Wakker Cheese shop in Kewaunee donating all proceeds from sales to Ukraine relief supplies
KEWAUNEE – Sergii Aleksieiev speaks straightforwardly about Russia's invasion of Ukraine, but every so often passion and a little pain seem to edge into his voice. Especially when he talks about how he's trying to help his native country from 5,000 miles away.
That shouldn't be surprising. Aleksieiev was born and raised in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city with more than 1.4 million residents. It's also only about 25 miles from the Russian border and a center of industrial manufacturing, all likely reasons the Russian army has been hammering the city with barrages of shells in what has become more or less siege warfare, leveling buildings and killing an unknown number of people.
It's also where Aleksieiev not only grew up but also met his wife. He has been in Kewaunee since 2015 as operations manager for Wakker Cheese and is married to Iuliia, the daughter of Johannes Wakker, a Dutch immigrant who came to Kewaunee in 1995 to open a dairy farm south of the city. The farm is where milk is produced for the aged and spiced gouda cheeses (as well as a few cheddars) the family makes in small batches in Dutch farmstead style and sells in the downtown shop they opened in 2015, as well as online.
Since Russia launched its undeclared war on Feb. 24, Aleksieiev has seen the videos and heard the stories of the destruction in Ukraine from family and friends still living there, some of who are fighting to defend their country.
"The first days, everyone is very scared," Aleksieiev said. "When you see it on a daily basis, you get used to it, unfortunately. Everyone is united against Russia and what they're doing. … Some friends are fighting for Ukraine. Some, I haven't heard from since last Tuesday. When you're on the lines of the fight, you don't have time to chat or charge your phone."
So he decided to help as well as he can.
Starting last Friday, March 4, all proceeds from all sales by Wakker Cheese — not just the goudas and cheddars but also the Dutch chocolates, coffees, sweets and snack items — are going toward relief supplies for Ukrainian people.
Not just the profits from the sales of certain goods, Aleksieiev said. All money from all sales, in store or online.
"We're just trying to do as much as we can," he said. "It's no time to think about profits or anything like that. Help is so critical right now.
"We cannot send cheese to Ukraine, but we can exchange cheese for cash to send."
The funds aren't going to a specific relief agency but instead to friends in nearby European countries, especially Germany and Poland, who are coordinating with volunteers to buy needed supplies and transport them into Ukraine so they can be given as directly as possible to Ukrainians in need because of the war.
"The idea is to avoid delays and provide any kind of help we can right away," Aleksieiev said. "We're trying to concentrate on people's needs, people affected by the war. We're trying to help the regular people of Ukraine. So many people are wounded, tens of thousands."
The focus right now is on buying sleeping bags and first aid kits. Aleksieiev said the sleeping bags are needed for residents who've been displaced and are seeking shelter.
"Most people (in the bigger cities) are spending their lives now in the subways. They were built like bomb shelters in the Soviet days," Aleksieiev said. "(Or) they're spending nights in the basement, sleeping on concrete."
Over the first weekend of the fundraising, Aleksieiev said Wakker Cheese raised about $2,000. Most came from in-store sales to not just locals but also cheese shoppers from as far away as the Fox Valley, and some people also have made donations of up to $40 for the cause.
"They don't want to just sit and watch on TV. They want to help as much as they can," Aleksieiev said about the sales and donations. "Even a couple of bucks for a first aid kit, maybe it saves someone's life."
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He's very grateful for the people who are trying to help, he said. But while he and other businesses and organizations work to raise funds for Ukrainian relief, he also hopes America and other countries find a way to stop Russia from taking over Ukraine, comparing this to the way Germany invaded a country here, a territory there in the years before World War II and faced little to no resistance until it was too late.
"A lot of people think this war doesn't touch them because it's not their war," Aleksieiev said. "But Ukraine is just the beginning, just the first step. (Putin) definitely doesn't care about sanctions any more."
Aleksieiev said he hasn't set an end date to the fundraising, that he plans to keep it going "until people stop hurting there." He said it's a slow time for the business at this time of the year anyway, but the loss of profits doesn't matter when compared to what the money is being used for.
"I think we're doing the right thing," he said. "I wish I could do more. But we won't die from hunger here."
Wakker Cheese is at 409 Milwaukee St., Kewaunee. To buy cheese and other products whose proceeds will be donated for sleeping bags, first aid kits and other relief supplies for people in Ukraine, visit the shop, call 920-388-6500 or visit wakkercheese.com or facebook.com/wakkercheese.
Contact Christopher Clough at 920-741-7952, 920-562-8900 or [email protected].
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Wakker Cheese shop in Kewaunee donating all proceeds from sales to Ukraine relief supplies