NH CEO Driving Van and Using Credit Card Points to Provide Ukrainian Refugees Shelter
When Ken Jacobus, founder, and CEO of Good Start Packaging, saw the devastating reports from the war in Ukraine, he knew he had to do something to help. He could have written a check to a worthy non-profit and watched the refugee crisis from afar. Instead, he boarded a plane for Poland, armed with 6 million American Express Marriot Bonvoy credit card points and a plan to book Marriott hotel rooms for weary refugees.
Ken explains: “Thousands of people cross the border from Ukraine to Poland each day. They need transportation and housing, and that’s where I can help. I love to drive. I also love hotels and have obsessively accumulated loyalty points with the Marriott chain. I am more than ready to donate all the points that I have accumulated – worth about $50,000 – to help refugees get safe, comfortable places to stay.”
Ken arrived in Poland on March 12, 2022, with a vision and a three-day van rental. Within 36 hours he had become part of a team of volunteer drivers transporting refugees from the Ukrainian border to points within Poland. Since his arrival, Ken has provided over 300 families with hotel rooms. His goal is to provide hotel rooms for 1,000 Ukrainian families.
Ken doesn’t know exactly how long he will be in Poland. He just knows that too much is at stake to hope that someone else will alleviate the suffering. “This is a critical juncture in the causes of democracy and human decency,” he writes. “I have witnessed so many compassionate people do great work in Poland this week. But there are not enough ‘someones’ to minimize further human suffering right now, so we need to step up.”
Ken hopes that other business leaders will join him in finding creative ways to help the growing numbers of Ukrainian refugees.
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A Daily Chronicle Of Ken's Work To Support Ukrainian Refugees
April 1, 2022 - Build Back Ukraine Better By: Ken Jacobus
Today I donated $10,000 USD to each of the three organizations listed below on behalf of our team at Good Start Packaging. These organizations have the scale to do urgent and massive work now. I've seen some of it already these past three weeks. We've chosen them because some of this $30,000 will be allocated to a more sustained effort to help refugees beyond just the immediate urgent need for emergency transportation, accommodations, and food.
Our ability to do this is because of the hard work of my team at Good Start Packaging and the support of our clients. Thank you all for enabling me to be part of this. We’ll continue to funnel our labor and our clients’ support into being a force for good in the world. This is just a "good start" towards our commitment to provide at least $100,000 USD in humanitarian assistance for the people of Ukraine this year. Most of this commitment has already been delivered in the past three weeks.
Governments from around the world now need to step in to help provide jobs, education, and housing for people from Ukraine who have fled to other countries. And we need to help rebuild Ukraine even better than before. We need volunteers too because Poland and neighboring countries just don’t have enough resources to do it all alone. I've been inspired by some pretty wonderful and selfless volunteers in Poland.
While I was driving to the border the other day, I heard on the news that 10 million people had so far been "displaced" from their homes in Ukraine. Since 4 million of those had already left the country, mostly to neighboring countries, that meant 6 million were hiding in bomb shelters and buildings elsewhere in Ukraine, hoping the war would be over soon.
I tried to imagine what life would look like in the United States if an equivalent 25% of our population had to leave their homes due to a war they didn’t start. 25% of the U.S. population amounts to 82 million people. I could not imagine this. I certainly hope our neighbors in Mexico and Canada would help but they couldn't do it alone. We would need a sustained global effort just to meet basic human needs and then another global effort to rebuild the homes and lives that were shattered. If innocent Americans would deserve this kind of help, certainly the people of Ukraine do too. This moment represents an opportunity for all of us to demonstrate that we'll stand up to protect basic human rights, the sovereignty of every country, and international laws. And it's time to double down on our efforts to strengthen alliances that promote long-term peace.
March 31, 2022 - So many stories By: Ken Jacobus
I've provided free hotel rooms for well over 300 people fleeing Ukraine with no place to go. Many come late at night when the buses and trains drop people off. Their choices are to sleep on the floor of the train station or go to a huge stadium shelter.
The other night there was an exhausted mother with her 6-year-old child and three cats who just got off a train at 10PM. We found a hotel that allows cats. I don't know how one person manages to get on and off a train with three cats and a young child.
Texts come in at midnight sometimes. I'm usually going to sleep, but how do you say no to "Just arrived 2 women (grandma and Mum) and 2 little children (7 and 3)" who just got off a train in a strange city at 11:46PM? Or one at 10:45PM that says, "We have one blind lady. Can you offer a room at the Marriott?"
