At the beginning of 2022, Dr. Laura Vanderberg was a tenured professor, department chair, and director of the Advancement of Learning program at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. A few months later she was single-handedly facilitating the shipment of custom body armor to the Ukrainian front lines. “I knew nothing about body armor at the time. But they desperately needed help. And I knew, unequivocally, that it was my duty to act,” says Vanderberg.
With her doctorate in applied child development and masters in mind, brain, and education, Vanderberg’s passion for cognition and educational systems began, unusually, in Ukraine. After finishing college, Vanderberg volunteered for the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching English at School Number Nine in Oleksandria, a small city in the central part of the country. “In Ukraine, education is built on relationships. Your teachers and classmates are like your family,” she explains. “They taught me language, culture. They taught me how to cook. They taught me everything.”
Over the course of the past twenty-five years, Vanderberg stayed in close contact with her former students and colleagues. At the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February of last year, she immediately contacted her friends to see how she could help. Vanderberg quickly discovered that Ukrainians were receiving generalized humanitarian aid that didn’t actually target their needs. “My friend called me and said, ‘They sent potatoes!’ What am I supposed to do? Build a potato cannon?’” she joked.
Vanderberg’s former students and colleagues soon sent her a list of their top needs—the most urgent of which was equipment necessary for outfitting frontline defenders. She felt honored to be entrusted with such a crucial responsibility, but also out of her depth. “Honestly, I didn’t want to be implicated in either war or violence,” says Vanderberg. “But I saw that my friends were being murdered, and I knew that I had the resources to help them.”
Through the support of those closest to her, Vanderberg was connected with a former Marine Corps officer who, in turn, helped to put her in contact with a military manufacturer of tactical defensive gear. “At my core, I’m an interdisciplinary scientist,” she explains. “I’m able to make connections, formulate a plan, and put it into action.” Within a number of weeks, Vanderberg was sending body armor prototypes to Ukraine for field tests and revisions. “I was working directly with our manufacturer, translating feedback and coordinating deliveries to the frontlines,” she says.
In order to garner the support and funding she needed, Vanderberg soon turned her one-woman operation into Global Community Corps—a multifaceted nonprofit devoted to supporting the Ukrainian people. Aviva Hollander, one of Global Community Corps’ founding employees, explained that “understanding what the Ukrainian people were asking for to actually being able to deliver was a huge undertaking.” “We’re a true grassroots operation,” Vanderberg added. “We’re made possible by hundreds of small donors from all walks of life.” As of this past January, she and her team had shipped over 3,000 pounds of defensive gear to Ukrainian troops in addition to generators and other basic necessities.
Around September of 2022, however, needs began to shift. Ukrainians started reaching out to Vanderberg, asking about the possibility of psychological support. “The innovative capacity of the Ukrainian people in crisis is incredible,” she says. “As their infrastructure is decimated, they repair it better than it was before. So, the need for material resources is actually decreasing. But in order to continue fighting and rebuilding, they need to be both surviving and thriving. And in order for that to happen, they need to be assisted both spiritually and psychologically.”
As a cognitive expert and someone intimately acquainted with Ukrainian culture, Vanderberg found herself specially situated to help cultivate a framework of psychological resilience. “There are certain cultural nuances that I think most outsiders probably wouldn’t understand,” she says. “Coming from a history of Soviet oppression, most Ukrainians are private and guarded.” Vanderberg recognized that for a system of emotional support to be effective, it would need to come from the models of support already present in Ukrainian culture, such as the intimate educational system that inspired her 25 years ago. “Most people wait until a conflict is over to address the psychological consequences of war. But leaving trauma like that unaddressed is harmful in itself,” says Vanderberg.
After Global Community Corps’ final shipment of body armor, Vanderberg immediately got started on devising a structure of psychological support, capable of reaching over a fifth of the Ukrainian population. Drawing together a small group of international experts and Ukrainian practitioners, she helped to design a model that draws on the influence and expertise of Ukrainian nonprofit organizations and military chaplains. “We’re trying to bring targeted support to each and every caretaking layer of society,” says Vanderberg. The top-down approach uses the knowledge of community and spiritual leaders in order to reach the most vulnerable populations: veterans, children, and women.
In one of its primary initiatives, Global Community Corps has collaborated with Eleos-Ukraine and the Ukrainian government to extract women from places where they’ve endured extreme sexual violence as a result of war. The women are then brought to safe shelters where they are provided with comprehensive rehabilitation, both psychological and physical. “Without this kind of support, these women would be too broken down to take care of their own children and families,” explains Vanderberg.
In another project that draws directly from Vanderberg’s academic expertise, Global Community Corps has partnered with schools and children’s centers to provide counseling to children who have either lost or been separated from their families. “Most of these children are suffering from severe trauma disorders,” she says. After participating in a program designed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and implemented by Ukrainian teachers, the displaced children began to show clear improvement within weeks. “The caretakers know what they’re doing. It’s our job to make sure that the caretakers are taken care of.”
Most people wait until a conflict is over to address the psychological consequences of war. But leaving trauma like that unaddressed is harmful in itself.”
“A key part of our job is to anticipate human needs,” explains Vanderberg. “If there’s an infrastructure assault that happens in the summer, everyone can see what’s going to happen come winter.” The Global Community Corps team works to streamline and provide basic necessities for refugees in order to simplify the psychological load of displacement. Vanderberg and her team recently partnered with a Ukrainian company to manufacture readily available, simple clothing. “Imagine you’re fleeing for your life, and in order to just get a pair of underwear, you have to sort through huge piles at Goodwill,” she says. “People think they’re helping by sending second-hand clothing. But for a nervous system that’s just trying to survive, those sorts of small tasks and decisions can be impossible.”
Only one year after the formation of Global Community Corps, Vanderberg and her team have had an immeasurable impact in providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in need. “We can’t predict how long the war is going to last,” said Aviva Hollander. “But at the very least we can help these people recover.” Vanderberg hopes that the frameworks she’s been able to establish in the Ukraine can be applied to other war-torn areas going forward. “At first, I was a conduit for news. Then I became a conduit for supplies,” she reflected. “And now I’m a conduit for knowledge, I’m a conduit for resilience. And that means I’m having a real impact.”