Michael Schmitz volunteering in Poland to aid in Ukraine relief effort


Michael Schmitz (front row, second from right) is shown with Polish volunteers.

Bill Motchan, Special For The Jewish Light

As college classes wound down last spring, Michael Schmitz started looking for a summer internship. With no prospects on the horizon, he found a much different college break experience: volunteering in Poland for Ukraine relief efforts.

Schmitz, 21, grew up attending Congregation B’nai Amoona. He attends the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Watching the news, he was horrified by the reports coming out of Eastern Europe.

“When I first heard about the war in Ukraine, I thought ‘Oh, my goodness, what does this mean for America in the future?’” Schmitz said. “It’s a very scary thought, and you can just rewrite those borders if you want, if you have an army, and if you’re Vladimir Putin. I study international politics and history, so I was very tuned in to the conflict in Ukraine. It was just absolutely flabbergasting, especially being in Europe.

College student Michael Schmitz  who grew up in St  Louis  has been volunteering in Poland this summer

“I was talking about it with my parents and they knew I was very interested in Ukraine, and they brought up an article in the ‘Jewish Light’ about Gene Litvin. My dad found Gene’s contact information and I sent him a message saying, ‘I would love to volunteer and get involved.’ It’s just a single flight for me to get to Poland from Scotland. And Gene connected me with a woman named Martha Matecka. She runs the organization I’m working for now.”

Litvin was featured in a March story in the Light that described his efforts to support Ukraine—his homeland. He speaks Ukrainian, Russian, English and some Polish and has a network of connections in Poland, so he was able to direct Schmitz on how to get involved.

“I was talking to Marta and I asked, ‘Are you interested in some help?’” Litvin said. “Michael was willing to do anything. And she said, ‘We absolutely would welcome any help. And as long as they’re recommended by you and they’re vetted by you, that’s all they need.’”

Litvin gave Schmitz his seal of approval and on July 6, off he went to Warsaw. On Aug. 20, he returned to Scotland and his junior year of college. His unique summer internship largely involved working on logistics, scheduling delivery convoys of durable goods to Ukraine.

The organization Schmitz has volunteered for run by Matecka is known as Be A Hero UA Foundation. The foundation generates donations and uses the funds to purchase medicine and protective equipment for Ukrainians.

“Week to week, it changes on what we need at that moment,” Schmitz said. “On Fridays, we’re always delivering. That’s when we pack the convoys. Typically, we have really great Polish volunteers who are willing to drive to Lviv or Kyiv. And on Fridays, I’ll be working in the warehouse, organizing all our delivery items, labeling everything, making sure that we have everything we said we’re going to deliver. And so I probably get out of work every Friday at like 2 in the morning on Saturday.

“Every day is a little bit different,” he said. Right now, I’m working on a fundraiser and trying to build up our social media presence. I’ve been trying to contact media. I had to figure out how to create a fundraising page, create an Amazon account for our organization. But last week, we got our hands on an 8,000-liter donation of ice cream. Some big company had this ice cream that they couldn’t distribute. They were going to give it to a charity, and it fell into our lap, and we couldn’t really get it to Ukraine.

“So last week, I was working on building a route so we could visit all these foster homes and refugee centers and we can maximize our time. How many liters of ice cream are we giving to who? And then there was two days of going around Warsaw, delivering it by hand and interacting with refugees.”

Gene Litvin has spent much of his time in 2022 arranging delivery of goods to Ukraine, through Poland, including a trip he took with suitcases stuffed with personal care products. But Michael Schmitz posed a new opportunity for Litvin. This is the first time he was responsible for mobilizing a volunteer to take part in the humanitarian efforts and fly to Warsaw.

“I knew my mission was not over when I got back from Poland, so it keeps expanding,” Litvin said. “I talked to Michael and he sounded like he was an incredible guy. And then knowing his family from our congregation, that definitely made me much more comfortable to recommend him.

“I talked to Martha Matecka, and she could not speak highly enough about Michael. Most of our time, we talk business, but she talked to me for an hour about him, how much he helped her, how much he was able to communicate with different people, get things going, coordinate things. He is helping in so many ways.”