Ukraine campaigner earns Rotary Unsung Citizen Award
Special to The Herald May 3, 2024

(See article as published in the Pentiction Herald.)

Unsung Citizen Jennifer Martison (centre) accepts the Rotary Unsung Citizen of Penticton Award for 2024 from Marjolein Lloyd, Rotary District 5060 governor (left) and Linda Ruby, foundation chair, Penticton Sunrise Rotary Club.

The Rotary Club of Penticton Sunrise is pleased to honor Jennifer Martison with the Rotary Unsung Citizen of Penticton Award for 2024.

As its name implies, the award aims to recognize citizens who selflessly undertake humanitarian deeds that enrich the social fabric of our city and beyond and thereby create a more vibrant, cohesive and inclusive community.

For embodying Rotary International’s “service above self” guiding motto, the recipient is also granted Paul Harris Fellow recognition – named after Rotary’s founder and the highest honour that Rotarians can bestow on non-members.

Hence, Martison joins Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, King Charles, Kofi Annan and Pope Paul II, among other esteemed global figures.

Previous Unsung Citizen awardees include Ivan McLelland, the late Alan Dawkins, Tracy Fehr, Bob Anderson, Sandra Richardson, Jean Kearney, Harvie Barker and Wayne Wood.

The selection of Martison as the latest Unsung Citizen is a no-brainer, given her pivotal role as the visionary founder and inspiring director of the Ukraine Nightingale Project – a vibrant, registered not-for-profit organization dedicated to delivering much-needed support to Ukrainian families displaced by the war and seeking to rebuild their lives here in the South Okanagan.

The genesis of UNP can be traced back to the early days of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in early 2022. By May of that year, Martison was brought to tears by the horrific destruction being inflicted on the Ukrainian people by the brutality of the continuing conflict, and “couldn’t just sit back and watch the human tragedy unfold any longer.”

So, she decided to act.

Enlisting the support of fellow members of the Heritage Hills/Lakeshore Highlands Community Association, she staged a fundraising event that raised $20,000 in one afternoon. She then joined forces with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency – a humanitarian agency of the Seventh Day Adventist Church – to multiply the amount 10-fold to $200,000.

These proceeds were donated to a campaign named 1,000 Rides Out that helped get food and medical supplies into Ukraine and enabled 7,400 Ukrainians fleeing the conflict to have a “ride out” to safety.

Martison quickly recognized, however, that evacuating families from the war zone was only the first step as they needed assistance to travel to Canada and then help in becoming productively integrated into our society.

Accordingly, her brainchild, UNP, was launched in October 2022, seeking both financial donations and in-kind contributions – furniture, clothing and volunteer hours – in order to address these last two real and present needs.

Realizing early on that some major fundraising was needed to assist war-impacted Ukrainian families settling in the South Okanagan, in February 2023 Martison teamed up with her brother, Andy Frost, to organize two 1,000 Flights Out concerts celebrating Ukrainian culture and saluting the spirit of the Ukrainian people in their struggle for freedom.

Generously supported by 32 sponsors, the two concerts – the first at the Venables Theatre in Oliver and the second at the Cleland Theatre in Penticton – featured Calgary’s acclaimed Tryzub Ukrainian Junior Dance Troupe.

The pair then ran two additional concerts in Comox and Campbell River in September 2023, working jointly with CVUCS – a Vancouver Island Ukrainian support group – and the Tryzub Society. The four performances attracted over 1,500 patrons and netted $77,400.

As a follow-up fundraiser to address UNP’s continuing financial needs, Martison is currently hard at work setting the stage for the Tryzub Ukrainian Dance Society to kick off their 50th anniversary tour of Western Canada with the Tryzub Senior Dance Troupe performing two concerts, named “Dzvinka” after Ukrainian folk hero outlaw Oleksa Dovbush’s “Maid Marian.” They will be held at the Cleland Theatre May 23 and the Venables Theatre May 25.

Clearly, Martison understands the importance of money – how to raise it and how to allocate it wisely. However, addressing financial needs, though critical, is only one of the myriad vital services that she and her eager team of UNP volunteers have provided to enable the Ukrainian newcomers, many of whom speak little, if any, English, to become fully integrated into our area.

A list of the services provided includes assistance with airline flights, short- and long-term housing, English language instruction, and transportation to help with obtaining food security, gainful employment, health care (e.g., medical, dental and mental), school enrolment, driver’s licences and, last but not least, navigating the seeming mountains of entangled bureaucratic red tape that the newcomers face.

It is no accident that UNP is a vibrant, dynamic and well-respected humanitarian service organization with Martison at the helm. The consummate multi-tasker, she is a superb organizer who focuses on details while keeping the overall picture clearly in focus. Endowed with a piercing intellect, Martison tackles each challenge with a logical, no-nonsense attitude and uses creative approaches to solve problems. Her warmth and charm are palpable and know no bounds.

It is very difficult not to get drawn into the vortex that surrounds Martison, and once in, not be motivated by her lure to “do better, try harder and take on extra.” With compassion baked in her DNA, she readily opens her home for social events and as a worksite and storage facility.

Lastly, she often works late into the night on her correspondence and administrative duties, applying her sophisticated internet research skills acquired as a longstanding head librarian at Bennett Jones—Calgary’s largest firm and one of our nation’s most prestigious law firms.

A grateful senior Ukrainian once told Martison, “You gave me my life back. Thank you!”

Those helping and those helped by Martison and indeed all of us also say thank you –for enriching our community with the talents, skills, and culture the Ukrainians bring; for giving us the opportunity to help in small ways; and for being a stellar example that one person can truly make a difference.

Unquestionably, Martison has earned and deserves our appreciation, respect and awe.

Given her outstanding leadership role, as exemplary director of UNP, in advancing its wide-ranging efforts to assist 18 war-traumatized Ukrainian families, including 19 children – and counting – to rebuild their lives in the greater Penticton area, Martison epitomizes Rotary’s “service above self” dictum.

In short, she has humbly masterminded game-changing humanitarian deeds that serve to lift up others requiring a helping hand and thereby enhance the social tapestry of our city. Hence, she is eminently worthy of the Rotary Unsung Citizen of Penticton Award for 2024.