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Sebastopol humanitarian finds his niche serving autism community in Ukraine

Needs of Ukranian refugee families with autistic children call out to Sebastopol dad.|

Sheldon Rosenberg is home now, tending to his family’s Sebastopol ranch.

But he expects to head back to Poland any time now and to the border towns where he knows he can be of more urgent use.

He spent nearly two weeks there in April, setting up supply chains for goods badly needed by families with autistic children in Ukraine. The experience established him as a well-connected, go-to guy for the logistical work that’s needed on the ground.

When he returns to Poland, it will for the third time — his second representing the nonprofit Global Autism Project. He came back from his first trip at the end of April and took off again less than 48 hours later to scout service sites for the Brooklyn-based nonprofit on which his efforts are now focused.

“You don’t have to change the world,” Rosenberg said Friday. “You just have to change the situation in front of you.”

The 48-year-old father of two had been looking for a niche to fill in the days and weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 25.

He found it perusing social media, exploring who was doing what on a grassroots level to assist those fleeing the ravages and disruption of warfare into a world of uncertainty.

Connecting online with individuals and groups, he realized there was a profound, unmet need among those for whom the noise and chaos of war is especially debilitating, so much so that many can’t leave the war zone and, if they do, they are no less in need of special help.

So over he went, looking for ways to get bulk gluten- and lactose-free food products, sensory toys and other special needs acquired and then shuttled across the border to Ukrainian families already identified.

Each inquiry, each meeting or conversation, exposed a need or an opportunity for engagement that created another link in a chain of support for those in want.

He says it’s not just connecting the dots, but putting the dots on paper.

“I kind of joke around that contacts are currency, and right now I feel rich,” Rosenberg said Friday. “I have a lot of contacts, and I put people together.”

A veteran of crisis zones, Rosenberg has repeatedly served refugees on the ground since more than a million people fled for Europe during the Syrian War in 2015. Many of them landed in Greece, where Rosenberg made several trips to help in refugee camps. He also has worked in Bangladesh to aid the transition for Rohingya fleeing genocide in Myanmar, provided assistance to victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston and traveled to the Mexican border to work with would-be immigrants there.

The Schoolbox Project, a locally founded nonprofit organization that provides mobile, trauma-informed programming for children displaced by crisis or conflict, grew out of the Syrian crisis and the time several members spent in Greece. Rosenberg is logistics coordinator for the organization and continues to apply lessons learned.

But much of the progress, he said, results from person to person contacts and people just trying to do what they can to help.

There are, for instance, the Russian “kids” — young adults, really — he heard about and ultimately met in a town near the border during his first trip. They have long since given up on their native country and are stationed in a house in Medyka from which they porter all kinds of material support into Ukraine, Rosenberg said.

Calling themselves “Russians for Ukraine,” they also are now a staging area for materials supporters of Rosenberg’s networked groups might supply.

There was a Ukrainian woman who, back at home, had run an autism center for 60 children and was borrowing therapy space a few hours a day to serve displaced families in Poland.

Rosenberg met her, connected her with the founder of the Global Autism Project, Molly Ola Pinney, and now they are hoping to set her up in a larger center with other staff to help local and displaces children in need.

Another person, an Englishman Rosenberg met through a contact in Texas who first set him to work on behalf of families living with autism spectrum disorder, is a Polish grain exporter. When Rosenberg was trying to find unused public buildings that might serve as short-term residential or educational service spaces for members of the autism community, he sought help from the man, who eventually led him to several possibilities.

One, a vacant structure in the town of Sedziszow, located along many train routes, might be used to provide a “soft landing” for families in need of a quiet place to access services and plan next steps after their flight from Ukraine.

Sheldon Rosenberg first saw this vacant public building in the town of Sedziszow, Poland, during a meeting with the mayor over coffee and apple pastries. The Global Autism Project hopes to use it for short-term shelter for families with autistic children fleeing Ukraine. (Sheldon Rosenberg)
Sheldon Rosenberg first saw this vacant public building in the town of Sedziszow, Poland, during a meeting with the mayor over coffee and apple pastries. The Global Autism Project hopes to use it for short-term shelter for families with autistic children fleeing Ukraine. (Sheldon Rosenberg)

Another one, found since his departure, is a three-story schoolhouse in Warsaw in need of some rehabilitation before it can be occupied by kids.

But most of the contract laborers in the area are typically Ukrainian men — who have gone back to Ukraine since the war started. Rosenberg, a builder at home, is needed to go back to Poland to help rehabilitate buildings for the Global Autism Project.

The organization also is in search of a resource hub for families that need help accessing limited resources.

“The big message is that there are Ukrainian teachers and therapists here who need work,” Pinney said Friday from Krakow, “and there are families who need services, and what is stopping them from providing those services is they don’t have the space and they don’t have the materials.”

Many of the kids who would be served have been living in bomb shelters and traveling through hellscapes.

“We want to provide space and materials so the services can be restarted here as quickly as possible, and that’s important because for these children, every minute matters,” she said.

Anyone wishing to contribute to Rosenberg’s efforts may do so at bit.ly/3MqSMAY.

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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