Life with a mission

Rachel Vaughn forms a network of supplies to bring relief to people in Ukraine.

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Hellie Newman thought I ought to meet Rachel Vaughn, an Island chef and caterer, before she returns to Ukraine. I caught up with Rachel in Chilmark on a cold and rainy Sunday. Though sockless in her summer Crocs, she wore a World Central Kitchen (WCK) knit cap, which she kept on as we spoke. We’d never crossed paths. Rachel grew up in “the inner city of San Francisco” before moving to New York State for high school and college. She first came to the Island in 1987 in her 1963 VW Beetle, to nanny and work at Bramhall & Dunn, and then continued coming to the Island during summers to work and “save money for her school year.” After college she attended cooking school in San Francisco, then moved to the Island before heading to Bozeman, Mont., in 2004 to raise her boys. Rachel has continued to cook as a private chef, and caters in the summers.

Rachel, “pretty fly by the seat of [her] pants,” is unsure exactly when she will leave in the next couple of weeks, as she waits for the rest of the medical supplies she will bring to treat soldiers on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. Her supplies go to stabilization units around Bakhmut. After she worked with WCK for five months, she crossed the border six or seven times to support the shelters, and she “realized supplies for the soldiers at the frontlines were critical.” Despite goodwill, Rachel says, “They were getting a lot of bad supplies from people in America and around the world, people buying stuff from Amazon and sending it, but the supplies were not trustworthy.” Rachel got on WhatsApp threads “with friends of friends who were volunteering their time finding good supplies,” and last March, she delivered more than 1,500 pounds of supplies on her own. Though she admits the experience “was not easy,” she thought about doing it again.

Rachel’s relationship with Ukraine began about 10 days after the war started. “I looked at my empty nest, and knew I wanted to get into the humanitarian side of things,” Rachel says. “And this kinda dropped on my lap.”

Rachel never worked with WCK prior to the war in Ukraine. “After four or five weeks, they asked if I could stay,” she says. “I wanted to go home and get my dog, and meet my brand-new niece.” She went home, returned, and cooked with them for almost five months. The experience made Rachel feel, “Everything else seems more irrelevant. It blows up your sense of reality. What’s important versus what’s not important.” Rachel continues, “If I could cross back and forth over the borders, other people can.” I ask if she felt safe, and Rachel says, “There’s only been a few times I was nervous, and that was about driving off-road, back roads in the country; really [about] landmines. Once I made my driver turn around because I really wasn’t comfortable” at night in the dark, but this was for delivering medical supplies. Rachel explains, “World Central Kitchen is well-funded, but they need more money all the time for their projects around the world. I was seeing so many people at the train stations and on the streets that didn’t have anywhere to sleep, and that led me to try to support shelters.”

Although Rachel met David Faeder in May 2022, when they were both volunteers cooking for WCK in Przemysl, Poland, it wasn’t until July that he reached out to her and wanted to visit the shelter she had been supporting since April. They made a few subsequent trips to the shelter together. She says “he had [donations of] money, supplies, and things for the children.” David was so moved that he told her, “I’m going back to L.A., and am going to start an NGO and want you to be a founder with me.” Even though she agreed, Rachel wondered to herself, “We’ll see if that ever happens.” Sure enough, their tax I.D. number was approved by October 2022. In January 2023, on a Zoom call with Direct Effect Action Network (DEAN) board members, her partner shared they’d raised more than $150,000 overall since beginning. David’s focus has been on bringing generators to hospitals and helping install them.

On this forthcoming trip, Rachel will meet her driver in Krakow, Poland, and bring the supplies as far as Bucha, Ukraine, so they can be driven and distributed to stabilization units around Bakhmut by her “amazing friends Christopher Tiller (a former U.S. commercial pilot who went to help at the beginning of the invasion, and never stopped helping, [and even] gave up his job to stay) and NGO partner Julia Abratanska. The two of them “run their boots on the ground as NGO Renegade Relief Runners (renegaderelief.org). I work specifically with them to get the supplies to the frontline stabilization units.”

