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Ben Dusing, John Gardner return to Ukraine to continue humanitarian work in war-torn Kherson

Staff report

Ben Dusing and John Gardner have returned to Kherson, Ukraine, and the non-governmental nonprofit they founded there, World Aid Runners, Inc., after an extended break at home in Northern Kentucky.

Local volunteers with Ben Dusing and John Gardner (Photo provided)

Their organization, founded by Dusing and William J. Waggoner, an attorney in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the only foreign humanitarian organization in Kherson, a once thriving regional economic center now under constant fire by nearby Russian forces. Kherson is a port city on the Black Sea and Dnieper River.

The local duo have been playing a major “frontline humanitarian” role on the ground there for over a year now. They are volunteers serving populations in the conflict zones, the areas where assistance is needed most but resources are scarcest. It has fallen to humanitarian volunteers from all over the world, like Dusing and Gardner, to step into a void left by large international organizations in conflict zones.

Their organization, World Aid Runners, is the only brick-and-mortar presence in the downtown/riverbank area of Kherson, serving the most vulnerable of the largest collection of civilians living on the front lines anywhere in Ukraine.

Dusing helping deliver supplies to local citizens. (Photo by John Gardner)

On account of constant shelling, the city’s pre-war population of 300,000 has been reduced to 35,000.

“It obviously makes a difference, being able to speak Russian,” says Dusing, who became proficient in the language studying it in college, at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., during which time he lived and studied in St. Petersburg, Russia (in 1995). After graduating from Georgetown but before attending law school at the University of Kentucky, Dusing took a “gap year” to live and work in Moscow, Russia, in 1997.

World Aid Runners is a registered non-profit here in the United States. Dusing met his co-founder, Waggoner, on his first trip abroad nearly two years ago to help the refugees at the Polish-Ukrainian border. While Dusing says he “followed a voice in his heart and his head” in going to the border to assist and admits he could never have foreseen what the trip would lead to. He says that his continued involvement became a matter of moral duty and obligation at some point.

“If people like myself in a position to assist don’t do so, then the people of Ukraine wouldn’t receive humanitarian assistance. It seemed more and more like something I have to do, not just something I should do.”

Gardner sees it the same way.

“There just aren’t many people over there – if anyone – that have Ben’s skill set, background, experience, and language ability. That really doesn’t exist over there. And I’ve been riding sidesaddle. So, its’s not that surprising that we’ve been right in the middle of things,” he says. “We both have learned a lot since we’ve been on the ground. We have a unique skill set, rare equipment, and a rare network. So it’s only right that we are there doing what we’re doing, insane as it seems at times. It’s the right thing to do. The people we serve are the neediest of the neediest.”

Delivering aid in Ukraine. (Photo provided)

World Aid Runners now has a full-time dedicated team comprised of several locals, an elite fleet of humanitarian vehicles (including two ambulances), and a brick-and-mortar office resident in the heart of the community, just over a kilometer from the front.

Among other things, the organization operates what it calls its “Free Store at the Front” – a place where locals can come to get the things they need for free – bare essentials like basic foodstuffs, hygiene products, medicines, and warm clothes. These items are donated by international and domestic organizations all over Ukraine, operated by key contacts that are part of a vast network. Several of these contacts are folks Dusing originally met on his initial trips to the borders who are runinng organizations helping in other parts of Ukraine.

“The thing I love most about the ‘Free Store at the Front’ is that it represents a team effort by humanity to serve literally the neediest of the needy, in the most dangerous place of the most dangerous place,” Dusing says.

Local team member Kristina Cynia, 23, says that the presence of Dusing and Gardner in the local community and the aid provided to the locals through the Free Store has made an enormous difference for her people, especially the local residents – like her – living closest to the front.

“It means everything to my people that Ben and John are here with us,” she says. “They’ve become ‘our Americans,’ as we call them, and part of our community. Kherson is very dangerous, and people are killed here every day.

“The shelling is virtually constant. The fact that a couple of ordinary Americans are willing to come here and risk their life to help us gives us hope that the world hasn’t forgotten about us, that the world still cares.”

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