Olga Kudinenko finally let herself believe that her dream of building a hospital for children with cancer in Ukraine could come true.
The founder of the Tabletochki Foundation, a charity devoted to supporting pediatric oncology patients in Ukraine, was bolstered by pledges of support, private and public. The Tabletochki Foundation is a long-standing partner of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude.
The Tabletochki Foundation’s recent gala had raised almost $1 million in a single evening for the first time.
And on Feb. 15, the foundation received its first commitment from a major donor of $20 million toward the $65 million project.
All growth based on strategy lessons they had learned from ALSAC and St. Jude as part of an education and training partnership built over the past five years. The focus of the partnerships is to intentionally help foundation partners grow and expand to meet the needs of pediatric cancer patients and clinics in countries worldwide.
“It was everything good in Ukraine for us,” Olga said. “It was a brighter future for kids.”
Her dream — and everything else she knew — was about to be torn apart.
During a recent visit to St. Jude admid the war in Ukraine, Olga and Svitlana Pugach, the foundation’s director of strategic partnerships, described how they continued their work under harrowing circumstances after the Feb. 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Olga was in Thailand, on vacation with her mother and daughter more than 4,600 miles away from her Kyiv home, as she watched the horror unfold on the news. Unable to return, she spent days on the phone, hardly sleeping, checking that family, staff and the 500 children a month who rely on her organization were safe.
She checked with doctors and rounded up the lights, batteries and extension cords they needed to run medical equipment in damp hospital basements where they holed up during the bombing.
She organized deliveries of food, water and medicine, and arranged transportation to get young patients and their families to safety, all from Thailand.
For the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, Svitlana said she feels safe at ALSAC and St. Jude in Memphis.
“I feel blessed every single moment since I landed in the United States,” she said. However, her family still is in Ukraine.
On the first day of the invasion, Svitlana left her Kyiv apartment with a small backpack, met up with her mother arriving from Odesa in southern Ukraine, and huddled with her family in her sister’s basement.
“It is so important like never before to be all together with the family,” Svitlana said.
Bombs destroyed most of her neighborhood, and while her apartment still stands, it is surrounded by mines. Her family stayed inside for eight days before making a precarious journey to Lutsk in northwestern Ukraine, where bombing was not as heavy.
“We have seen a lot of horror and pain. We have felt so much anger, so much hatred, so much fear,” Svitlana said, “and we have faced so much kindness, love and humanity.”
There is a saying, Svitlana said, “In even the darkest times, even the most darkest times, you can better see the stars.” Svitlana sees stars everywhere. Especially in the people who are helping.
Throughout the crisis, Olga was in nearly constant contact with ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, which advises foundations like Olga’s on business practices, including fundraising.
Since the war began, St. Jude has leaned on long-established global partnerships in the region and sought help from dozens of advanced pediatric treatment centers throughout Europe and Canada. Known as SAFER Ukraine, the humanitarian effort has assisted more than 800 patients and provided safe passage for childhood cancer patients and their families out of Ukraine.
“The mass movement of childhood cancer patients from a war zone to safety and treatment over the past two months is emblematic of what happens when we work together for the good,” said Richard Shadyac, Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. “The coordination of SAFER Ukraine, Tabletochki, ALSAC, St. Jude Global and all of our partners around the world is the very essence of humanity at its best, of unity behind purpose.”
Eight Ukrainian patients and 21 family members recently arrived at St. Jude. More could follow.
“You are doing so much,” Svitlana said. “There are no words to express our gratitude.”
Olga and Svitlana had been to ALSAC and St. Jude before for training through the St. Jude Global Alliance, and it was that visit that inspired their dreams of building the first pediatric oncology hospital in Ukraine.
Olga started the foundation almost 11 years ago, raising $1,000 to buy cancer medicine not available in Ukraine. She named the foundation “Tabletochki,” which loosely means "little pill" for the medications she first raised money to buy.
Since then, Tabletochki has grown to be the largest crowdfunding charity foundation in Ukraine supporting pediatric oncology patients and their families.
In addition, the foundation provides medicine, medical equipment and training for 21 pediatric oncology units across Ukraine, where an estimated 1,000 children a year are diagnosed with cancer.
It also supports the only palliative care program in Ukraine, where half of children diagnosed with cancer don't survive, compared to the overall childhood cancer survival rate of more than 80 percent in the U.S.
“This is what keeps us motivated and do more and do even better for kids,” Svitlana said.
Svitlana worked in risk management for Deloitte, a multinational professional services firm, and volunteered for the foundation for three years before joining full-time in 2016. She was drawn to the idea of helping by giving, particularly the way Olga explained it: “Helping is easy, and everyone can do their part. Every dollar counts.”
Charitable giving is a relatively new concept in Ukraine, which declared its independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union. In the Soviet Union, people could barely afford to take care of their own.
In Ukraine’s growing free-market economy, the foundation was growing, using strategies learned from ALSAC and St. Jude.
They were the first to introduce a click-to-donate button on their website and establish a program of monthly giving. Last year, the foundation held a radiothon for the first time, hoping to attract 200 new monthly donors; they signed up 1,300.
“Thanks to ALSAC and our fruitful partnership, more Ukrainian kids receive much more help than before,” Olga said.
Seventy percent of the foundation’s budget comes from donors, of whom 98 percent are Ukrainian. Before the invasion, donors provided an average $300,000 a month to support their efforts. That’s dropped to roughly $80,000 at a time when help is needed more than ever.
Olga and Svitlana are undaunted.
They don’t know when they can return home — and what they will find there when they do. But with the foundation’s staff and volunteers in safe places, they continue their work.
“I feel that in spite of the circumstances, in spite of all the horrors our family, our friends and all the people in Ukraine have been through, our faith grows greater and greater every day,” Svitlana said.
They know they are not alone. They are grateful for the support of donors.
“This is what keeps me going. This is what keeps my faith going. This is what keeps my strength going. This is what keeps our team going,” Svitlana said.
Olga, too, is confident despite the uncertainty.
“I don’t know how we will find resources to build this facility and to provide Ukrainian kids a better chance for a life,” Olga said.
But she imagines that the next time she meets with representatives from ALSAC and St. Jude, it will be in Ukraine’s first pediatric oncology hospital for children, the walls decorated with pictures of children who survived cancer. An inspiring vision.
For more information about the Tabletochki Foundation, visit https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/war-in-ukraine-help-children-with-cancer