On Feb. 24, when Nancee Phillips Tegeder watched as the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, it felt like she was being invaded too.

There on the television screen were bombs going off in the very cities where she once lived as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

She remembered back to 2000, when she opened her call and couldn’t pronounce the name of her mission: Ukraine Donetsk. She wasn’t wild about going halfway around the world to a country just emerging from communism. Her mother said, “That’s one of the places I didn’t want you to go.” 

When she arrived in eastern Ukraine, greeted by a country barely a decade removed from being part of the USSR, with little central heating and a level of poverty entirely unfamiliar to a young woman from Temecula, California, it appeared her fears were well founded.

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But then she met the people and “fell in love with them. They have kind of a rough exterior, but as you get to know them they’ll give you the shirt off their back.”

Now, 21 years later she was watching their homeland getting blown to bits.

“I saw it on TV and burst out crying. It felt like my heart was being ripped out.”

First thing Nancee and her husband Troy (who also served a mission in Ukraine) did was reach out to their Ukrainian friends to see how they were faring. One of them said she’d be grateful if there was any way they could help her with train tickets to get out of the country. She needed $700.

“I thought we’d just pay for it,” says Nancee, who is an attorney. “But I decided to post it on Facebook and Instagram to see if anyone wanted to share that cost with me.”

Immediately she had $3,000 in donations from her friends.

With $2,300 left over, she called a fellow missionary from back in the day. Could he use the money?

The former missionary, an accountant, told her thanks for the offer, but explained that he’d been saving for just such an emergency. In fact, he’d just returned from dropping his young son and wife off at the Polish border.

“I’m trying to drive more people to the border,” he added as an afterthought. “If you wanted to help with gas that would be nice.”

Neither of them had an inkling how quickly that little aside would transform into a fleet of seven new nine-passenger vans that have been ferrying refugees to the border ever since.

Here’s how fast the internet — and some prayers — worked:

  • Nancee posted a photo of the former missionary on her Facebook and Instagram accounts, along with a photo of the two of them circa 2000, back when they wore name tags in Ukraine.
  • She explained that anyone who wanted to donate gas money could send it to her.

“After that,” she says, “it just went viral. Friends started sharing, then friends of friends.”

In no time she had raised over $100,000.

While all this was going on, Jessica Murray Osborn, a Utah mother of four who lives in Draper, happened to see Nancee’s posts, “even though we’re not Facebook friends.”

Jessica considered her prayers to somehow help the situation in Ukraine answered.

On her social media platforms, she mounted her own campaign to aid Nancee’s campaign.

By this time, the former missionary was reporting that more men were eager to help transport refugees if they only had the vehicles.

In three weeks Jessica had raised over $150,000. She and Nancee pooled their resources and bought the seven vans.

Over the past five weeks, seven drivers have driven hundreds of women and children to the border and safety.

On their return to eastern Ukraine, they fill their vans with humanitarian aid and distribute the supplies back in their war torn cities along the way.

It is perilous work. Some volunteer for the most hazardous pickups and wear bulletproof vests provided by their American benefactors.

Through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, Nancee and Jessica are in daily contact with their fleet of seven drivers. Both women post regular updates.

“They are crazy, crazy brave, all of them,” says Jessica. “All are natural leaders, determined to use every minute they can to help people. I cannot wait for the amazing day I get to hug all these amazing guys.”

“They do the dangerous part, the important part; we just try to keep them going,” says Nancee. “I’m so proud of these guys. They’re the real heroes. War is devastating, but it’s been inspiring to watch this unfold.”

To aid the cause, contributions can be sent via Venmo to @Nancee-Tegeder (4330) or @Jessica-Murray-Osborn. PayPal contributions can be sent to nanceetegeder@gmail.com or @jessicamurrayosborn.

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