After an eye-opening supply-run, a former Sitkan fundraises for friends in Ukraine

John DePalatis and his friend Julia (whose last name has been omitted from this story) standing in front of a badly charred building in Irpin. After a month of airstrikes and fighting, the Ukrainian military retook the city. (Youtube screenshot)

In the YouTube video, a man wearing a burgundy polo and baseball cap gestures to a woman on his left, wearing a periwinkle dress peppered with tiny white flowers. She fist bumps him after he introduces her, and he cringes, rubbing his knuckles pretending to be in pain from the force of her fist. She laughs. It’s clear, in that moment, they’re good friends.

As Julia talks to the camera, she’s in sharp contrast to the building behind her, which is blackened from missile fire. She’s a former flight attendant turned military medic in the war in Ukraine. The man next to her is former Sitka music teacher John DePalatis. They’re raising money for medical supplies — or, as the name of their fundraiser suggests — to “Help John and Julia Save The World.”

But how did this American teacher end up in Ukraine? For eight years, between 2006 to 2014, DePalatis was the band and choir director at Sitka High School. Being a music teacher left his summers free to travel to far away places.

“I just walk the earth,” DePalatis said an interview over Zoom, earlier this month. “So I have been all over the world. Generally, my style of travel is to go find really interesting things, sort of, in places where angels fear to tread. I happened to be in Iran in 2009, during the disputed elections there. Trouble seems to find me one way or another.”

He was teaching in Washington, but after a year of navigating teaching music during COVID, DePalatis decided to take a year off and use some money he’d saved to travel. He took the opportunity to visit some friends he’d made over the years in Ukraine — in Kyiv and some other cities.

Things would soon change, but at the time, the idea of conflict escalating with Russia felt unlikely even to Ukrainians.

“Most of the Ukrainians I talked to in November would say something like, ‘Oh this, Russia, you know, nothing happened.’ And then as things kind of got more and more escalated, by January, they weren’t really saying that anymore, and there was some concern,” he said.

His tourist visa ran out in February of 2022, so he went to Bucharest, Romania to secure a work permit. As he parted with friends, they had a running joke: if things went badly, he would meet them at the border.

“And that is ultimately what happened,” DePalatis said. He was in Romania when Russia invaded on Feb. 24.

“When the war started, I was just flabbergasted,” he said. “Everything I’d read told me this was a really bad mistake for Putin, by any metric. And so I couldn’t believe it was happening — people here couldn’t believe it was happening.”

“So I sat there for a week. And I was like, ‘Well, what do I do now? Do I just go home?’” he recalled. “Then I realized, I sort of remembered this joke that I made. And so I contacted my friends and I said, ‘Maybe you should come to Romania.’”

He reached out to a vacation rental in rural Romania where he’d stayed before, and they wanted to help. In the coming weeks, he brought two of his friends and their children there.

“We were living in a rural farmhouse, together with three women and six children, and hilarity ensues,” DePalatis said. “But, you know, I couldn’t stop the war, I couldn’t protect the people, but I could — I could protect these few. I could get them to safety, I could look after their children.”

Early on, his thoughts turned to his friend Julia. The day war broke out he called her, fearing for her safety. Eventually, she got back to him — she’d gone straight to the military recruiting office, and by the end of her first day she’d trained six officers in first aid. The two stayed in contact as they could. Then one day in June, he heard from her again.

“She sent me a message and said, ‘John, I need your help. My plate carrier has been damaged. And I’m about to ship out to Bakhmut.’ Which, if you know anything about what’s happening over there, that’s, that’s bad,” Depalatis said. “We didn’t know when that was going to happen.”

Julia asked if DePalatis could find her a protective vest in Romania and mail it to her, but the mailing options were limited — none of the major carriers were operating in Ukraine due to the war — and the Romanian Post Office said it would take six weeks.

“So at that point, it’s like, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to Kyiv.’ So I did, because what else could I do?” DePalatis said. “I mean, when your friends are in trouble, you take care of your friends.”

DePalatis filled a small suitcase with hemostatic bandages, tourniquets, and her protective gear. The trip took him around 30 hours on trains and buses, because planes don’t fly in anymore. When he finally made it, he met the Ukrainians in Julia’s battalion and understood that the suitcase he brought wasn’t enough.

“The needs are just endless,” he said. “And talking with the guys in battalion. These people are, you know, where just months ago, they were bus drivers, and they were store owners, and they were teachers and bakers, and farmers.”

DePalatis said he wasn’t much use there. He left a few weeks after he arrived, and he’s heading to Skagway this month — back to the music classroom. But before he left Ukraine, he filmed a video with Julia to fundraise for more medical supplies. He plans to get the money to her before her battalion deploys in a few weeks.

As of early August, they’d raised around $6,500.

“[It’s] enough that you can kind of look at and go ‘Wow, that is going to make a dent.’” he said. “You know that people are going to survive that wouldn’t otherwise.”

Even so, DePalatis said he knows that their fundraiser won’t exactly save the world.

“No matter what I do, no matter how much money we raise, no matter what I accomplish, it’s not enough. This war isn’t gonna stop for a long time, and people aren’t going to be saved for a long time,” he said. “I have the desire to fix it all — but I can’t, and so I have to do this. I have to.”

[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

Previous articleSteller sea lions most likely victims of human-caused marine mammal deaths in Alaska
Next articleDraft ferry schedule includes more sailings, but leaves some communities with large service gaps