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Clarks Green resident drives ambulance into Ukraine amid Russian invasion

Dorian Butovich
Sarah Hofius Hall
Dorian Butovich, owner of Central Park Flowers in Clarks Green, holds a flag he received on one of his previous trips to Ukraine.

At the end of a 1,000-mile drive across Europe, Clarks Green florist Dorian Butovich broke a promise to his family. He told his wife he wouldn’t enter Ukraine.

On two previous trips to the crossing between Poland and Ukraine, he had held back.

“[In 2022] I was at the border many times, dropping people off, bringing people out – refugees – and I desperately wanted to go in, but I told myself, no, no, no,” said Butovich, a Ukrainian-American originally from New Jersey. He and his wife own Central Park Flowers and No. 27 Cafe. “My body, everything was telling me to go in … to go see my culture, my people, and I decided not to.”

But in November, that changed. He drove an ambulance filled with medical supplies into Ukraine, ending a two-day drive from Brussels, Belgium. The four days in western Ukraine weren’t without fraught moments, Butovich said.

From a phone that wouldn’t work to air raid alerts and curfew enforcement, Butovich, who’s fluent in Ukrainian, still had to adapt. He even plans to go back a fourth time.

Russia’s invasion is now squarely in its third year. Supporters say additional medical and military aid is still imperative. Congress has recently debated whether to approve more aid to Ukraine, and polls from last year show less Americans back increased financial support for the embattled country.

Butovich’s grassroots humanitarian mission was the culmination of much planning and fundraising in NEPA. He started raising money for an ambulance early last year and pulled in nearly $5,000 from an online fundraiser. He eventually found a 2006 Mercedes Sprinter van for $7,000, but it was countries away from where it needed to go.

“Because all of the used ambulances in Poland and Germany, closer to Ukraine, have already been bought,” he explained.

Someone had to take it closer to the front lines. After flying into Europe, Butovich picked up the vehicle and took it to an auto shop. “It was a little beat up,” he said, but the mechanic gave it a clean bill of health.

“Some Ukrainian friends [in Belgium] filled it up with tons of medical supplies all allocated for different doctors,” he said. “There's a generator in there, bandages, plasma, just packed full.”

Then he took off. “I had no GPS, no cell service at all throughout Europe. So I had to do the drive ‘old school’ with a map,” Butovich said. He spent one night in Germany and continued on through Poland.

Instead of leaving the ambulance with troops at the Poland-Ukraine border, Butovich drove on into Lviv.

“I was nervous going in, but they saw what I was doing. I had a lot of paperwork,” he said. “Right on the border there were queues and queues of tractor trailers everywhere, like miles and miles of them … But if [supplies are] sitting on the Polish side, the Russians can't touch it. So it's safe.”

Once in Lviv, he saw a priest bless the ambulance. Butovich took photos of the troops that coordinated the effort. Then the vehicle was transferred to a military division elsewhere.

Third mission accomplished

Butovich could take in the historic city of Lviv. Some buildings had been struck by Russian missiles since the conflict began, he said. Others had windows boarded up.

“Even though it's far from the actual fighting, it's still a country at war,” Butovich said. “Outside of the military walking around and the sandbags, everybody is out about and going to work, going to school, conducting business. Restaurants are full.”

One evening he took a stroll after midnight near the city’s opera house. He didn’t know Lviv was under a police curfew.

The opera house located in Lviv, pictured in 2018. Lviv is Ukraine's largest western city and one of its historic cultural centers.
Ruslan Lytvyn/Getty Images
The opera house located in Lviv, pictured in 2018. Lviv is Ukraine's largest western city and one of its historic cultural centers.

Suddenly, an unmarked van pulled up close to Butovich and several people jumped out.

“[They] beelined it directly for me, AK47s in hand, put me up against the wall, demanding to know what I'm doing out,” Butovich said. “Luckily, I had my American passport on me and I was able to tell them why I was out and what I was doing.”

On another occasion, Butovich entered a train station and later noticed that everyone had disappeared. He knew something was wrong. Another soldier approached him.

“Everybody on their phone gets an immediate text saying, ‘incoming missile seeks shelter,’” he said. But his phone didn’t have service. Butovich followed instructions to go underground, but luckily, he said, it was a false alarm.

Future support from NEPA

Butovich wants to go back to Ukraine’s border for a fourth time. He won’t go into Ukraine again until the war is over, he said.

“It's a constant battle for me and my heart for that, but I have a family here and I can't put myself at risk for them,” he said. “It's a tough decision.”

Butovich is coordinating this time with St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church and local Rotary Clubs. Plans to get more ambulances into the country are in the works.

Joe Riccardo, Scranton Rotary’s vice president, said the region has a sizable Ukrainian population plus a “humanitarian champion” in Rev. Myron Myronyuk of St. Vladimir. Myronyuk’s twin brother also served in the Ukrainian military during the conflict, he added.

“The church has raised literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Riccardo said, for water purifiers and other supplies. “We've had several really active partners, people that have come here as refugees from the war … [they] want to obviously help their home country.”

Whether ambulances from Northeast Pennsylvania are shipped to Europe, or whether they’re driven from elsewhere on the continent depends on another partnership, Riccardo said. Scranton Rotary has a “sister club” in Heerlen, Netherlands.

The Heerlen Rotary Club wants to find suitable vehicles in the Netherlands. Riccardo said a regional Rotary District 7410 and St. Vladimir’s will contribute to the vehicle repairs.

The organizations will host a dinner on Sunday, Sept. 29 in Scranton to benefit the plan.

Butovich knows the aid is needed. He’s still in contact with people on the ground.

“We get pictures from a lot of the military personnel that we've helped, a lot of the doctors that we've helped, things that they're looking for,” Butovich said. “Unfortunately, some of those people have passed away … people have been killed there.”

The U.S. has the capacity to keep helping, he said.

"There's more than just Gaza, more than just Ukraine happening all at once. Yeah, we have problems here at home... There's problems all over the world, but in this day and age, we should be able to handle more than one problem."

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's All Things Considered. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.

You can email Tom at tomriese@wvia.org
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