PORT READING, NJ – A blue dot on a box means non-perishable food, ready to ship. A red dot means first aid items for hospitals that are still standing. A green dot means supplies for Ukrainians taking up arms: boots and knee pads, socks and gloves, thermal underwear, and camouflage-patterned clothing.
And in this cavernous warehouse, at the back of an industrial park in downtown New Jersey, there are green dots everywhere — emerald signals that Ukrainian Americans stand behind Ukrainian citizens defending their homeland with their lives.
Just three weeks ago, the warehouse was buzzing with the operations of Most America Inc., a freight delivery service that specializes in shipping goods to Ukraine and other Eastern European countries, including Russia. Most is Ukrainian for bridge.
But on February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine, the homeland of most of Most America’s 108 workers, and things nearly came to a halt. The company could not ship to Ukraine and in good faith could not continue to ship to Russia and Belarus.
“When we saw the images of the bombing, it was an easy decision,” said Natalia Brandafi, the company’s chief operating officer.
Overnight, the New Jersey warehouse became a Ukrainian outpost. The lobby was decorated with a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag and the telephone system was modified to play the Ukrainian national anthem for callers on hold. The whole business model has changed into one goal:
As raw images and reports of the war’s life-destroying toll circulated online, Ukrainian-American organizations begged for donations to help the wounded and displaced. But they also sought help for those who set aside pens and shovels to pick up weapons. According to the organizers, the response was overwhelming.
Glimpses into the modest basement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Assumption in Maplewood, where the wintry backdrop of the Christmas procession still graces the small stage. Boxes of donated items covered the tile floor, and handwritten signs of organization — “diapers + baby care” — were pasted onto the wood panels.
But the desired “priority items” listed on a church bulletin more directly reflected the carnage of war. Abdominal Bandages. Burn dressing with water gel. IV starter packs. Emergency compression dressings to prevent bleeding from hemorrhagic wounds.
On Wednesday afternoon, Dan and Lynne Gulak, married retirees and Church members who had volunteered since the war broke out, were taping and tagging boxes in the basement when the phone rang. It was the Maplewood Fire Department.
Mr. Gulak listened to the caller, said words could not express his thanks, hung up – and lost his cool for a moment. He took off his glasses to wipe his eyes with a handkerchief and explained in a trembling voice that the ward would be releasing several dozen boxes of medical supplies. It had also collected $5,000 in donations and more money came in.
As he spoke, the red of Locomotive 32 and the white of a pickup truck, both loaded with boxes, flashed past the high basement window. A fire officer called to say the delivery was here.
“Get up,” said Mr. Gulak, in a voice that broke again.
Many donations, such as those for the church in Maplewood, are transported to the vast Most America warehouse, where one corner of the 92,000-square-foot space showed evidence of the company’s discontinued operations. Row after row were thousands of packages whose delivery to Eastern Europe had been halted by war: books, clothing and household goods, many in boxes from Amazon and Target and Walmart.
Among them was a box of hedge trimmers, evoking hopes of peaceful gardening in the Ukrainian spring.
Deeper in the building, the workers of Most America, overshadowed by towers of boxed donations, had stayed hours after their day shifts to join the volunteers who unpack, examine, sort, and repack the incoming materials.
Lesya Tenderyak, who works in accounts payable, paused to explain why she was sorting and packing seven days a week. She said she is from Chervonohrad, in western Ukraine. She said she has family there. She said she would take up arms if she could.
“I fight this way,” Mrs. Tenderyak said.
No music while people work; no chatter. Just the chirping of forklifts, the rattle of pallet lifts, the banging of box upon box.
Some donations that come in, items that often require special paperwork for shipping, help set the mood for seriousness: civilian drones, satellite phones, walkie-talkies.
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To the ground. Russian forces, battered by local resistance, have stepped up their bombardment over Ukraine, targeting locations far from the front lines. Satellite images of a convoy north of Kiev suggest Russia is repositioning its forces for another attack there.
The gloom deepened a few days ago when a volunteer received a cell phone call. News from the city of Sumy in northeastern Ukraine: her cousin, who had joined a civilian defense unit, had been killed.
“She collapsed in her chair crying,” Ms. Brandafi said of the volunteer, whom she has known for years. “And she kept crying.”
Such scenes have taken place as some Russian customers called to berate and complain, leading to raised voices at the reception. “They are yelling at our workers and blaming the Ukrainians for the war,” she said.
Ms. Brandafi, 51, radiated exhaustion as she sat in her warehouse office late Wednesday afternoon. On a table, her tomato soup lunch was getting cold in the unopened bag. On the wall, a painting of a moonlit street evoked the tranquility of the small town.
It often seemed as if the days of routine phone calls were over. At one point, a Boston tech investor called to donate $70,000 for shipping; the next, an old customer in eastern Ukraine cried in panic.
“Heartbreaking,” said Mrs. Brandafi.
She only cries after leaving the office at 10, driving the half hour home, and sitting down to watch the latest news from her home country. Then she can cry. But not at work; there is no time.
Last week, she said, 120 tons of stock in the warehouse were flown to Western Europe and driven to Ukraine by the company’s trucks. And with more donations every day, the company is working with several non-profit organizations — including Razom, NovaUkraine, and Revived Soldiers Ukraine — to ship as much as possible as quickly as possible.
“It can be overwhelming,” Mrs. Brandafi acknowledged, her phone ringing and her cold soup untouched.
But that street scene painting on her wall is from Rohatyn, her hometown in western Ukraine, which helps explain why on the other side of that wall, another truck drove into a bay, and more dots – blue, red, and green — were applied to packaged bundles.
“These are the streets we used to walk on,” she said.