‘MORE BLESSED TO GIVE’: Hancock County woman helps Ukrainian refugees in Poland


CUMBERLAND – Janet Smith, who has maintained strong ties to Poland for over 30 years, had planned to return to the country this year with a group of fellow worshippers to celebrate 100 years of the Polish Christian Church.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine, sending a flood of refugees into Poland.

Seeing that their Polish friends were plenty occupied, the group considered calling off the trip, until instead answering a call to help.

Smith recently returned from her journey, where she spent two weeks helping arrange accommodations for Ukrainian refugees, giving them encouragement and making friends.

Her husband, Bill Smith, is a former minister at Cumberland Christian Church and former board member of Polish Christian Ministries. The couple first went to Poland in 1989 and returned in 1993, and they have supported ministry there over the years.

Polish Christian Ministries had planned to bring a group from the U.S. to Poland to celebrate a century of the Polish Christian Church before Russia invaded Ukraine. The organization then coordinated three teams made up of dozens of participants to travel to Poland for two weeks each over a six-week period.

Smith was part of a group that served from May 31 to June 15. Her husband was unable to join because of health reasons. She and two women from Brownstown, Indiana volunteered at Ostróda Christian Camp, which Smith had visited on her previous two visits to Poland and is located about a three-and-a-half-hour drive northwest of Warsaw.

Before they arrived, the camp hosted about 200 refugees, Smith said.

“They had them living in the chapel, they had them living in the meeting rooms, they had them living everywhere – and the cabins, of course, where the kids camp normally,” she said.

When she and her cohorts arrived, that total had dropped to about 100 due to many of the refugees returning to Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe or the U.S.

The majority of refugees were women and children, as most men remained in Ukraine to fight the Russians. Some fathers were allowed to leave if their families had more than four children, however.

Smith said one of the group’s goals was to develop relationships with the Ukrainians, talk to them about God and encourage them.

Their other task was to help prepare the refugees’ new living accommodations. With the camp’s season coming up in July, the Ukrainian visitors needed to be moved out of the camp facilities and into portable living quarters brought onto the property. Smith and others helped clean those structures and put furniture together for them.

The volunteers often visited with the refugees too. Smith said they did crafts and she played Uno with the younger children. She taught the teenagers and some of the women pickleball.

“There were enough teenagers that knew English that I could get one of them to translate the instructions to the rest of them in Ukrainian,” Smith said.

There was another effective means of communication as well.

“If it wasn’t for Google Translate, I would not have been able to talk to them,” she said. “It’s wonderful.”

She continues to use it to translate messages she receives from a Ukrainian friend she made from the experience with whom she keeps in touch.

Smith also raised funds before heading to Poland, which she used to buy dolls for the Ukrainian girls, beach toys for kids to play with on the camp’s lake and watches for the women. She also arranged for special meals, gave money for a new washer and dryer for the camp and bought manicures for all the women as well.

“That’s the kind of thing that I did, to kind of give them just some joy, and some entertainment, something to do,” she said.

She gave a Ukrainian woman, named Luda, a prayer shawl. The prayer that came with it was written in English, so Luda had to bring it to her daughter to translate.

“She came back to me the next day and just threw her arms around me and just cried, she was just so thankful,” Smith said.

Luda gave Smith a paper with her 2-year-old son’s hand prints in blue and yellow paint – the same colors that make up the Ukrainian flag – along with a note from him written in English by his older sister thanking Smith. One of her young fellow Uno players gave her a handmade painting as well.

“These are things that I brought back that just are very special,” she said.

Smith also brought back something that doesn’t fit in a suitcase.

“It’s just such a blessing to be able to help people,” she said before quoting Acts 20:35, “‘It’s more blessed to give than to receive’ is true. And I took away from it appreciation for the fact that I live in a free country, and I hope it stays that way, because these people, they know what it’s like to live under oppressive governments, and they are strong for their freedom, and they will not give up.”