March 31, 2022 - Last border trip By: Ken Jacobus
Today I would make my ninth and final border run before heading home. This time I'm going to the actual border first, not a reception center several miles away. This is because my first stop is to drop off a couple of elderly women who had been at the Four Points Sheraton with us but who wanted to go back to Ukraine for some reason. I was asked to drop them in a parking lot near the border crossing, at which point they would somehow figure out how to get home. This is often how things go, so such a request doesn't surprise me. But the day would not be without a bit of stress.
The GPS pin that was sent to me was supposed to be just inside the exit gate on the Polish side of the border. And it did appear to be on Polish land. But after waiting in a long car line, we found ourselves at a border control point and in front of a Polish border security official who told me in no uncertain terms that the point on my Google Maps was in fact in Ukraine, and would require me to produce more paperwork than I had on hand.
As much as I'd like to visit Ukraine someday, right now is not the ideal time. So we turned around after an hour in the border line and found a small roadside set-up of reception tents for people who had just crossed into Poland from Ukraine. I took the women and their luggage into a warming tent (it was snowing) which had food and volunteers. I told the people there that these women wanted to somehow get back into Ukraine and I had been told to drop them here.
I waved goodbye to the two women, quite concerned that leaving such vulnerable people with random, albeit kind strangers didn't seem like the best thing to be doing. But I had little choice given I was already late to pick up more people and had another five hours to go on the road.
Both women walked quickly after me towards the door as I left. One of them started crying, gave me a big hug, and said something seemingly gracious in Russian. I drove off in the falling snow and in a daze. Later I would wonder if they were really thanking me or scared out of their minds that I had left them there to fend for themselves.
March 30, 2022 - Moxy Hotel jumps in to help By: Ken Jacobus
Huge shout out to Agata, Magda, and Jeroen from the Warsaw Moxy Hotel where we just blocked at least another 320 room nights for the next month. Their team has been super compassionate and proactively accommodating for our guests and others from Ukraine. They gave us a special rate with breakfast for the next month and even blocked all our rooms near each other so people from Ukraine can be together. They brought in games for kids and have even created welcome letters translated into Ukrainian explaining all their services. If you ever get a chance to stay in a Moxy, they’re super cool and the Warsaw one is especially wonderful. Thank you!
March 29, 2022 - Back to the border By: Ken Jacobus
I took several days off from traveling to the border. The long days and my sore back muscles were starting to take a toll. I wanted to stay in Warsaw to improve our hotel program and help out with local transport needs. I wasn’t sure I would continue to drive to the border. But after a few days, I started to miss those trips. I missed the early morning drives through farm country while listening to podcasts, followed by the chaos of the reception centers. I had even gotten used to the awkward silence (given what was usually a language barrier) as I drove seven people for four hours back to Warsaw. And of course I missed feeling helpful to people who are in pretty bad shape. So on Tuesday morning, I decided to rent yet another van and head down to the refugee reception center in Hrubieszów, Poland.
The four hour drive down and the pick up of 7 people who had just arrived from Ukraine went so smoothly it was almost annoying. Our team of volunteer drivers and coordinators is starting to get pretty skilled at knowing where the need is for transportation. They’ve become familiar with the volunteers at the reception centers (shelters) so often know in advance when certain individuals from Ukraine will be crossing certain borders and when they’ll need transport to and in some cases, accommodations in Warsaw.
I picked up four different families who needed to be dropped at different points on the way to and within Warsaw. The drive back with the passengers was a bit more chaotic than usual as we had to figure out who was going where and find hotels for them. In addition, I fielded a number of requests from other drivers for hotel rooms for their passengers. So whenever we had a rest stop, I spent it communicating on WhatsApp with my coordinators and booking hotels with Marriott. I dropped off an elderly couple at a supermarket parking lot so they could meet their host family and another family at an apartment in Warsaw. The next two parties, a woman traveling alone and another woman with her six-year-old daughter, wanted to fly out of Warsaw airport the next day to other countries. So, I arranged to get two rooms at the Courtyard Hotel at Warsaw airport for them. The last party, a mother and her daughter, would come to the Sheraton Grand downtown where I was staying. I got them a room for three nights with meals. They seemed very confused that they had a free hotel to stay in but I was getting used to that.
The woman I had dropped off at the airport Courtyard with the daughter is named Olena. She had been surprised and grateful to have a hotel right across the street from the airport since she still needed to buy a ticket. After I checked them into the hotel, I had given them my contact information (she was the one person in my van that day who speaks English) and told her to text me if she had any trouble.
