Sudden aid worker

Peter Johnson working with another volunteer to prepare an apartment for Ukrainian refugees.

Sudden aid worker

Peter Johnson in Oswiecim, Poland with a local high school volunteer.

This family hid from Russian patrols in the basement of its apartment building before it escaped to Poland.

The institute hands out Teddy bears to Ukrainian children.

“What we’re trying to do is what we can do. The goal is to try to house as many people as possible.”

Peter Johnson

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Peter Johnson coaches companies and startups. Then he saw that Ukrainian refugees needed him more.

As a growth and scalability specialist, Peter Johnson ’94 has plenty of experience coaching startups and founders through the early stages of a business. But his latest venture turned out to be his most challenging one yet. The Pittsburgh consultant returned May 3 from Poland, where he spent six weeks helping a fledgling non-profit create housing for Ukrainian refugees.

 

As he raised walls, devised funding streams and handed out Teddy bears to traumatized children, he was a startled to find that his work experience proved invaluable.

 

“It’s like an early-stage start up,” Johnson said. “We have almost no funding. There’s so much to be done. You don’t speak the language of most people. You have self-doubts. But you keep moving forward.”

 

Johnson had volunteered with the One Humanity Institute, a U.S. and Poland-based charitable organization that was initially launched to support the Auschwitz Museum in Oświęcim, a small town in eastern Poland, near Krakow. A refugee crisis forced a pivot.

 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, more than 4 million people have streamed across the border into Poland, which is struggling to house and feed them. Johnson was following the news when he got a call from Nina Meyerhof, a veteran non-profit executive from Vermont and the co-founder of One Humanity Institute. He had met her through his work with his Pittsburgh company, Capital Purpose, which helps companies design strategies that are good for business and the world.

 

Meyerhof asked him to come and help a startup trying to address a humanitarian crisis. He had some experience building Habitat for Humanity homes, he said, but his degree in systems and control engineering did not prepare him for anything like this. Still, as CEO of his company, he had some flexibility. And a heart.

 

“I thought, ‘You know, I need to be there and I need to help,’” he said. “Something just triggered in me, and I said, ‘I got to go.’”

 

He arrived in Poland March 24 and began working with a small, dedicated corps of volunteers, most of them Polish, some international. The institute is refurbishing apartments for eight or more families in a pair of abandoned buildings donated by the Polish government. The volunteers also hope to create a community space for meals, job training and other services the refugees will need. Meanwhile, they continue the heartening work the institute started at the outset of the crisis—handing out Teddy bears to children crossing the border from Ukraine.

 

Johnson does not lack for motivation.

 

“Seeing the kids’ eyes light up is just amazing,” he said.

 

One of the families he met—young parents and their small child–shared a harrowing experience. They told of hiding in the basement of their apartment building near Kyiv as a Russian patrol passed, trying to shush a child who kept trying to wake his parents, who were dead.

 

“It just kind of rips you apart, and is something I could tell would give them nightmares for the rest of their lives,” Johnson said.

 

He kept in touch with his wife and two children in Pittsburgh via Zoom calls and welcomed new volunteers, who included a Russian couple from Krakow and an executive from the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

 

While building and furnishing apartments, the volunteers are trying to foresee the needs of families on a sudden and desperate odyssey, Johnson said. Most left everything behind. Some lost parents, spouses, children.

 

“They don’t want to think of themselves as refugees. They don’t know what’s next,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is what we can do. The goal is to try to house as many people as possible.”

 

The institute has set up a GoFundMe appeal, titled “House of Hope—Transitional Homes for Ukrainians,” that supports the project. 

 

People can also donate to the One Humanity Institute directly at its website.

 

Johnson asks that anyone wishing to volunteer on site in Poland, or donate household goods and appliances, message him via his LinkedIn account.