Welsh couple driving minibus to Ukraine piled high with supplies (2023)

When you think of your retirement, do you picture yourself on a beach drinking bottomless cocktails? Maybe you see yourself cycling around the south of France? Or do you just fancy the idea of chilling out on the sofa watching daytime telly?

Or, maybe, does your ideal retirement involve loading up a minibus with dog food and medicine and taking it all the way to - and across - the Ukrainian border? That's exactly what retiree Chris Stowell, 68, and his wife Heather Stowell, 61 are doing.

The couple from Coelbren, near Ystradgynlais, are making their third trip to take resources to support people fleeing Ukraine, but the first in which they'll cross the border. Are they worried - concerned, at all, for their safety? No, said Heather. "You're gonna die one day, aren't you," she said. "It’s not brave, everyone’s going to die, it’s a natural process. You might as well die doing something you believe in."

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Heather admitted that "the family think we're daft" for doing it, but it doesn't shake their confidence in deciding to go. Their first trip was in April and May 2022, the second in September - and they're planning their third in 2023, when they'll journey into Ukraine itself - and do "whatever they want us to do".

The couple have some sobering and shocking stories from their first trips. Chris said: "The first time we went, we went to Poland. We didn’t know anybody out there but we were given some addresses. The main place we were told to go to was a big supermarket with small shops around the outside edge - but there were no shops there when we went.

Welsh couple driving minibus to Ukraine piled high with supplies (1)

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"It was turned into a refugee centre with about 600 camp beds in there, near where the refugees had come across the border. They were processed from there, what countries they applied for… they could have food, whatever they wanted was offered.

"99% of the people were women with kids and a suitcase - that was all they had left, that was their life. They didn’t know where they had come from or where they were going, what was going on. A few had animals with them and there were a couple of old men. It was very sad to see in this day and age that there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have got nothing."

Chris described how refugees would be processed by representatives of different countries - including Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, France and the UK, with buses taking them to the countries where they sought refuge.

While out there, they spotted lots of other people doing more or less the same thing - driving out to help in some way. They didn't run into anyone else from Wales, but met people from all over the world, including France, the Netherlands and China. Chris added: "These people are giving up time from their lives, even if they’ve got jobs, to help save people.

"We even met some Russian soldiers who were nice, and didn’t believe in the fighting so they helped out in the refugee centre. Of course they can’t go back, because they would be killed."

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Heather and Chris took animal feed, bedding and bowls, as well as human food, medicine, clothes, blankets, and everything else that people were willing to donate. They even brought new boots to Ukrainian soldiers thanks to a generous donation from a neighbour - and they said all their neighbours in Coelbren have been "absolutely brilliant," in raising money, donating goods and generally supporting the trip.

The two rely on donations to fund things like petrol, ferries and restocking while they're out there - but the bulk of the supplies have come from direct donations. Big donations - like the 60 bags of dog biscuits given to them by Pero Foods in Betws y Coed - go a long way.

Helping animals is a big part of what Chris and Heather do on their trips to the border - and they recalled one remarkable story. Chris said: "We heard about a woman and her kids who had been sent to Frankfurt. The kids had a cat, and through contacts, somebody found the kitten, it was then taken to the rescue centre, then a girl drove from the rescue centre in Ukraine all the way out to the warehouse where we were.

"We had the cat for a night, then someone else who had been picking up people and animals picked up the kitten and drove it all the way to Germany to be reunited with their family. About four or five different people all came together to get this cat back to them. Out there, a lot of people are doing the same thing."

Heather added: "It’s a family, which seems to work - linking people to people through a long chain getting things from A to B. There’s a lot of people out there who have been there from day one, who have just stayed. There’s electricians, there’s people making log burners for people to cook and eat. They ‘re trying to build dog shelters and kennels… they’re all doing little things that they can do, and it all gets put together into something big."

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It's never an easy ride, though. Chris said: "On the border, we were meeting a lot of people driving out of Ukraine, young girls coming out in vans just to pick up stuff to be able to take straight back in - risking their lives. We met one young girl who said when the Russians attacked her village, most of the village were building Molotov cocktails in their gardens to throw at the Russian tanks.

"She was going straight back into Donbas, taking some of the stuff we bought and she had lists of stuff that people needed. We met a few other girls doing the same thing but they couldn’t all speak English."

Heather pointed out: "Putin could learn a lot from these people." Heather herself is disabled and has spinal problems, but said when she was "sat in bed all day watching the news," she decided she "couldn't sit here and watch it and do nothing."

After "a lot of painkillers and permission from the doctors" - who still weren't keen to advise her to travel - Heather started planning the third trip. Upgraded from a van to a minibus, Heather and Chris are hoping to head out in March, if they get enough donations in time. Heather said some people are less willing to help now than at the start of the conflict - but the couple have already secured a pallet of dog food from United Pet Food, arranged by their friend Steve Boyd to whom Heather says the couple are "really grateful."

If you think you can help Heather and Chris with a donation, you can get in contact through their Facebook page. They're also selling advertising space on the side of their vehicle, and appealing for direct donations via GoFundMe.

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