Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Susan Mathison of Common Man for Ukraine Is Helping To Change Our World
You will find yourself in new, uncomfortable and scary situations. It’s OK. That’s where you’re needed. Crossing a border into a war zone, hearing air raid sirens at night, handing over my passport to a group of well-armed soldiers who speak a language I don’t — it all seems surreal to this soccer mom, but I know that is where I am needed — that there are Ukrainian kids who are counting on me to deliver food, bring the sleeping bags, and provide the generators. It’s ok to be in very unfamiliar situations, taking profound risks, and being uncomfortable and scared. Eyes wide open, just keep moving forward.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Mathison, Co-Founder of Common Man for Ukraine.
Susan Mathison co-founded the New Hampshire-based humanitarian aid nonprofit Common Man for Ukraine in 2022, raising nearly $3 million to provide food, relief supplies and trauma counseling to Ukraine’s children of war. An early trailblazer, Susan started in the 1980s as one of the early female foresters with the USDA Forest Service, dedicating her 30-year career to public land management. A competitive Masters rower, Susan now also mentors and coaches novice rowers in New Hampshire.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In February 2022, when the bombs began falling on Ukraine’s innocent citizens, three dear friends and I in New Hampshire discussed our responsibility to do whatever we could to help the innocent victims of this war. The images of millions of mothers and their children, packed onto trains, fleeing their homes, schools, and communities were shattering. These mothers held their children’s hands with the grip of mother lions, their uncertain futures held in a few small bags. Both fear and courage were etched into each mother’s eyes. That soup of fear and courage touched a decades’ old memory, reminding me of the fears I faced as a young widow with two small sons, facing an uncertain future as a single mother. I was called to do whatever I could to help these Ukrainian mothers and their children. I would never know these mothers, but I knew their fears and it was time for me to stand up and do good; with three friends, Common Man for Ukraine was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
When we win. That is how Ukrainians think. This is what they believe and how they live. “When we win” is in their bones.
Common Man for Ukraine has been delivering food, sleeping bags, generators, and more to Ukraine for over a year. When we visit safe houses, orphanages, refugee centers, cities and villages, we find that life in Ukraine is an intricate puzzle of terror, normalcy, and the calm confidence of victory with one constant tenant: When we win.
During our first trip to Ukraine, we delivered a shipment of food to a boys orphanage near Lviv. Some of the boys had been orphaned previously, but the war had brought an influx of new orphans to an overtaxed and now underfunded system. Funding had been reduced and our food was making a big difference for these kids. When we arrived, some of the boys were inside in dorm-like rooms, cramped and humid, and others played soccer in the fresh Spring air. We were an oddity, bringing food, and an interesting curiosity, speaking English, wearing broad smiles, loading pallets of groats and canned meats into the building and handing candies to the young boys.
I began a conversation with one of the orphanage staff members, through an interpreter, about this war, these young boys, and their futures. What would become of these kids as the war raged and eventually ended, I asked. “When we will,” began the boys’ caretaker. “When we win the war, we will search for their parents,” he continued.
This gem, this pearl of knowledge was reported to us countless times over that last year. From this orphanage’s caretaker, the elderly refugee at a camp for senior citizens, the cook in the children’s safe house, the waiter, the schoolteacher, and from every child we have met and with whom we have spoken, Ukrainians know one thing for sure; we will win the war. They do not speak of what’s next if, they speak only of when we find the parents, when these children return home, when our beloved soldier father or brother comes home, when we defeat the aggressors, we shall be free Ukrainians.
The audacity of confidence — a fact they know in their souls — inspires me. What other times in my life have I witnessed change forced into fact through collective will? This is what Ukrainians are doing.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Humanitarian aid is a huge umbrella under which to work. “Aid” can mean warm sweaters or body armor for soldiers on the front lines in a cold winter. It can mean medical supplies like tourniquets sent to ambulances and first responders or durable medical equipment such as operating equipment and beds to the more than 1,000 hospitals and medical facilities that have been bombed. It can mean reconstruction of damaged houses and apartments or repairs to buildings repurposed to serve as refugee centers or makeshift school. It can mean a hot meal in a train station or a blanket at a refugee center.
Common Man for Ukraine was presented with a spectrum of opportunities for providing aid. Our challenge? Pick one. Do Good. Do it well. Those were hard choices. Lot of people and organizations approached us for funding. Temporary homes for one family at a time, a bloodmobile, an operating table — big ticket items, necessary, but were they our best help? We made a few mistakes in funding a couple of projects that were large and important but served too few of the war’s victims. We initially made mistakes funding items that found their way into the underground market or were converted for use by the military.
