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Sebastopol dad headed to Poland to aid Ukrainian refugee families with autistic children

Sheldon Rosenberg’s mission is focused on the needs of Ukrainian families with autistic children or parents.|

As always happens in the days before he leaves for another part of the world, Sheldon Rosenberg says his head is in two places at once: home and, this time, Poland and its border with Ukraine.

A Sebastopol builder, farmer and “house dad” to two adored kids, he’s trying to organize life at home for the two weeks he’ll be away before departing Sunday for Eastern Europe and the desperate need awaiting there.

He’s also transitioning mentally, bracing for the chaos and distress ahead amid brutal war and an escalating refugee crisis, and his phone is alight already with messages about towns being shelled and families that need extraction.

His mission is focused on the specific needs of Ukrainian families with autistic children or parents.

Hooked up with a new nonprofit and an international online network of autistic families that reaches right into Ukraine and Russian-occupied areas, the U.S. Navy vet will be helping to drive refugees whose needs prevent them from handling crowded spaces and public transportation from the border to other places inside Poland for relocation.

Rosenberg also will be procuring bulk foods for distribution to those who have gluten- or dairy-free diets, as is common in the autistic community. And he’ll be acquiring and delivering equipment that meets the sensory needs of those on the spectrum, like noise-canceling headphones and fidgets.

It’s not entirely unfamiliar ground. After repeated journeys to Greece beginning in 2015 to aid Syrians fleeing their war-torn country, Rosenberg, 48, helped out in Houston after Hurricane Harvey thrashed the region in 2017 and traveled to Bangladesh the following year to work with Rohingya fleeing genocide in Myanmar.

He’s also been back and forth from the Mexican border with the Schoolbox Project, a locally based nonprofit dedicated to children in refugee camps and crisis situations. Rosenberg also went to Bangladesh with the organization, for which he is logistics coordinator. The group is providing some support for his trip to Poland, as well.

A history of action

Rosenberg has not been to the region before, and his network of humanitarian assistance contacts extends elsewhere, so it’s new territory. And he’s going alone.

“I’m a little bit flying blind,” he said.

But he kind of can’t help himself.

Maybe it’s because his parents always tried to help other people, like those who held signs saying “will for food.”

“My dad would bring them home, put them to work, give them clothes and food,” Rosenberg said.

Maybe it’s because four years in the Navy made him comfortable going “places other people wouldn’t go,” like Mogadishu after an American Black Hawk was shot down in the streets in 1993.

But once he saw the haunting image of 2-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee child found washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015, he knew sitting out while others suffered was no longer an option.

“And then once you come to that conclusion — ‘We can do this if we want to’ — well, what does it say if you don’t want to, right?” Rosenberg said.

That said, he wouldn’t be going halfway around the world if there wasn’t something he specifically could do. Otherwise, “it makes more sense to send support for the people on the ground.”

So in the days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighboring country in February sent hundreds of thousands of Ukranians fleeing, Rosenberg started poking around on the internet to find out what the need was and who seemed to be doing good work.

He stumbled on a Texas woman named Jennifer Wimberly who has two kids with autism, is on the spectrum herself and is heavily connected through Facebook with the community around families with autism spectrum disorder.

At the border

He also found Project Protect Me, a nonprofit whose team has been on the ground in Ukraine since the beginning trying to address the needs of people under siege there, especially, those in the disabled community, co-founder Shaundra Bodnar said.

The needs of the autistic are easily overlooked during a crisis, said Bodnar, a U.S. Army veteran like many of its volunteers.

But in the crush of more than 4 1/2 million people fleeing the country since Feb. 24, and others displaced within, the options available to most — trains, buses and jammed public — often aren’t feasible for those to whom noise and crowds are unbearably difficult.

Within Ukrainian neighborhoods, many families with neurodivergent — the term for people whose brains function differently in one or more ways than is considered typical — members already are well-connected with one another, however, and Wimberly has tapped into those groups. She’s also in touch with advocates around the U.S. and in Europe and has been working family by family to determine what the needs are, who can fill them and what the logistics might be — sometimes arranging rides from the border, flights, lodging, even needs like microwaves or a child’s school tablet.

Where possible, she’s worked with Project Protect Me, whose members are in Ukraine and can often find needed food products and get them delivered within the country in the absence of bread winners awaiting fighting, for instance, Bodnar said.

Wimberly is eager to have Rosenberg on the other side of the border, so she can count on a ready driver instead of having to hunt one down each time.

“We have a line up of people needing to be evacuated,” she said. “We always have people coming to the border with disabilities.”

She hopes he can arrange some warehouse space to store bulk foods and other supplies, as well.

Rosenberg has built showers, makeshift housing, laundry facilities and done other logistical work during past trips to refugee areas and just wants to do helpful work. And he’s ready to do lots of driving, if that’s what’s required.

Loved ones back home

The rental agreement for his vehicle prevents him from crossing into Ukraine, so there are limitations on where he can go. His wife, Lesley Jones, is relieved.

“I get a little nervous, especially in this case,” she said. “This one seems a little dangerous to me.”

Jones, a compliance officer for an investment advisory group, said she just doesn’t feel like she has a grasp on what the scene is like and worries about people in desperate straits taking advantage of others.

“But he just has an overwhelming desire to be part of the solution and help people, so I’m not going to stop him, (though) it definitely makes me nervous,” she said.

As her husband says himself, it’s kind of inevitable he go anyway.

Even Jones said she senses “as soon as there’s a refugee crisis going on … he’s going to be interested in going.”

After the first trip to Greece, when he saw the concrete things he could do to improve the situation, it made him want to do more.

“I’m totally impressed,” Jones said. “It just shows how much one person can do.”

“It’s kind of an addiction,” Rosenberg said. “When you start helping people, it’s like, I can help. What can I do?”

Anyone interested in learning more about or contributing to Rosenberg’s mission can go to tinyurl.com/46fde4w8.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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