The next day she would call me to request an extension of a couple more days in the hotel. She discovered that the next flight to the country she wanted to travel to was not until two days later. In addition, the airline ticket counter would not accept cash and especially Euros, the only payment method she was carrying. So I offered to take her cash and buy the plane tickets with my credit card which she graciously accepted.
I went back to the airport with her and stood in line to get the plane tickets. While we were there waiting, a group of seven teenage girls from Ukraine came to the ticket counter next to us. They all started crying and yelling in Russian. I thought maybe they couldn’t afford to buy tickets so asked Olena to eavesdrop to see if I might be able to help. It turned out they had already bought tickets to the U.K., but because they didn’t have a visa yet, the airline told them they couldn’t travel. In addition, because they purchased nonrefundable tickets, they couldn’t get their money back either.
So they walked away very distraught. It reminded me that you really don’t have to walk far around here to witness yet another heartbreaking injustice for someone from Ukraine, this on top of the trauma of leaving a war zone that was once their home.
I asked Olena if her daughter knew anything about what was going on and whether she was scared. She said "Of course!" and then showed me a video she took of a bomb landing near her neighborhood a few nights before.
March 28, 2022 - Getting overwhelmed By: Ken Jacobus
We had a pretty productive weekend getting particularly vulnerable Ukrainian families into hotel rooms instead of giant stadium shelters. We must have booked over 40 rooms for various families that had just arrived in Warsaw with no place to stay. One of the things I’ve come to look forward to is having breakfast at the hotel restaurant every morning. I look around the crowded room and often recognize many of the faces of refugees I helped check in late the night before. Most of them don't recognize me as they have no idea how they managed to score a hotel room instead of a cot in the middle of a giant stadium/shelter. I prefer this anonymity as they have enough to worry about without having to feel like they have to thank a guy who is lucky enough to have way more resources than they do at the moment.
At sunset on Monday night, I took a walk through the beautiful city of Warsaw to the Central Train Station. There’s a large upscale shopping mall next to it that I wanted to visit to get a plug adapter for my laptop. Just as I walked into the mall, I got a text from the volunteer coordinator, Monika, at the accommodations desk inside the train station. I was starting to become known with several of the volunteers at the accommodations desks of two of the main train stations in Warsaw. Many of them have been contacting me at all hours when they have refugees who need a place to stay for the night. The heartbreaking stories are never-ending. I've had numerous diabetic people, some with serious volatility managing glucose due to stress (according to the paramedics at the train station), recent heart attack victims, people in wheelchairs, two separate blind people (one somehow traveling alone), one woman with Epidermolysis Bulosa (a painful and sometimes fatal skin condition), one person who just started chemotherapy for cancer and now needed to find a way to continue it in Poland, and people who are just exhausted and very frightened. And of course, there are the children, robbed of their homes, stability, school, fathers who have to stay and fight, time with friends, and innocence. I'm starting to see the toll that seeing this is having on the volunteers like me. But you just can't stop trying to help people once you're in the middle of this mess. Working nonstop helps prevent moments of emotional overwhelm that can come with thinking about the scale of human suffering here.
Monika had in front of her two women who seemed to be friends and an 11-year-old son of one of the women. They had fled Kyiv a couple of days ago. The woman who was the boy’s mother had been in the process of enrolling her son in a school elsewhere in Poland. She had a bad experience of some sort and was really stressed and upset. As a result, they had traveled back to Warsaw and purchased train tickets to return to Kyiv the next day! I had already directly experienced and heard about people like this who were so stressed being in Poland that they were planning to go back to Ukraine. I told Monika I was just next door and would be right over to help.
When I got there less than two minutes after Monika texted me, I saw the woman in tears. The volunteers who speak Russian were comforting her and told me later they were trying to convince her to stay in a hotel at least one night to calm down so she could then reconsider leaving Poland to go back to Ukraine.
They convinced her to stay at least for now. I quickly got them a room at the Marriott across the street. The front desk agent, Michal, was amazing. He hooked us up with a fantastic 38th-floor room with a view of the city and access to the executive lounge for breakfast. I figured that would distract the woman a bit from her stress. On a side note, Michal told me he had met several people from Ukraine at the hotel and was trying to do anything he could for them, including taking their laundry home with him to wash!
One of the volunteers from the station, Tanya, and I decided to walk these people across the busy street to the hotel to make sure they got checked in OK. On the way across the street, I started talking to Tanya. She spoke English and Russian well but happened to mention she didn't speak Polish at all. This surprised me so I asked about it. It turns out Tanya was here from Ukraine herself. She was waiting the required two days for the Canadian Embassy to process her paperwork so she could emigrate to Canada. Instead of spending those two days sightseeing in this beautiful city, she was helping her fellow Ukrainians at the train station. Incredible.
