On a cold and snowy evening late last year, just before Christmas, Steve Rand ’62 and his partner Susan Mathison P’07 found themselves in a convoy of 30 trucks heading deep into the war-torn Ukrainian countryside.
But they weren’t alone. They were joined by another Holderness parent, Lisa Mure P’14 ’17 and her partner Alex Ray, the owner and founder of The Common Man Family of Restaurants. Together, the New Hampshire friends had started Common Man for Ukraine, a relief organization that had raised more than $2.5 million in its first year to provide Ukrainian children with 750 tons of food, 10,000 sleeping bags, a bloodmobile, counseling, and other necessities.
It was the group’s third trip to Ukraine that year, and on that night they were part of a convoy delivering 18 tons of food to 21 orphanages and safe houses near the city of Lviv. With a snowstorm bearing down and the country’s power grid crippled by Russian bombing, it was slow work finding the children, who were hidden in unmarked buildings scattered across the dark countryside. After getting stuck in the snow and receiving help from local villagers, the four friends finally reached their destination – an old, darkened monastery. Bearing duffel bags filled with Christmas gifts, they opened the monastery door to find 130 children in a cold, dark dining hall eating a meager dinner: half of a cold potato, half a piece of bread, and half a banana per child.
“We came in, stomping the snow off our boots and we had dragged these duffel bags of gifts through the snow,” Lisa says.
“The kids were eating and I’m sure they were thinking ‘Who are you?’”
Talk to Susan Mathison, and she’ll tell you exactly who they are: a group of friends from Plymouth, New Hampshire who were stunned by the war in Ukraine and wanted to do something – anything - to help. “We wanted to help but we were just four people in the middle of New Hampshire,” Susan recalls. “What could we possibly do?”
They could do a heck of a lot, as it turns out. Viewed as a group, the four friends amount to a Dream Team of boots-on-the-ground philanthropy. Steve, the owner of Rand’s Hardware in downtown Plymouth, is a former state legislator and a Rotarian active in his community; Susan, a former forester with the U.S. Forest Service, is President of Pemi-Valley Habitat for Humanity; and Lisa is a public health consultant who works regionally and nationally to improve behavioral health care. And their other friend, Alex, just so happened to be a household name in New Hampshire. Alex Ray is the restauranter who built The Common Man, a hugely successful family of 16 restaurants and five roadside eateries scattered across the Granite State. He has also volunteered time and money to relief organizations like World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that serves chef-prepared meals to communities impacted by natural disasters. In recent years, he’s traveled to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and Haiti and Honduras in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake.
After discussing the situation in Ukraine with his friends, Alex made a fateful proposal. “He said ‘I think we should go to Ukraine and see what they need and how we can help. Then we’ll come home to raise money to do those things,’” Susan says.
Oh, and there was one more thing: if the group managed to raise $1 million, Alex said, he would match it with $1 million of his own money.
Wasting no time, Steve and Alex - both Rotarians - called the former district president of Rotary International in Poland and asked how they could help. Inundated with Ukrainian refugees during those early months of the war, the Polish Rotary clubs welcomed their New Hampshire counterparts with open arms. That’s how, in April of 2022, the four friends made their first visit to Poland and Western Ukraine, where they spent several days talking to local Rotarians about their most pressing needs. Faced with air raid sirens, military checkpoints, and numerous worthy projects, the group ultimately decided to focus their efforts on helping Ukrainian children.
“When you think of humanitarian aid, the spectrum of aid can be very wide, and we wanted to do one thing well,” Susan says. “So we picked a lane, and the lane we picked was orphans and internally displaced children in Ukraine.” It was a decision that would prove prescient. A recent report by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab alleges that Russia forcibly removed at least 6,000 Ukrainian children to Russian “re-education” camps in the first year of the war. In March of 2023, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin for overseeing the mass abduction of Ukrainian children.
When the four friends returned to New Hampshire in the spring of 2022, they began fundraising in earnest. With help from former New Hampshire Governor John Lynch, iHeart Radio, and WMUR, the group spread their message far and wide. Ultimately, Common Man for Ukraine raised more than $2.5 million from more than 3,500 people across New Hampshire – money that was sent directly to Rotary groups in Poland and Ukraine, which purchased and delivered supplies directly to Ukrainian children. It’s a charitable model that bypasses the shipping costs and overhead that often burden international philanthropic efforts. “Working with Rotarians in Poland is the absolute essential part of our program because they give us somebody that we can trust,” Steve says. “They give us somebody that’s on the ground, who knows what’s going on. They give us their best ideas and we work together with them.”
It's also a model that requires the full participation of Susan, Steve, Alex, and Lisa: by the summer of 2023, they will have made five trips to Ukraine. But why travel so far, and at such risk? “We go to cement and reinforce our relationships with the people on the ground that are delivering the aid,” Susan says. “We want to eat with them, we want to travel with them. We cry with them at some of these safehouses – it’s an emotional experience to see these kids who have traveled two or three days alone on a train to safety in western Ukraine.”
Few experiences could be more emotional than that snowy night last December when the four friends from New Hampshire entered that cold, dark monastery in Ukraine. The surprised children, bundled up in the damp, 40-degree chill of the monastery, looked up from their rations and started to engage with the Americans, who had begun singing Christmas carols and handing out warm jackets and hats, books, toys, and solar lanterns. A few kids raced to hug Alex’s legs, some began practicing their English with the Americans, and eventually the children began singing Ukrainian Christmas carols and patriotic songs. It was a special evening. “It’s one thing to give necessities like food, but it’s another thing to bring a little joy,” Lisa says. “It’s not so much that we’re bringing food and warmth and services – it’s that somebody cares, and those kids felt it when we showed up.”
Thanks to that pre-Christmas supply run, the children in that monastery outside of Lviv were left with new sleeping bags, generators, and two pallets of food – enough sustenance for 40 days. But with the war in Ukraine dragging on and no end in sight to the hostilities, it’s clear that Common Man for Ukraine’s work is far from finished. This winter, the organization said it would seek to raise $10 million in a fundraising campaign that would reach far beyond New Hampshire. For Steve Rand, it’s a mission that he’s proud to take on – and one that harkens back to his days at Holderness School.
“I remember Pro Deo et Genere Humano,” Steve says, referencing the school’s motto, ‘For God and Humankind.’
“We’re all kind of in the humankind business. Where we get our biggest sense of accomplishment is in helping other people, and it’s something that was part of the Holdereness ethic, and I’m sure I absorbed some of it along the way.”
To make a donation to Common Man for Ukraine, visit Commonmanforukraine.org.