Our early and frequent visits to Ukraine provide essential information to refine our efforts. We listened intently to our local partners who are fully engaged in humanitarian aid. We’ve learned and grown. Their on-the-ground experience help us refine our mission. After seeing refugee centers, orphanages, and the growing need for safe house protection for children fleeing the east, our lane unfolded in front of us — kids. Displaced kids far from their homes, schools, and communities living with their families in refugee centers. Kids who had lost a family member to the war. Kids living in safe houses in western Ukraine, waiting, bravely waiting to go home. This was our lane. We feed them, keep them warm, and offer counseling to supply them with tools for the difficult road ahead and to know that they are loved. This is where we Do Good.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
We are helping on two sides of the human experience. We learned early in the war in Ukraine that ordinary people — most everyone we knew — wanted to help Ukrainians but they didn’t know how. Sending a check to a giant organization seemed unsatisfying to many. How much would go to advertising, staffing, fancy offices, mailers, and TV ads? We knew people wanted to help and we wanted to assure people that their donations delivered direct aid right to the ground.
We needed to design a new model, so we went to Ukraine to figure it out. In Poland and Ukraine, we formed partnerships with other helpers on the ground. Rotary Clubs already established and connected to local communities would be the key connection to our success. We worked with local Rotarians and learned exactly how we could be effective in delivering aid to children of war. For those who want to give, Common Man for Ukraine in partnership with Polish and Ukrainians volunteers provide direct delivery of aid. “We have the receipts”, the connections on the ground, and the relationships with volunteers in Poland and Ukraine. With these securely in hand, we provide assurance of the safety and efficacy of a donation. As a volunteer organization, we limit our overhead to a miniscule percentage, and assure that donations fund aid directly to the ground. We provide people here in the United States a secure, efficient, tangible way to help; Common Man for Ukraine provides confidence for people who are able to contribute financially.
At the other end of the proverbial pipeline of aid, we provide real help to children in great need. Coordinating and delivering this aid helps these victims in a very direct and tangible way. With the generosity of people here at home and working with hundreds of volunteers in Poland and Ukraine, we’ve delivered over 800 tons of food, 10,000 sleeping bags, hundreds of generators to orphanages and safe houses, thousands of hours of trauma counseling and love to the innocent young victims of the war in Ukraine.
As the war evolves, so does our aid. In its first winter, our work in Ukraine focused on raw survival: food, sleeping bags, warmth. As the months have spun by, millions of children have been displaced and tens of thousands have lost one or more family members. We are committed to providing trauma counseling and love to as many of these young victims as possible. Through both day and residential programs, we are delivering trauma counseling to this generation of children who, one day, will rebuild a strong and independent Ukraine.
There are now an estimated 2.5 million internally displaced children in Ukraine. We know we cannot help all of them, but we matter to the tens of thousands of children we feed, keep warm, or help with counseling and support. And there’s more good to do.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Ryszard Luczyn, a hero among humans. When the war began, more than six million refugees streamed into Poland. Bombs could be heard across the nearby border with Ukraine and tens of thousands of refugees needed to be fed, clothed, and housed in the Polish community. Amid this chaos, Ryszard received a call from his Rotary District Governor. “I’ve received a call from four Americans who want to raise $2 million to help us with the refugee crisis and to help displaced people inside Ukraine. They will be here in Poland in three days’ time and I want to you to show them projects they can fund.”
Four American who want to donate $2 million? Who are these people? They want to help people they don’t know in Ukraine? They will be here in three days and I need to take time into an active war zone to see the crisis firsthand and develop a humanitarian aid program with them? That was the ask. And Ryszard’s answer, unflinchingly, was and is “Yes.”
To Common Man for Ukraine, Ryszard has come to be known as King Richard the Lionhearted. As a volunteer, juggling work and family, he has coordinated the delivery of 800 tons of food into Ukraine. He found generators when there were none to be found in Ukraine or Poland and those generators brought light to orphanages of scared children. As winter approached, he found 10,000 sleeping bags and added them to the 30-truck convoys sent to orphanages and children’s safe houses Ukraine. While other aid trucks waited five days to cross the border into Ukraine, deftly, he built partnership with the Ukrainian military that facilitates our trucks’ immediate crossing of the border. Week after week he coordinates convoys of 10 to 20 trucks delivering tons of food to orphanages and safe houses throughout western and central Ukraine. And as the war drags on, he coordinates monthly, three-week counseling retreats in Poland for Ukrainian children who have lost at least one family member to the war.
The myriad of details in each of these tasks is unfathomable, yet, patiently and calmly he takes on each task, manages hundreds of volunteers and carefully tracks and records each zloty of Common Man for Ukraine’s funding. He consults with us on our priorities and contributes his on-the-ground experience. He risks and he protects. He is committed unflinchingly to make the world better for these children and we are forever grateful.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership engenders a team member’s belief that their contribution, if presented with a true and open heart, is just enough to make the crucial difference in the project, game, campaign, contest, or the world. Leadership facilitates a person to understand that their unique contribution, however large or small, of work, wisdom, or wealth can push the common dream forward to success.
Raising $3 million (completed) or $10 million (our goal) and delivering humanitarian aid to kids in a war zone in Ukraine is an audacious idea. By doing what each of us can do; flying to Poland, driving to Ukraine, meeting with Rotary Club presidents in Poland and Ukraine, finding working partners on the ground, renting warehouses in Poland, purchasing essential goods in the EU, telling our story to local and national media, using social media to show what we are doing and how shows others what ordinary people will can accomplish. These stories and images challenge others to share their resources to contribute $5 or $5,000 or $50,000 or to plan an event, large or small, to benefit the larger goal.
