‘I don’t feel scared for myself’: Wilton man embarks on risky missions to help Ukrainian refugees

Photo of J.D. Freda

WILTON — A former co-worker sent a photo to Sean Lentner when Russia first invaded Ukraine.

The photo showed a young boy stranded at the Romanian border after being separated from his mother during their journey.

Lentner, a Wilton resident and self-employed tech entrepreneur, called the photo “profound” on Friday as he waited in the northeastern Romanian town of Siret just across the Ukrainian border, before delivering medical supplies to Kyiv.

Lentner has been working with AICDL, a local non-government organization.

Late on Friday, Lentner and his group received a request from the director of the Department of Health and Rehabilitation of the Vinnytsia Regional Military Administration. The call for help came in the form of a list of needed medications and supplies, ranging from anesthesia, antibacterial medication, anticonvulsants and medical dressings such as bandages and disposable masks.

He said the plan was to travel on Saturday far into where most are told to avoid: The “red zone.”

“We’re going to have a convoy that goes very, very deep into the red zone on the outskirts of Kyiv tomorrow,” Lentner said Friday ahead of a more than six-hour journey. “The normal drivers that go into that region don’t nearly go that far in. But we were asked by a hospital specifically to bring medical supplies because they are in pretty bad need.”

Lentner said he planned to make a few more calls to assess the risk before making the trek as his group waits for the medical supplies to be brought to Siret.

“None,” Lentner said with a chillingly cool tone when asked if he was harboring any fear as he prepared for the risky mission. “That’s just not how I operate. It’s not about me. It’s about the people that are suffering.”

The “whole point of this trip,” Lentner said, is “to help mothers and children.”And that has been exactly what Lentner has done since landing in Romania on March 7.

At a prior job, Lentner managed a department at a call center based in Romania where he became friends with the former facilities manager. The former colleague sent him the photo of the stranded boy that, along with his general connection with the area from his work, sparked Lentner to do something more.

Since his arrival in Romania and throughout the week, Lentner has been helping refugees move farther away from conflict and has helped them make preparations for a new start.

Lentner said he has been helping families make the necessary adjustments for that new life — whether it be to stay in Romania and have children settle into a new school and situation, flee to another country or, for some, a desire to eventually return to their home in Ukraine.

One woman traveling with Lentner and his group did not only need help transporting her son and her cat, but needed a swift solution to a dire medical problem — she was traveling while fighting Stage 4 cancer and could not stay in Romania where her insurance did not cover the expense of her treatments.

“Her goal was to get to France where her insurance would cover her medical expenses, but the challenge was that she couldn’t take a plane because she had a cat,” Lentner said.

He and his group managed to send the woman on a train to Milan, Italy, where a group of her friends picked her up and drove her across the border into France. A few days ago, she sent a “thank you” note to the group and Lentner for their help.

The longtime entrepreneur figured that his best attribute in helping refugees has been critically thinking on the fly.

Near midnight on Thursday, Lentner said he received a call from someone stranded with three refugee families they were helping to transport. The caller had seen a newscast with Lentner’s name. Now, the man was sitting on a train platform with three families and nowhere to go. On a whim, Lentner was able to quickly find lodging for the family for the night.

“Within 15 minutes, I found an Airbnb and the owner was super cool about letting all these families sleep in this one-level, three-bedroom flat,” he said.

While Lentner leaves on Monday, he doesn’t have any specific goals, but to help as many people as possible before returning to the United States.

His days of helping are far from over, though. He plans to remain in contact with those in the region and hopes to establish something “more sustainable” for the refugee families.

“I think, probably, the most challenging thing is just the emotions of seeing what’s happening to these refugees,” Lentner said. “I don’t feel scared for myself. I feel scared for the people that are in Kyiv, or somewhere else in Ukraine, and they don’t know that there’s a resource, or a lot of resources, that are able to help them.”

Back home in Wilton, Lentner’s wife, Katherine, has been managing an online fundraising campaign to help with the costs of the humanitarian mission. As of Friday, the campaign raised more than $25,000.