We got the two women and the little girl into their hotel room. Tanya told them one of the volunteers would be by in the morning to help them decide on their next steps. I headed back to the mall for my laptop adapter, or so I thought.
Once again, the minute I walked in the door of the mall, I got another call from the volunteer desk of the train station. They had an elderly woman and her daughter who needed a room at the Marriott. They had just fled Mariupol and arrived in Warsaw, no doubt after a long journey. That was all I needed to know. We got them a room at the Marriott. Once again, Michal hooked us up with an upgraded room and free breakfast.
I walked these women over to the Marriott as well, this time with a volunteer translator from Belarus. On the way over, I asked him his story since he spoke English and I couldn't communicate with the Ukrainians we were escorting anyway. I asked him if he liked living in Poland and what brought him here. He said he liked it, especially since he could not go back to Belarus after participating in an anti-government protest. We got the women checked in to the Marriott and they were extremely happy with the accommodations.
I finally bought that laptop adapter but not before my brand new iPhone, in what would become a common occurrence, would run out of battery and turn off from excess use, forcing me to race back to my hotel to plug it in to avoid missing urgent requests for help. Over the next two days, mostly at night when trains and buses were dropping refugees at the Warsaw train station, I would receive dozens of urgent requests for rooms at hotels which I quickly arranged. Things were really heating up, and not necessarily in a happy and sustainable way.
March 27, 2022 - A trifecta of a win By: Ken Jacobus
I continue to be amazed at how the universe over-delivers if you put your heart's desires out there. Today a solution to one of my problems would magically present itself. My objective of helping 1000 Ukrainian families find temporary accommodations was being achieved a lot slower than I had hoped. There were several factors contributing to this that I hadn't fully anticipated.
It took awhile to establish a small network of volunteers who both knew about my offer of free hotel rooms, then felt it was credible, and then could be trained on how to handle the logistics of it. Then there was the matter of booking hotel rooms, getting the names of the guests who were authorized to check in, constantly reminding the hotel desk people about my negotiated rates and requirement to provide all my guests with meal vouchers for the hotel restaurant, etc. And there were always all kinds of changes along the way, sometimes coming late at night such as requests by refugee guests to extend their hotel stays due to delays in embassy clearances to travel to other countries for longer-term accommodation. Then there was the matter of figuring out how to transport guests from train stations to the hotels and on to other destinations later. All of this I often helped coordinate while I was on the road to and from the border to transport more refugees to Warsaw. I had been here two weeks and had booked about 120 room nights for about 90 families. A nice number but at this rate, my kids might be driving down to the local Target to buy themselves a new dad if I didn't have a plan to hit my number faster and visit my own home.
So at this point, I was more than a little intrigued during an early Saturday morning call I received from a guy named Aleksander who had heard about my hotel program and wanted to pitch an idea. He was a volunteer at the refugee accommodations desk at the central train station. Word was starting to spread with the volunteers about a crazy American handing out hotel rooms for people from Ukraine.
Aleksander told me about a Ukrainian friend of his named Katerina who, along with her husband, had recently purchased a 33 room, 160-bed hostel near the Warsaw Central train station. They had planned to renovate it this month but instead were offering rooms to refugees at no charge. Volunteers were providing food, Polish language training, activities for children to give weary parents a break, and job search training. The problem was after over a month of this, they were running out of money to pay rent and other expenses like employee salaries. Aleksander thought this would be a more efficient investment for me to help more families faster with less work for me. We set up a meeting that afternoon for me to tour the facility with Katerina. Artem joined me to provide additional insight and translation services.
After seeing the facility and more importantly the sincerity of Katerina in helping the refugees as long as she possibly could, I was sold pretty quickly. Katerina and her small group of volunteers and employees were working tirelessly to help the refugees. She had visited the Polish government offices to ask about recently announced reimbursements the government was going to provide to residents hosting Ukrainian refugees. But each time she was told by the government that no one yet knew about the program or when it would be implemented. There was no way she could keep the place operating for even a few more weeks without any revenue while waiting for the government to help.
What I loved about this opportunity was that it was self-sufficient, meaning it wouldn't require me to actively assist to operate. Katerina and her staff were actively soliciting refugee guests at the train station to stay, transporting them, and providing all kinds of food and services, all with no requirement that they leave after a certain number of days. But what I also saw here was something very special. A community had been established throughout the many rooms and halls of the facility. Ukrainian adults were socializing, cooking and eating together in the community kitchen, and watching each other's kids. Children from different families were running around playing happily with each other. It wasn't home but on several levels, it was better than a hotel. On top of all this, it was actually employing some of the refugees from Ukraine!
