Painting for prosthetics: Local event aims to help war victims in Ukraine

A portion of proceeds from Cocktails & Canvas benefits Limbs for Liberty, which provides prosthetics for war victims in Ukraine

Alpine Arts Center hosts a Cocktails & Canvas Class, where $10 of the registration fee benefits Limbs for Liberty - Ukraine, a local volunteer nonprofit that sends 100% of its donations to providing prosthetics for children and adults who have lost limbs during the war with Russia.
Courtesy Alpine Arts

A local organization providing aid to civilians wounded in the Russia-Ukraine war wants people to know they can help in the smallest of ways, even with just a few brushstrokes.

On Tuesday, Alpine Arts Center will host Cocktails & Canvas to support Limbs for Liberty, a local nonprofit designed to help amputees from Ukraine benefit from prosthetic treatment. It may seem like a trivial thing: Painting while sipping a drink, but a portion of each registration fee directly funds prosthetics and other assistance for Ukrainians suffering the atrocities of war, and a silent auction and bake sale also contribute to the fundraiser.

Cofounded in June by Vail Valley residents Kelli Rohrig and Tyler Schmidt, Limbs for Liberty helps Ukrainian amputees who have lost limbs during the Russia-Ukraine war. Unlike other nonprofits, this one is staffed completely by volunteers who spend their own money to fly back and forth to Ukraine to aid residents, so all donations go directly to procuring prosthetics and caring for and training each recipient.

Rohrig initially felt compelled to do something after watching a video of families carrying their cats from their homes in Ukraine during the war. But really, it began long before that moment: Her grandfather and other relatives were Belgium Jews, and people helped them escape the Nazi regime when they were in danger. Her grandfather came to the U.S. via Switzerland on a black-market Honduran passport and ended up in Colorado Springs to treat his tuberculous.

“I always wondered, during World War II, why did this German family take in people when other families would not,” Rohrig said, explaining her original motivation. “Then, I went to Ukraine, and I met the people, and they’re just really inspiring, so they’ve kind of captivated me.”

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“Kind of” is a bit of an understatement: Rohrig first flew to Poland to assist on the border of Ukraine in March. Last Friday, she was in Washington D.C. meeting with the Ukraine Embassy to get visas for her third trip to Ukraine, departing Sept. 10.

The Eagle County resident and co-owner of Mountain Organic Landscaping and Irrigation helped launch Limbs for Liberty after she returned to Poland, where she brought medical trauma and pet shelter supplies, as well as cash to help Ukrainians seeking refuge. When she returned, she met Avon resident, nurse practitioner and veteran of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets Tyler Schmidt, who told her: “We have to help the amputees.” While Schmidt was in Ukraine last April assisting in medical clinics and training Ukrainian military units in U.S. special forces tactics, the children he saw who lost limbs in explosions broke his heart. And so, the nonprofit began.

So far, with just $2,000 of donations and volunteer medical staff, the newly formed Limbs for Liberty has provided eight Ukrainians with prosthetics. But there’s a waiting list of 400 people.

The nonprofit partners with two physicians specializing in prosthetics (one in Minnesota and one in Florida), and comprises 10 volunteers total, four of whom live in Eagle County. They discovered it was less expensive to fly Ukrainians into the U.S. for the three-week process of fitting them for, and teaching them how to use, their new prosthetics through physical therapists who donate their time and expertise (while others open their homes to house the Ukrainians).

“When we met the first five amputees, they had no idea there were all these Americans that knew what was going on, and they were just blown away,” Rohrig said. “They had no idea how many people cared … They’re so grateful to get their prosthetic, but Ukrainians don’t want to stay in America. They do need a handout, but they want to go home and get their country back on track.”

In about a week, Rohrig will return to Ukraine with medical supplies, some of which the oncology and cardiology departments of Vail Health donated. On her first trip, she could only get supplies into Lviv, but “now it’s pretty safe to get to Kiev,” she said, adding that only eight to 10 organizations worldwide have been able to deliver necessities to the front lines, due to how dangerous it is.

Rohrig faces danger each time she goes. Medics who work for another Ukrainian-aid nonprofit she volunteers for have been gassed, one was almost lynched and another was shot at. One of their ambulances was also blown up, she said.

“As Americans, Russians want us because we are highly valuable,” she said, adding how Ukrainians are also under fire. “The other day, Sumy had 50 rockets shot at them. They get rockets every day, and they’re never in the news. But every day, they have injuries. I’m in communication three to five times a week with one of the translators, and they’re just appreciative that we are trying.”

Rohrig planned to travel with two other women, but organizers insisted she bring a man from Backroads Foundation, which works with governments and other nonprofits to deliver supplies. During this trip, she will meet with a women’s group in Lviv to see how she can help address trafficking and rape. She’s also bringing HIV kits and the morning-after pill for women who have been raped.

“Women are being used as a war weapon, being raped, trafficked and sold,” she said. “Originally, when there were all these people coming out of border crossings, it was slow because they were looking for trafficking. They busted two van loads of kids being stolen.”

While Limbs for Liberty does need financial donations, volunteers have found it “most effective to not necessarily ask for money but to do informational events, because most people don’t understand what’s going on, and the very little they donate, like a drone or external fixator, can change a person’s life,” she said.

Currently, the nonprofit’s “big ask” involves external fixator devices and any plates and screws patients who have had orthopedic surgery may no longer need. Patients can tell their physician they’d like to donate their hardware, which gets cleaned and sterilized and can then be reused.

Rohrig plans to return to Ukraine in November to deliver winter clothing, in addition to other supplies. In the meantime, Limbs for Liberty can use any donations.

Zino Ristorante hosted the nonprofit’s first fundraiser in May. Cocktails & Canvas will be the second fundraiser, on Tuesday. A third Bingo fundraiser at Route 6 Café takes place Oct. 21. Volunteers also host informational meetups; last week, Rohrig organized a mountain bike ride for participants to learn what’s happening to women in Ukraine and ended up with $500 in donations and new medical contacts who hope to assist. Next, she’ll be putting together a list of basic ways “the average person” can help.

“If you commit a half hour of your life to helping out,” she said, “that half hour can make a pretty massive difference.”

If you go…

What: Cocktails & Canvas: Fundraiser for Ukraine
When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Alpine Arts Center, 280 Main St., Unit C-101, Edwards
Cost: $49; $10 of this benefits Limbs for Liberty; fee includes free drink. There will also be a silent auction and bake sale to benefit Limbs for Liberty
More info:

Another fundraiser: Bingo at Route 6 Café in Avon, Oct. 21

More info:

Mikael, a double amputee from a bombing in Kiev.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo
Doctors without Borders on the front.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo
Bombed buildings in Southeast Ukraine.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo
Donations to the hospital in Sumy.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo
A Russian tank southeast of Kiev.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo
A 21-year-old got his prosthetic in Minneapolis.
Kelli Rohrig/Courtesy photo

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