Last spring, when many Ukrainians were leaving the country, Lucas Wilcox was on his way in. Russia had invaded eastern Ukraine two months earlier. It was mid-April and the 40-year-old Homer resident was on a train traveling from Poland to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Wilcox was traveling into the country with a mission: to build large, off-grid kitchens to feed people who had fled their homes.
What Wilcox didn’t know at the time was Lviv would be hit by its largest missile strike yet that night.
“The conductor comes through and whispers something urgently to each one of the cars,” Wilcox said. “Everybody turns off the lights and closes the blinds and sits quietly. And then all of a sudden, it is absolutely pitch black and completely silent.
For two hours, Wilcox and the other passengers remained quiet in the dark, before the train reached the Lviv station.
It was Wilcox’s first time in Ukraine, and he didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language.
While, depending on your perspective, it may seem brave or foolish to be traveling into a war-zone, this is kind of what Wilcox does.
His non-profit organization, Altruist Relief Kitchen, or ARK, works with displaced people, from refugees in Tijuana to Syrians in Lesvos and Texans after Hurricane Harvey.
The idea for the organization came to Wilcox more than a decade ago while he was a student at Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer. ARK’s goal, Wilcox said, is to provide large amounts of food and supplies in off-grid areas that might not have access to fuel or running water during hard times, and to be adaptable to a variety of scenarios. He began developing the concept while witnessing tumultuous events happening worldwide.
“The financial crisis and the Arab Spring and Occupy [Wall Street] all happened during that time,” he said. “I really focused my attention on making an aid organization that would be able to respond to many different kinds of events.”
Wilcox said another one of his goals is to make the organization, as he described it, “radically transparent.” He said he’s skeptical of how other aid organizations may use their funding, and he wanted to change the model. He posts all of ARK’s receipts on its website, and the organization recently received 501(c)(3) non-profit status.
Now ARK has grown to a handful of dedicated volunteers who work across the United States. Wilcox said his current role in the organization is mostly to help engineer and build structures versatile enough to be mobile, yet big enough to accommodate large groups of people.
The field kitchen he helped set up in Ukraine, for example, looks like a giant tent. The structure is over 1,300 square feet — large enough to fit a school bus inside.
Many of the materials used to build the structure were salvaged, Wilcox added.
“The tent is made out of recycled drilling equipment, the stoves are made out of recycled steel barrels, the pots are made out of stainless steel kegs,” he said.
What wasn’t able to be salvaged was purchased in or around Lviv, and the building of the structure was mostly handled by Ukrainians who fled the war or live in affected regions. Wilcox said they are paid a “survival wage” of around $25 a day. The goal, according to Wilcox, is to bring and keep money in the area.
“The whole thing is manufactured in Ukraine with local materials,” he said. “All of the money that we’re spending on this project is going completely to Ukraine.”
Inside ARK’s tent in Lviv, six wood stoves meet in the middle at one large stack, which serves as both a heat source and a means of cooking. He said the kitchen can make 75 to 100 gallons of food at one time, or 30,000 to 50,000 meals a month.
The kitchen, which Wilcox said is the first of many, is situated on the grounds of a Catholic church which is being used to temporarily house people who have fled their homes. Although missiles can be heard in many of Wilcox’s self-produced videos, he said the site of the kitchen is relatively safe.
“Even though there is a bit of an incessant rain of missiles on the country, they’re really targeting infrastructure, primarily energy, and now healthcare infrastructure, bridges and rail stations and things like that,” Wilcox said. “But there’s a reasonably low likelihood of a stray missile hitting just a church on the outskirts of a city.”
Wilcox’s visa expired in October so he’s currently in Homer, but he plans to head back to Ukraine later this month. He said this winter, his work is more important than ever.
“It’s a country of 40 million people. And something like 10 million of them now are either internally displaced or leaving the country,” Wilcox said. “That number is certainly going to grow through the winter as the energy infrastructure is continuously taken out.”
Wilcox said the ARK kitchen will begin serving meals in Ukraine “any day now.”