By Laurie Paolicelli
Jonathan Mills is a familiar figure in Orange County – or at the very least, his popsicles, called LunaPops, were. A business that began in two stores, one in Surf City and the other in Wilmington, eventually found itself in 3,400 of them.
He moved production to the Piedmont Food and Ag Processing Center (PFAP) in Hillsborough, a facility that makes many businesses possible by providing shared equipment he could not have afforded on his own. Jon met Seal the Seasons there, a company working with small family farmers in North Carolina to freeze their produce and take it to market. Jon worked with Seal the Seasons to scale their model of freezing local produce and selling it in the area where it is grown to regions throughout the United States.
Now Mills has turned his attention to the war in Ukraine. “I lived in Poland from 1990 – 2000,” he says, so he knew the country and his Polish was pretty good. He decided to return to Poland to see what he could do to help.
Over 10 million people have been displaced by this conflict, four million of whom have fled Ukraine to nearby countries, 2.6 million to Poland. An estimated 18 million — a third of the country’s population — will need humanitarian assistance. Mills is doing what he can to provide that.
“As I see it, there have been 3 quite diverse types of Ukrainian refugee groups that mostly came into Poland from Ukraine in different waves. Sometimes the waves overlapped depending on the home city of the refugees and at what stage the war was in relative to their city,” he says. “The third wave is happening now: people that have seen the war. They are coming into Poland with little physical baggage but the emotional trauma they have endured is heavier than anything they could be carrying.”
Mills said he felt a calling to come back to the country he knows so well and do what he could to help.
“I originally came by myself not knowing what I would do but thinking I would figure it out when I got here. My attitude was similar to the general Polish relief attitude in the beginning: just do something.”
Mills said relief efforts have become more proficient now that they are led by the Polish government, international relief agencies, and Polish nonprofits and religious organizations. “I think everyone has seen videos of individual Pols going to the border and picking up Ukrainian’s. Pols were going out buying car seats (the typical refugee family has small children in it) and heading to the border crossings to shuttle Ukrainians wherever they needed to go. Now the shelters at the borders have become de facto bus depots with buses and vans run by either government or aid organizations arriving every few minutes taking people to cities throughout Poland and now all of Europe.”
Mills himself was one of those individuals. “I’ve done anything from going to border crossings and bringing refugees back to Warsaw, to picking up dozens of bags of aid packages at the airport, to helping refugees at Warsaw Central Train Station. There are many volunteers and like so many Europeans they speak 3, 4, 5 languages. Sometimes I feel like my contribution is less effective than theirs, but I do what I can with my adequate Polish and English.”
Mills is now leading the aid effort for Beit Polska, the first new Jewish congregation in Poland since WWII which he cofounded in 1997.
“Right now, our primary effort will be to open a network of childcare centers for refugee children throughout Poland. The Polish public school system has done an incredible job enrolling all Ukrainian school age kids when they come over the border but that does not apply to younger kids and childcare. At Beit Warszawa we are trying to open a network of “pop up” childcare centers throughout Poland. Ukrainian mothers want/need to work. With proper childcare we hope to eliminate a primary impediment.”
Though few of us can do what Jon Mills has done, all of us can do something. Financial contributions are important, but Mills advises that you first take a few minutes to research the organization to which you are sending it. Together we can make a difference.
In Chapel Hill, entrepreneurs have minds that are designed to find solutions. They don’t wonder what can be done to help – they help. From the creation of a business that sells popsicles to opening up childcare centers throughout Poland, it’s the same drive, the same imagination, the same spirit. Doing well by doing good – it’s the mantra of many of our locally-owned businesses, some of whom are not really local anywhere. They’re everywhere and anywhere they can lend a hand.
Recently, ABC 11 published a list of ways to help.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.