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A zest to help: Boy’s lemonade stand aids Philly efforts for Ukraine

Estimates are that local donations of money and goods have easily surpassed $1 million. One church alone raised more than $100,000.

Yofi Knizhnik, age 9, awaits customers at his lemonade stand, which he set up outside his Cedar Park home to help raise money to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.
Yofi Knizhnik, age 9, awaits customers at his lemonade stand, which he set up outside his Cedar Park home to help raise money to support Ukraine against the Russian invasion.Read moreJeff Gammage

Yofi Knizhnik, age 9, wanted to do something to help Ukraine.

So this month he got his father to lug a folding table down the front steps of their Cedar Park home and plant it at the edge of the sidewalk. Beside the table Yofi stationed a stand-up chalkboard, adorned with two small Ukrainian flags and marked with the words Lemonade for Ukraine — $1.

Now all he needed was a warm Saturday sun to produce sweaty temperatures, and for the area’s annual community event, West Philly Porchfest, to deliver a stream of thirsty customers.

“I’m not trying to raise a million dollars,” Yofi said, settling into his seat, with a full pitcher and plastic cups at the ready, “but I’m trying to raise more than, like, $2.”

He did. At the end of the day, Yofi had collected $200. It was headed to Ukraine TrustChain, an all-volunteer nonprofit that evacuates civilians from the war zone and that his father helped start.

Just past the 100-day mark of the Russian invasion, the conflict has begun to slide off of TV screens and down the front pages of newspapers. Yet the local effort to assist embattled Ukraine remains not only vital but perhaps never stronger, evident in smaller events held in bars, restaurants, and homes — and lemonade stands — and at big fairs and galas that draw hundreds and even thousands of people.

“We cannot stop,” said Iryna Mazur, the honorary consul of Ukraine in Philadelphia. “It’s a war, and people are dying every day, and people are getting injured every day, and more and more people need our help.”

Thousands attended the Mykhailivka Stands With Ukraine Festival in Jenkintown last Saturday and Sunday. The Philadelphia Union II, an affiliate of the parent pro soccer club, played a benefit match against the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals the same weekend.

On Saturday the Bryn Mawr Film Institute was to show the first movie in a multivenue Modern Ukraine Film Series, with proceeds going to Voices of Children Ukraine, and later this month Mazur will host an elegant garden fete called Dream With Ukraine — tickets start at $75 — in Doylestown.

She estimates that local donations of money and goods easily surpass $1 million. One church raised more than $100,000 on its own.

Core support comes from the region’s Ukrainian American community, among the largest in the nation. About 15,245 Ukrainian immigrants and 54,324 people of Ukrainian ancestry live in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburban and South Jersey counties.

Community leaders say they’ve gotten strong support from people with no personal or ancestral ties to Ukraine, but must work to build and sustain that assistance as the war goes on.

“It’s been a hundred days,” said Rada Dubashinsky of Bucks County, a Ukrainian immigrant who helped organize a fund-raising South Jersey-to-Pennsylvania motorcycle run, and she worries that people without close ties “are losing interest.”

She and other Ukrainian Americans view the war as life and death for people they love.

Olha Dishchuk, of Huntingdon Valley, said her interest doesn’t depend on falling or rising media coverage. She and others get firsthand accounts.

“Everybody has relatives back there. We talk to people every day,” said Dishchuk, who volunteers with Revived Soldiers Ukraine to bring wounded troops to the United States for advanced medical treatments.

Much of the money generated here goes to large Ukrainian relief organizations that use it to buy medical supplies, food, and protective gear for soldiers. The funds help people inside and outside of Ukraine, including the 4.7 million refugees who have fled the country. Unicef estimates that two out of every three Ukrainian children have been “displaced,” meaning they were forced to leave their home or their homeland.

“The Ukrainian community, without being overly dramatic, it’s a matter of love,” said Eugene Luciw, president of the local chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America.

That affection drove one boy onto the sidewalk in front of his house, even as his father, Ilya Knizhnik, saw the nation’s slipping attention to the war.

“People are asking, ‘Is it worth it?’” he said. “‘Is it worth these higher gas prices? Is it worth these billions?’ That’s exactly what Putin is counting on.”

Knizhnik was 11 when he and his family immigrated to the United States. Days after the Russian invasion, the Penn Medicine technology manager helped create Ukraine TrustChain, which has evacuated 33,000 people and delivered hundreds of thousands of meals to those who cannot leave.

On June 17, TrustChain will be the beneficiary of a musical gala called Ukrainaissance Cabaret. With no paid staff or physical office, all donations go to help Ukrainians, the organization says.

Yofi was outside even before Porchfest began, scrawling chalk messages on the sidewalk to alert pedestrians to his lemonade stand.

Underneath his table sat a freezer bag filled with bottles of water. Those sold for $2. Yofi brought a book, Attack of the Vampire Weenies, in case his stand didn’t draw a crowd.

He needn’t have worried.

“I’ve been meaning to donate for a while,” one woman said as she stuffed cash into the glass jar on the table. “It’s great to see kids participating.”

After that, people arrived one after another.

“Oh, for Ukraine?” said Mike Ryan as he bought a cup of lemonade. “That makes it really special, to see little kids helping raise money.”

Yofi said that, for him, watching the war on television has become “unnerving.” He needed to try to help. Every dollar could make a difference for someone.

“It’s a really important thing right now,” Yofi said. “The war is not over, and we cannot wait.”