What is the problem?
Retirement can often be a period of social isolation and loneliness for elderly people. The full-scale war in Ukraine deepened problems faced by Ukrainians who have reached their golden years, but at the same time, it once again emphasized that pensioners are willing and able to have an active life, work, and even take action to support the country's defenders.
Maria from the Zhytomyr region is already in her 80s, and she knits extremely high-quality and beautiful socks. The senior citizen decided that as long as the war goes on, she will support Ukrainian defenders however she can:
"I make patterns to make the soldiers happy. They are like a lucky charm. I often get up at night to have time to make more, says Maria. "I am ready to deny myself a lot to do something useful for our soldiers."
Retirement age is not an excuse to stay out of business. Senior citizens also want to help, support, and bring Ukraine's victory closer. The support of this enthusiasm benefits not only the defenders, but also to the pensioners themselves.
What is the solution?
"We have no other choice because we love our country and want to live in a free Ukraine," says the team of the Zhytomyr branch of the all-Ukrainian charitable organization Care for the Elderly in Ukraine. Here, the older adults of Zhytomyr have united to make every effort to ensure that Ukraine wins — and at the same time, they are building a strong community of mutual support. Rubryka spoke with the head of the department Taisa Voytsekhovska to learn how they are working toward solutions.
How does it work?
The branch of the all-Ukrainian organization Care for the Elderly in Ukraine in Zhytomyr was registered in 2008. Until 2014, the organization's volunteers — people over 60 — cared for the needs of older Zhytomyr residents, helping prepare food, doing cleaning and shopping, providing moral support, and simply keeping in communication with those who could no longer leave the house.
The organization worked through internationally-supported projects and, in addition, took an active part in finding remedies for overlooked problems affecting the lives of senior citizens in the sleepy, middle-sized Ukrainian city. They studied the culture of service in public transport and prices in pharmacies, and advocated to install better lighting in one of the underground pedestrian passages. The department also assembled groups for older people, where they could practice embroidery, knit, exchange recipes, and chat.
In 2014, with the beginning of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, the organization's volunteers could not just stand by and remain indifferent. They began mobilizing to help the soldiers serving in the anti-terrorist operation zone (ATO) in the east of Ukraine.
"The situation was very difficult then," recalls Voytsekhovska. "The boys went to defend the independence of Ukraine naked and barefoot. They went to the front in rubber slippers. There wasn't even enough underwear."
In addition to their regular activities, Care for the Elderly in Ukraine began to provide clothing for soldiers defending Ukraine, coining their nickname as "the Grandmother's Battalion" by the military, who were grateful for the volunteers' efforts to sew and knit handmade items to keep them warm while at the front.
One of the organization's volunteers brought the first sewing machine from home, and purchased fabric at her own expense. There was immediately demand for the Grandmother's Battalion's products — military members repeatedly called and asked for more items. Later, the range of the workshop expanded to making work gloves for soldiers as they were convenient for digging trenches and building fortifications and dugouts. The craftswoman cut gloves from old jeans the residents brought. They knitted socks and sewed knitted bandanas.
Small pillows, which became charms for the soldiers became a hit of the workshop. "Such pillows are very comfortable," says Voytsekhovska. "We started sewing them for tankers, and then other units began asking us for them."
A small pillow can be tucked into a backpack, under a raincoat, and carried everywhere. Voytsekhovska shares that one of the pillows even saved a soldier's life while he was carrying it under his coat, and it stopped a small piece of shrapnel. Now, the soldier keeps the pillow as a talisman.
Ladies who are approaching victory
Despite being closely involved with the military since 2014, the full-scale invasion in 2022 shocked the volunteers.
"Although we have been supplying our guys in the east for several years, none of us believed that rockets would fly at us, tank convoys would go like this, openly," Voytsekhovska admits. We thought all the time that it was some mistake and that everything would be fine."
In the very first days of the war, Voytsekhovska and her friends collected and sent food kits for soldiers to the front with funds from foreign patrons. When some volunteers had to evacuate with their families, the sewing workshop temporarily suspended its work.
In August 2022, when people started returning to Zhytomyr, the Grandmother's Battalion started working again with renewed energy. "We have to bring victory closer," is a phrase regularly heard in the workshop, and they prove it not by word, but by deed.
Today, 12 women aged 59 to 82 come from all over the city to work in the sewing workshop. "Girls!" – that's how Voytsekhovska calls to her volunteer friends despite their senior age, as they gladly labor away in the workshop from morning to evening. Some sew bedding, pillows, underwear, and balaclavas; others make the fingers on gloves, and someone stuffs pillows.
