Central Florida-based team evacuates thousands from Ukraine

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Shawn Sullivan’s days begin and end with phone calls — hundreds of them, happening in waves, morning, noon and night. So many, he sometimes needs to set his phone on “do not disturb” when he needs a break, with several critical exceptions on an encrypted messaging app.


Except for those precious hours of sleep, Sullivan spends his days saving the lives of people who he’s never met, but whose voices have become awfully familiar. They’re Ukrainian women, children, foreign students and workers caught between the two opposing armies and frontlines that have ground to a halt.

“I just got a call right before this interview,” he said. “There’s 42 children in an orphanage that need a list of about 50 medications, and they have no food.”

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This part of the Russian invasion is often shielded from TV cameras, hidden in silent suffering in bomb shelters and basements. Slow starvation, thirst and fever are common as resources run dry.

This is the battle Sullivan leads, coordinating teams through his organization, Mission 823. They evacuate civilians, deliver supplies and shelter the needy. The buses run to and from the border, between safe houses and wherever roads are passable.

It’s a greatly expanded mission the organization was never built for.

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“Instead of just supporting an adoptive family in a home that we built, now that home is full of 35 or 40 people who are evacuating from the war,” Sullivan said.

He estimated that in less than a month, they’ve moved more than 8,000 people, adding hundreds more every day.

Our Compass and Chaplain partners working day and night. 2600 more evacuees safely transported to the border thanks to your support! Keep up the good work! #Iam823 #UAразом #SaveUkraine #StandWithUkraine

Posted by Mission 823 on Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Those are the ones he can get to.

He prays for a woman trapped in her home behind Russian front lines who said she had several days of food left when he talked to her last week. Foreign students told him they were eating scraps from dumpsters, asking when buses could be sent to help them. Sullivan shook his head when he explained he couldn’t.

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“It’s the most hideous evil thing you could ever, ever do in your life,” he said, describing the intentional siege and destruction tactics used on formerly thriving cities.

The money has poured in, helping him to put volunteers on payroll and purchase more equipment. Two ambulances recently arrived to assist the country’s government in treating the wounded. He showed off a water filter — one of more than 30,000 about to be sent to the border to give citizens a way to survive amid the destruction, along with hundreds of military-grade trauma kits.

He has also expanded his partnerships. Recognizing he had no operational experience in a combat zone, he found someone who did.

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“This went from nothing to a lot very, very quickly,” Grant Brigden said. “A lot of people that were in the space that weren’t ... ready for it.”

Brigden is the president and CEO of REED International, which specializes in warzone logistics. The military contracting firm had decades of experience providing security and clearance for governments, NGOs and private firm, and decided to jump in to the humanitarian game to help Mission 823 out.

He laid out the steps involved to move a child from one location to another, from securing guardianship to having an airtight chain of custody — things he could advise on while keeping track of conditions on the ground.

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“If you’re not operating in a specific sphere for 24 to 48 hours, you get back and it’s completely different,” he said.

Neither man offered a prediction of the needs once the war ends, saying too many factors were at play. Brigden said the focus needed to be on the imminent disaster, with millions of displaced people in and out of the country.

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Sullivan repeated his call for donations, saying 100% of what came in was funneled toward on-the-ground efforts. For those who could not give, he said sharing his organization’s message and bringing their work in front of a wider audience was equally as helpful.

“That type of exponential networking is the thing that helps us to maintain this effort at a rate that will be able to provide assistance for a very long time,” he said.

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