Every day since the brutal Russian invasion of the Ukraine, John Hewko has connected with those under attack.
Hewko, the General Secretary and CEO of Evanston-based Rotary International, takes out his cell phone and calls people he knows in Kyiv and in other parts of that nation, friends and family.
Hewko understands Ukraine and the current plight of Ukrainians far better than do most Americans.
His parents escaped from Ukraine during World War II. Hewko later went to there to work and, as a young lawyer in 1991, helped write the first draft of Ukraine’s post-Soviet constitution.
“Ukraine was the lynchpin,” he says. “Once they declared independence it was the end of the Soviet Union.”
To see what’s happening now, he says, is awful.
“It’s heart-wrenching,” Hewko tells Evanston Now.
“They’re trapped and they can’t get out.”
And then, he hears this from someone in a war zone: “Well, John, I hope I’ll be alive to talk to you tomorrow.”
It’s hard not to bond when you hear that.
Rotary International is currently helping Ukrainian refugees in places like Poland with relief supplies and providing first responder kits to those on the front lines in Ukraine itself.
Hewko would be doing those things anyway because that’s what Rotarians do, helping those who need it. Rotary is a service organization with 37,000 clubs and 1.4 million members worldwide. All headquartered here.
But for Hewko, of course, there’s more meaning because of his personal connections.
His parents actually met in the U.S, where Hewko grew up “in a Ukrainian-speaking household” in Detroit.
Many of his late father’s relatives, however, remained in the old country, and family is still there.
And here’s something which might surprise you. Hewko did not join the Rotary in America and take it with him to Ukraine when he went to work there.
It was the other way around.
Hewko is a charter member of the first-ever Rotary Club in Ukraine, founded in 1992.
“There are now 60 clubs in Ukraine,” Hewko adds, proudly, “with a very strong presence” of 1,100 Rotarians, all of whom are now part of a war-ravaged nation.
Hewko has other connections to that country as well. He’s was also a trustee of the Ukrainian Catholic University (in Lviv) for nine years, “the first western-style campus in the former Soviet Union.”
Hewko is now a trustee emeritus.
Rotary International already has raised $1 million, Hewko says, in assistance grants for Rotary clubs in Eastern Europe to deal with the flood of refugees and for direct help to Ukrainian clubs.
“Rotary is all about peace and conflict resolution,” he says of the group, which has been providing humanitarian and social program assistance since its founding in Chicago in 1905.
Hewko became Rotary’s CEO in 2009, after practicing international law with Chicago firm Baker McKenzie (his stint in Ukraine and other nations), and later was with a U.S. government agency that provided aid to low-income nations.
He is also a member of the City of Evanston’s Land Use Commission.
By helping Ukraine, Hewko is continuing Rotary’s mission of “Service Above Self.”
But this type of service may be among the toughest.
Hewko says during one conversation with a friend in Ukraine, “he was calling me and you could hear the artillery shells.”
For more information on Rotary’s Ukrainian relief efforts, go to rotary.org.