Volunteers of the Zhytomyr branch of the Care for the Elderly in Ukraine support older adults not only with kind words. This winter, as part of another project, they insulated the apartments of about 40 elderly residents of Zhytomyr. In addition to insulation, they also provide hygiene products.
Communication and joint work as stimulation and therapy
Most the Grandmother's Battalion participants are Zhytomyr residents, and recently several resettled women have joined them. Voytsekhovska is an amicable person, and sometimes she can offer passersby to join the volunteer movement just off the street. For example, she met one of the volunteers, Olha, on the trolley bus and some of the volunteers she met at the bus stop.
For many years a kindergarten teacher, 74-year-old Valentyna has now been retrained as a seamstress. The 82-year-old Maria knits beautiful, high-quality socks. There is a place for everyone in the Grandmother's Battalion — the main prerequisite is the desire to help.
There is also a man in the Grandmother's Battalion. At the beginning of the full-scale war, Mykola enlisted in the Territorial Defense, but when he turned 60, he returned to civilian life. At the same time, he saw an announcement about the workshop's work on one of Zhytomyr's streets. The group accepted him, and now he also sews gloves for younger men who are defending the country.
There is a lot to do, Voytsekhovska admits. When a professional tailor joined the workshop two months ago, became a little easier. Lyubov is a resettler from Kharkiv. Voytsekhovska says that, at first, she was very depressed and silent, but gradually, working together and communicating with like-minded people helped the displaced tailor learn to smile again, and doing something to support Ukraine's defenders together with new friends became a kind of therapy for her.
"Joint activities support us a lot. It is precious to have people close in spirit," says Voytsekhovska. "There is an incentive to live, dress up, and show beauty. Volunteers come to the workshop to work, but this is not an obligation, but a calling of the soul."
Does it really work?
With such equipment, no enemy is scary
Since September 2022, the elderly artisans at the Grandmther's Battalion have sewn more than 1,700 pillows and hundreds of other products. Voytsekhovska says that they do not keep accurate records of finished products, and the main thing is to have time to sew all the orders for the defenders on time.
Products are delivered to the front through volunteers. They often visit hospitals with their products, and fighters perceive them as precious gifts. According to the volunteers, they are always happy and emotional, and the cute and comfortable little pillows are generally seen as a small gesture with big impact.
"There are many seriously injured people," sighs Voytsekhovska. "For them, our pillows are not just talismans but also things useful in the rehabilitation process."
At the beginning of 2023, Grandmther's Battalion handed over a batch of underwear with Velcro to the hospital. It was the first time the artisans sewed such products, but they managed it and were very happy about it because such underwear is always in demand for wounded soldiers.
When soldiers from the front line come to the workshop, the Grandmother's Battalion blossoms.
"Someone needs us, and our gloves warm someone's hands. We are very happy with the words of thanks, but we do not expect them. All we want is for the boys to arrive safely, be warm and comfortable, and remain alive and unharmed," the battalion team says.
In a conversation with Rubryka, Voytskehovska laughs as she proudly recalls an anecdote of the grateful comments of the soldiers. The grandfather of one soldier saw his underwear and wanted the same for himself. "I, of course, love my grandfather, but I won't give him my underwear," the fighter wrote in a humorous letter to the artisans.
The undergarments from Grandmother's Battalion are really special. The secret is that seamstresses always choose cheerful, childish fabrics — with daisies, cats, puppies, and dolphins. "We want our defenders to have a moral rest, at least in this way," explains Voytsehovska, whom the fighters respectfully call Commander of Grandmother's Battalion.
People with a big heart
In February 2023, four female volunteers of the Zhytomyr branch of the All-Ukrainian charity organization Care for the Elderly in Ukraine were awarded the medals Volunteer — a person with a big heart and Patriot of Ukraine.
"This is the first time we have received such awards," Voytsehovska said at the award ceremony. "Receiving an award is, of course, very nice, but all of us, and currently there are 32 volunteers aged from 59 to 82 years old, all of our girls do not work here for medals. We are doing everything possible and impossible to help our guys and speed up the time of our victory."
Even more useful solutions
How to help Grandmother's Battalion?
There are currently six sewing machines in the arsenal of the Grandmother's Battalion workshop, but they are old, from Soviet times, and often break. Volunteers donated an overlock sewing machine in 2015. The artisans dream of modern equipment. They say they would then be able to sew even more things necessary for our soldiers.
Fabric, padding polyester, and product consumables are also collected in all possible ways. It is mostly given to the battalion by benefactors. Volunteers say that they will gladly accept help from anyone willing to help. Anyone can donate clean jeans and children's bed linens, or buy the necessary fabric for the seamstresses. If you want to help Grandmother's Battalion, you can directly contact the head of the charity organization Voytsehovska via Facebook and at the number +(38) 097 578 7767.
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