Back in December 2015, Timo Puustinen decided that he wanted to offer a token of Christmas cheer to an area where seasonal merriment was hard to come by.
He said that he selected Ukraine as his target and set out on his journey without any expectations.
"We didn’t really know where we were going or who we were supposed to meet. The idea was to take gifts and sweets for children there and to wish them a Happy Christmas," Puustinen recalled.
Many aspects of the trip caught their attention. For example, they noticed that when they distributed food parcels, it was mainly elderly women who came out to receive them. Children weren’t allowed outside for safety reasons. During their sojourn Puustinen and Poikolainen were repeatedly told that Ukraine was in dire need of assistance. Nor has much changed in the year since their maiden trip.
"We heard that store shelves no longer stock basic supplies. So we asked customers and importers to come on board and we decided to take more concrete provisions, as well as toys and sweets to Ukraine in two trucks."
Funds to set up mini- chicken run
Timo Puustinen runs a large shopping outlet in Jyskä, Jyväskylä. He managed to raise 6,000 euros to construct a small chicken run in Ukraine. He was also able to collect 20 pallets of clothing from customers. Additionally 30 companies chipped in with cash and general goods.
"This time around we can have a comprehensive targeted strike in southern Ukraine," Puustinen declared.
Last year the pair spent all of two days and one night in Ukraine. This time around, the four-man team will spend three days. They will visit a care facility and senior home in Demanovka, an orphanage in Mariupol and a family home, refugee camp and the location of the proposed mini- chicken run in the village of Chernevo.
The micro civilian aid convoy will have insurance coverage for most of the journey – except for areas near military action.
"Our car insurance coverage will cease about 15 kilometres before the front lines of military activity, so we are completing the trip at our own risk, but with a confident mindset."
Backup cash in hand
With NATO and UN troops on site in Ukraine last year, Puustinen and his company felt quite safe, even though military action was ongoing. This year, the small expedition will partly rely on cash to smooth the way in the event of any difficulties.
"We have different documents for officials in Poland and another set for the Ukrainians. The [Foreign] Ministry and embassy have sent emails to officials so the documents should be in order. But of course there’s danger enough," Puustinen noted.
Last year Puustinen and Poikolainen received a warm welcome from locals. The children at an orphanage in Mariupol even learned enough Finnish to say, "Thank you and welcome!"
"Today we got an email from them saying that the children were asking when the Santas from Finland are coming. We will be wearing elves’ caps of course. Last year at the Polish-Ukrainian border there were men carrying assault rifles. They stared at us with our elves’ hats and burst into laughter when they realised that we weren’t smugglers," Puustinen recounted.