Bemidji's Peter Nordquist is still helping, inspiring others to assist Ukrainians one year later
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine hits the one-year mark, stories of Peter Nordquist’s efforts have inspired others to step up. One of them is Andrea Esty, who lived in Bemidji as a toddler.
Peter Nordquist had no idea his humanitarian work in Ukraine would lead to this.
The Bemidji man couldn’t just sit back and watch Russia’s invasion one year ago. He has made three trips to Ukraine, delivering medical supplies to those in need and setting up a nonprofit foundation that provides prosthetics to civilians and soldiers who have lost limbs. The 67-year-old retiree is as active as ever, planning a fourth trip to the war-torn country in March.
Now, as the invasion hit the one-year mark on Feb. 24, stories of Nordquist’s efforts have inspired others to step up. One of them is Andrea Esty, a California woman who lived in Bemidji as a toddler.
“I was going bananas trying to figure out what I could do to be of any good,” Esty said in a phone interview this week.
Her cousin, Kelly (Campbell) Reid of Bemidji, shared a link to a Bemidji Pioneer story about Nordquist’s work, and that was the spark Esty needed. She connected with Nordquist on Facebook.
“I sat in a Starbucks and talked to him while he was in Ukraine,” Esty said. “Peter and I have been corresponding ever since. We just help each other wherever we can. I like to call it cross-pollination.”
Esty made her first of two trips to Ukraine in May 2022, working with World Central Kitchen, a humanitarian organization, preparing meals for those in need.
Later, she helped transport medical equipment and supplies herself and through other travelers into Poland. On that trip, she brought 21 checked bags, mostly filled with medical supplies.
From there, a network of people transported them across Ukraine. Esty personally vetted warehouses in Ukraine to make sure supplies would be delivered safely. Nordquist helped during one of his trips, meeting two of Esty's friends who brought supplies to Krakow, Poland.
Her most recent mission is to provide wood-burning stoves to Ukrainians whose homes have been damaged by Russian attacks. Through her nonprofit organization, UkrainianChildren.org, she has connected with a company in Dnipro, Ukraine, to have the stoves manufactured.
“I’ve got groups of people in various areas who distribute and install them for me,” Esty said. “So I see it from the moment the money hits the bank account until there’s a fire in the stove. Then I report back to the people who donated and show them the stove.”
One of the heartwarming stories Esty has shared comes from the village of Kapulevka. A woman named Irina has two children, and there was no heating in their home. Irina is a single mother and can’t go back to work yet because her children are too small.
She did not have enough savings to repair her heating. A post on Esty’s Facebook page reported: “When she received this stove she couldn’t believe that it was for free. She was very grateful.”
That kind of feedback “lights my heart,” Esty said. “I wake up every morning at 3 o’clock to see what stoves have been uploaded to me that day. I see some of the most amazing stories. It just makes me so happy. It’s everything I live for right now.”
Finding a new mission, Esty, whose grandmother Nedra Dearholt started The Melody Shop in downtown Bemidji, is now working with Nordquist on a new project. She connected with Daniel Bondarenko, a Ukrainian-born trauma nurse now living in the Los Angeles area, who has been buying external fixation devices that can help save soldiers’ limbs.
Nordquist has agreed to deliver dozens of the devices to Ukraine next month.
“You get a soldier who has been blown up and he gets out of the bunker and his legs are dangling,” Nordquist said. “These fixation devices allow a guy in the battlefield to be transported to a hospital with the legs sort of stationary so they can sew them back together and salvage those legs.”
Meanwhile, Nordquist’s work continues with the Protez Foundation. The nonprofit organization brings injured soldiers and civilians to Minneapolis to receive prosthetic limbs.
“It’s a tremendous amount of gratification to see the life of a civilian or a soldier changed,” Nordquist said. “They arrive at the Minneapolis airport, they’re gloomy, they’re down, they’re depressed. And in two or three days, they’re up walking. And then another three weeks of physical therapy and they’re riding bikes. We’ve got one guy playing tennis.”
And then there’s Artem, a 9-year-old Ukrainian boy who was featured in the Pioneer three months ago after receiving a prosthetic arm from Protez. He was walking next to his father and brother when both were killed by a missile strike. At first, Artem’s new arm had a hook at the end, but since then, it has been replaced by one with an artificial hand.
“He can move all his fingers,” Nordquist said with pride. “He’s learning how to grip a little tighter. He has some emotional trauma from witnessing his dad and brother dying, but he’s got a lot of energy.”
One person who has been moved by Artem’s story is Tetyana “Tanya” Ekstrom, who lives with her husband, Bob, and their 12-year-old son, Mark, in the Bemidji area.
Tanya was born in Ukraine and met Bob when he was traveling in Europe. They were married in 2002, and she moved to Bemidji that same year. Bob is a fisheries biologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
When Tanya read about Artem, she felt compelled to help somehow.
“I have some stuff I would like to give to this boy,” she said. “I have quite a bit of brand new stuff in the house. Just to make somebody happy, or something for his mother. In America, even a poor person has more than other kids in the world.”
Tanya grew up in western Ukraine near the Romanian border. Her mother, Lidia Bukhtoyarova, lives with the Ekstroms but also has made trips back to the homeland to help with family members. Tanya follows news from her homeland closely and has sent money to relatives and friends, some of whom have sons who are fighting the Russians.
She is not surprised by the Ukrainians’ resolve as the war enters its second year.
“For centuries, Ukrainians have been fighting for freedom,” Tanya said.
Bob Ekstrom said the conflict has been stressful for Tanya.
“She has a lot of friends who are still there,” Bob said. “A lot of her friends have kids who are of military age, so she’s concerned about that. Nobody expects this sort of thing in this day and age. Nobody was prepared for this. It’s still a David vs. Goliath sort of battle.”
Nordquist is amazed at all the connections that have been made since news of his own work was shared.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who would come up to me out of the blue and just say, ‘Wow, good work you’re doing there, Peter,’ ” he said. “I’d be walking around town and strangers would say it to me. That gave me the motivation to keep going. The reason that I’ve hung in all this time is partly because of all these people who have been encouraging me.”
Anyone wishing to learn more about the work of Nordquist and Esty can do so by visiting ProtezFoundation.com or UkrainianChildren.org.