I told Katerina I would provide funding to keep the hostel open and free for refugees for at least the next month. I also provided funding for food for the guests during that time. She seemed extremely relieved and grateful. The facility had been hosting about 60 people but could handle quite a few more. Katerina was nervously keeping several private and communal guest rooms available to rent because she didn't think she could afford to provide them for free to the many more Ukrainians who needed them. Now she could open those up for refugees and purchase a number of supplies like new bedding that she critically needed.
I would be keeping close watch on this facility to see how successful it would be so I could replicate this model at other hostels in the city. Suddenly that 1000 refugee family number seemed more within reach.
March 26, 2022 - Two small bags and a cat By: Ken Jacobus
After two weeks in Warsaw, I connected back up with Artem, the volunteer in the train station from my first day. We discussed what we’ve both learned about the changing refugee situation around Poland. I had certainly learned that because there is no central authority organizing the relief effort, things are much more chaotic and inefficient in the refugee hubs. I decided it would be best to operate more independently if I was going to ramp my hotel program to help as many people as I wanted.
Artem agreed to join me, at least on the weekends, to directly solicit Ukrainian travelers in need to get them hotel rooms and food for a few days. We met this afternoon at my hotel and decided to go to the train station right away. The Warsaw Central train station is where many refugees were leaving trains and buses and then having to fend for themselves for a place to stay. It was really the perfect place because this was where the refugees were first being confronted with the need to decide where they were going to sleep next. It was late in the day but we figured we could get a bunch of people that night into hotels to get some momentum going.
I was re-energized and ready to go. There was just one small problem. President Biden had just arrived in Warsaw. So many of the downtown streets were completely blocked off. The normally 15-minute drive took as well over an hour. He was staying at the Marriott hotel, just across the street from the central train station of course.
We ended up meeting this great volunteer coordinator at the train station who not only speaks English but was really excited when she heard I could donate at least 40 hotel rooms every night. She understood that we wanted to focus on helping families with small children and people with special needs. She promised to help us get a steady stream of refugees into the hotels and would tell other coordinators as well.
She quickly fulfilled that promise by helping us get two families interested in a hotel room for the night. They had train tickets to other countries the next day so had just planned to sleep on the train station floor.
We took a family of four with two very small children, as well as a 20-something guy and his father. The 20-something had long dreadlocks and was carrying a cat and a couple of small bags. His father could not carry anything because he walked heavily with a cane, and appeared to be in a lot of pain. At first, I didn’t want to take this pair because they had a train in about seven hours. I figured they could stick it out in the train station so that we didn’t have to transport them back in the middle of the night. But then I found out that the father could barely sit down much less lay down in the train station due to his discomfort. We decided to use Artem’s car for the family of four and I would take a taxi back to the hotel with the guy and his father. This proved to be quite challenging as several of the taxi drivers would not take us with the cat. You could barely hear anything outside the train station with all the police sirens involved in Biden’s entourage across the street. The father was getting really tired of standing as he said he was in pain. I finally convinced one driver to take us.
We got them checked in a little while later at a hotel downtown. I had to have the guy with the cat wait outside in the back of the building while I opened a stairwell exit and let him in through the back since cats are not allowed at the hotel. It was 10 PM and I was ready to have dinner at the hotel bar and go to bed so I could get up and drive those guys back to the train at 3:30 AM. I had dinner at the bar just across from the family of four who were having dinner with the food vouchers we got them.
That’s when the volunteer coordinator from the volunteer desk at the train station called and said she had at least 15 more people coming our way in need of four to five rooms at the hotel. We were frantically trying to figure out how to transport them when the resourceful volunteer coordinator got the fire department to bring them over in their large van. An hour later, we had all of them checked into hotel rooms.
I got the guy and his father to the train station as promised around 3:30 AM. On the way to the train station, he told me that he wasn’t sure if they would continue on to Amsterdam or stay in Berlin. He said it would really depend on how much help they could get from volunteers because they had nothing and were completely vulnerable to whatever help their destination countries could give. The guy said he would never forget what we did for them and appreciated it. In the end, what had only cost me a few lost minutes of sleep and some hotel points, had been a huge physical and emotional boost for these guys who had practically nothing. Just their two bags and a cat.
Artem and I agreed to meet again on Saturday at the train station to do it again.