Leadership says and shows that I am doing what I can do and I believe what you can do is important to our success; join me.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.
- You will find yourself in new, uncomfortable and scary situations. It’s OK. That’s where you’re needed. Crossing a border into a war zone, hearing air raid sirens at night, handing over my passport to a group of well-armed soldiers who speak a language I don’t — it all seems surreal to this soccer mom, but I know that is where I am needed — that there are Ukrainian kids who are counting on me to deliver food, bring the sleeping bags, and provide the generators. It’s ok to be in very unfamiliar situations, taking profound risks, and being uncomfortable and scared. Eyes wide open, just keep moving forward.
- You can be brave like Ukrainians. As Ukrainians face their treacherous future, your caring can make a genuine difference. Your donation, fundraiser, and support gives everyday Ukrainians reassurance that others, Americans, care about the people of Ukraine and the horrific effects of the David vs. Goliath war they’re fighting. Knowing that the world sees the human side of this catastrophe, the real pain behind the headlines, helps build their confidence and strength as they face, and someday, rebuild their lives and country. If everyday Ukrainians can resolve to stand up for democracy, while sacrificing almost — and sometimes — everything, then I can find the resolve to do, large or small, what I can.
- There are too many needs. You can’t do it all. It is a huge country with millions of displaced children, destroyed communities and dreams, but for the one you feed, keep warm, and hug, it will mean the world. Find the need that sings to you. Do Good. Do it well.
- People want to help, but they don’t know how. Show them. Sitting in the comfort of our U.S. living rooms, looking at a war in Ukraine, we are challenged to help. Don’t think too much. Just decide to Do Good. (First word is “DO”) But how? Find out! Go there. Talk to someone who is there and who knows what is needed then find the partners on the ground who will help. Simplify it!
- Lots of people doing what they can, makes all the difference. A 5th grader donated $38 from homemade flags, three nuns contributed three $5 bills, an anonymous donor gave a 6-figure donation. All of a sudden, we have delivered almost $3 million in aid. People give what they can. Those who want to give more find a way; they organize concerts, a pickleball tournament, donate a quilt, or a photograph to be auctioned. Everyone whose heart is moved to help finds a way to help and all of it, together, moves mountains.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Our campaign to provide humanitarian aid and trauma counseling to the children of Ukraine began in New Hampshire, the 7th smallest state in the United States, with a population of 1.3 million people. At one point in our campaign, we had received $1.3 million in mostly small-dollar donations, mostly from people in New Hampshire — it was an average of $1 per person in New Hampshire. Small-dollar donations are making a big difference for the kids in Ukraine.
That was months ago and we’ve reset our goal to $10 million. There are more than 300 million people in the United States. So, if only another seven million people, just one in four, would donate $1, we’d reach our goal. Or, if 3.5 million people donated the price of a small coffee, we’d be able to expand our programs to reach many more kids in Ukraine who need trauma counseling, expand our food program, and prepare for the coming winter’s challenges. The top coffee chain in the U.S. sells an estimated 8 million cups a day. Could each customer just downsize for one day and send $1 to Common Man for Ukraine? Collectively, we think little of one dollar, but together, those dollars can make the difference for the youngest and most vulnerable victims of the war in Ukraine. It seems so simple. With the money we’d raise, we’d be able to provide day or residential counseling for more than 7,000 children in Ukraine who have lost a family member or have been traumatized by the war. Or, because we can feed a child for $44 per month, we’d be able to feed more than 25,000 children until the end of 2023. Surely there are seven million people who want to Do Good and would donate one dollar?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Do Good. It is such a simple phrase. Deceivingly so, but profoundly so as well. In all that we think, say and do, simply Do Good. Lives measured by this simple mantra will glide easily through this life, making a difference and, in time, unfurl a life well lived.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, of course! President Zelensky is a paragon of leadership. His political campaign and early presidency were focused on attacking infamous corruption in Ukraine’s young democracy. In retrospect, that battle will seem insignificant. His strong and deliberate leadership from the very first day of the war inspired and emboldened Ukrainians to stand up to Russia, a statistically formidable foe. Throughout Ukraine, ordinary people rose up and contribute in large and small ways to a common vision of independence and democracy. Everywhere we travel in Ukraine, everyday Ukrainians echo his core belief and commitment that “We are Ukrainians; we WILL win this war.” He, remarkably, stood firm in the first days and implored every Ukrainian to join him in a steadfast commitment to victory. In turn, meeting with world leaders, he challenges every world citizen to see this unprovoked slaughter of innocent civilians and implores nations across the globe to stand with Ukraine to defeat the Russian aggressors. President Zelensky will be remembered in centuries to come as one of history’s greatest leaders.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Learn more about Common Man for Ukraine at commonmanforukraine.org. Please also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @commonmanforukraine and share our story.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Susan Mathison of Common Man for Ukraine Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.