Rachel plans to deliver funds she’s still raising for a couple of different orphanages that have been growing by the week. She says, “I feel so hopeful in supporting these orphanages right around Lviv. They’re providing art, music, and psychotherapy.” At the same time, she continues collecting medical supplies in the Boston area to bring with her. Last time she was able to secure a donation of a few hundred pounds of pediatric supplies from Bozeman Health. Rachel usually buys one-way tickets, since she is not sure when she’ll be returning, though she’s definitely leaving in October. She lands in Krakow, and will meet friends who have an NGO and can offer transport to the Lviv area so she can visit the shelters her organization supports. The supplies will be taken from her drop-off points to the Bucha area, an area where Rachel was able to spend 10 days last year. She says, “I like going to Bucha because my friends are there.”

I ask Rachel if people do not have funds to give, is there anything they can do to help. Rachel admits that goods like clothing, sleeping bags, etc., are not needed, as they can be purchased in Poland and easily brought into Ukraine; however, medical supplies, even dated, can be brought, and are most welcome. Rachel is focused on critical supplies for her upcoming trip: chest seals, tourniquets, and hemostatic gauze. The way their NGO, DEAN, is set up means they can direct funds anywhere they are most needed in the world, and where they are in “dire need of support in circumstances that are really harsh through no fault of their own.”

I ask how Rachel’s 19- and 25-year-old sons feel, and she says, “They totally support what I’m doing. Sometimes I hesitate because we lost their dad in 2018, which is totally heartbreaking. I’ve always known when my boys left home, I was going to jump into the humanitarian side of things. I just want to help.” Rachel tells me, “I’ve always admired Doctors Without Borders and didn’t know how I could help them.” I wondered if Rachel had volunteered her cooking skills in this country, and she said, “When I was in cooking school in San Francisco, the founder of my school started an amazing little nonprofit called Food Runners (foodrunners.org). I would deliver food three days a week to shelters, primarily for women and children who were in hiding. I loved it.”

Rachel mentions all the people behind the scenes, whom she connected with on different WhatsApp threads, including retired doctors and nurses, current nurses, EMTs, who helped secure the medical donations she brings to Ukraine. She acknowledges that JetBlue not only paid for her to fly from Bozeman, but also covered the 250 pounds of medical supplies she needed to transport, and “​​all 1,500-plus pounds [of supplies] and my ticket from Boston to London, as well as my return ticket all the way home by way of London.”

Ukraine Relief Efforts, started by Karolina Koniec, a young Polish architect living in Bozeman, gave Rachel her first 250 pounds from Bozeman Health. Rachel flew to New York where her brother picked her up in his pickup truck with the supplies, then drove them to Chelsea to pick up more supplies from volunteers on the WhatsApp threads. From there they drove to Brookline to pick up 700 pounds of donated medical supplies. As Rachel stayed in Brookline with friends, waiting to hear when JetBlue could fly her out, she says, “More supplies just kept showing up on the front porch. I had to repack everything into uniform bags.” A Boston chef and restaurateur she met while working with WCK in Przemysl, near the border with Ukraine, Steve (“Nookie”) Postal, donated space for her to repack all the supplies, and drove her to the airport with the 1,500 pounds she brought on that last trip. Rachel also mentioned she was hosted by Island seasonal residents Robert Brauns and Valerie Ball for a few weeks while everything was falling into place, and that they gave a donation as well.

At this moment, Rachel says, “I’m trying to stay uber-focused on distributing funding to these orphanages, as well as funding donated and designated for soldiers.” She hopes “to work for World Central Kitchen again on a different activation.”

Learn more about her first World Central Kitchen experience at bit.ly/evworldkitchen. Rebekkah from Virginia receives the supplies Rachel Vaughn secures and transports to Poland. Listen to what she has to say, and donate to people with their boots on the ground who will deliver the supplies (bit.ly/YT_WhyUkraine). Learn more about Direct Effect Action Network at directeffect.org.

 

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