Palo Alto High School's News and Features Publication

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Verde Magazine

Bridging borders: Supporting the people of Ukraine

Kensie Pao
A HELPING HAND — Jeannet Kiessling, the founder of kleine herzen, explains the importance of the work done by the Neighbors Abroad Ukrainian Emergency Children’s Relief Fund. “The war should have never happened,” Kiessling said. “And … it’s about 200 people that we now care for and have been caring for since the war.”

For over a decade, Jeannet Kiessling has devoted time and effort to aiding the people of Ukraine.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, Kiessling knew she had to increase her efforts. Within a week of Russia’s invasion, she helped launch the Neighbors Abroad Ukrainian Emergency Children’s Relief Fund. Kiessling later received the Sister Cities International 2023 Volunteer of the Year award in July for her leadership and efforts in this program.

Part of Keissling’s quick response was due to her experience with kleine herzen Deutschland e.V. (Little Hearts Germany), which she founded in 2013 with a goal to help orphaned children and disabled people in Russia and Ukraine.

Before founding kleine herzen Deutschland, Kiessling had quit her job as vice president of corporate communications at the German media company Bertelsmann and planned to donate the separation pay to a charitable organization. However, she found herself dissatisfied with the management of the available programs. 

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That’s when I realized I needed to do this myself.”

— Jeannet Kiessling, founder of kleine herzen

“I couldn’t find one that gave those funds 100 percent to the cause that I had picked,” Kiessling said. “They all printed brochures and spent a lot of money on their employees and I didn’t want that, so I was looking for something else … That’s when I realized I needed to do this myself.” 

Kiessling has since moved to Palo Alto. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kiessling connected kleine herzen with Neighbors Abroad, an organization based in Palo Alto that strives to establish rapport between nations through student exchanges and projects with sister cities around the world. As the vice president of Neighbors Abroad’s European Sister City Committee, Kiessling organized people in Palo Alto’s sister city, Heidelberg, Germany, to support children in Ukraine through volunteer contributions and partnerships with organizations sharing similar goals.

“When the war broke out, we [the Neighbors Abroad team] were, of course, all shocked,” Kiessling said. “I said, ‘Well, maybe I can help. … Why don’t we use our sister city connections and people who want to donate [to Ukrainians] can donate to Neighbors Abroad.’”

According to Kiessling, once the funds are donated to Neighbors Abroad, they are issued to kleine herzen to determine how to spend the money.

Sarah Burgess, the president of Neighbors Abroad, says that $125,000 have been donated to the cause from Palo Alto and the surrounding areas. These funds have been used to relocate Ukrainians and ensure that they are properly cared for once they are out of harm’s way.

“$125,000 couldn’t buy real aid if you speak in terms of the Red Cross, but in terms of just getting people out and taking care of them, it’s been effective,” Burgess said. “It has had a low budget but great personal impact.”

In the past 12 years, Kiessling and her team at kleine herzen have assisted most of Ukraine. With Russia seizing more and more Ukrainian territory, Kiessling has partnered with organizations such as Save Ukraine to transport children, the elderly and disabled people away from conflict zones.

“These are amazing people on the ground: Ukrainians who helped get as many children out of Ukraine at the beginning of the war, which was very, very dangerous,” Kiessling said. “And now you’re taking out all the children in Ukraine that have been taken across the border to Russia … and taking them back [to Ukraine].”

It [the Neigbors Abroad Ukrainian Emergency Children’s Relief Fund] has had a low budget but great personal impact.”

— Sarah Burgess, president of Neighbors Abroad

Kiessling said she also hopes to provide the children with as much “normalcy” as possible by providing necessities and comfort items such as clothing, reading material and toys.

“The idea is that you give it [a backpack] to children who sometimes [have] as little notice as a couple of minutes [to] just get up from their beds and go,” Kiessling said. “In this little backpack, there’s everything they need for the first couple of days until they get somewhere where they can get help.”

Kiessling manages projects with Palo Alto’s four European partner cities: Albi, France; Heidelberg, Germany; Linköping, Sweden; and Enschede, Netherlands.

Now, the Palo Alto City Council is looking to form a potential friendship city somewhere in Ukraine. 

“We’ve received thanks from the general consul of Ukraine in San Francisco and outreach from them in terms of whether or not we could create a sister city with Ukraine,” Burgess said. “The consul described to us how much help this person-to-person … mission is because they’re in war and they need to feel that there are people who care.”

Both Kiessling and kleine herzen have received much appreciation for their work, but Kiessling says that the recognition isn’t what counts.

We always get big ‘thank you’s’, but that was never important to us … What was important to us was what the children say.”

— Jeannet Kiessling, founder of kleine herzen

“We always got big ‘thank you’s’, but that was never important to us,” Kiessling said. “What was important to us was what the children say. If you ever see a little child that has been living in dirt on the street, when he or she gets their first stuffed animal or just some attention from someone, it’s just amazing. I think that’s enough; that’s all we need.”