dane Steeves
Dane Steeves, right, and Peace Corps partner Roman sort plastics for recycling in Bar, Ukraine.