The War in Ukraine: How One GoPro Creator-Turned-Humanitarian Dropped Everything to Aid Refugee Efforts

May 09, 2022

Tragedy is often accompanied by triumph, on scales both big and small. As the world observes the war in Ukraine unfold, stories of heroes stepping out of their comfort zone and into the chaos offer us hope and remind us of the good in the world.

We were fortunate to talk with one of these heroes, someone who says he broke down in tears and knew the only way to help was to get a one-way plane ticket to Poland. That’s what Max Rantz-McDonald did nine weeks ago when it became clear that Ukrainian refugees and neighboring countries needed help. 

Max is a longtime member of the GoPro Family, as is Benjamin Ortega who is one of many who joined Max to aid his efforts in Poland. We say this because that’s how Max’s incredible story got on our radar, and yes he used some GoPro to film his journey, but we’re not here to talk about GoPro, we’re here to hear from Max—read his story below.

GoPro: What prompted you to take on this incredible effort?

Max: I have a good deal of experience in humanitarian crisis response around the world, most notably in Nepal when the devastating earthquake struck in 2015—video recap here.

So when the war started in Ukraine, my mind started racing, wanting to help people. It was day three of the war, and I had seen enough. My girlfriend Nicole walked into the kitchen and saw me in tears and said, "You’re going to help aren't you?"

I feel I was in a lucky position that, at that moment in time, I could drop what I was doing and with Nicole's support, cancel my upcoming projects and head straight to the Ukrainian border. I couldn't sit at home in Los Angeles and watch this unfold. How could I answer my future kids' questions when they learn about this in history class and ask me what did I did to help?

Were you joining another organization, or did you set out to do this solo?

My intention from the start was to head out solo and find out what was most needed. I wanted to get a first-hand impression of the realities of what was going on and not rely on the news (I trust certain outlets but I needed to see it for myself). I had a fair idea of how I thought I could help, as I had done in Nepal, but until I saw for myself and talked to those affected, I wanted to hold off.

Mike Savas and I had set up an Org called 'Adventurers for Change', which we worked under this umbrella in Poland/Ukraine. I put up a few Instagram stories to let my community know I was going over and asked to be connected with anyone on the ground who could be helpful—straight away I got connected with a dozen very helpful individuals, most of which I am still in touch with today.

The model I wanted to use was “transparency through social media.” I would show people on my Instagram the realities on the ground and what people needed. In turn, people internationally would donate to a GoFundMe I set up and I would buy the aid needed locally and get it into their hands asap (this also helps the local economies that are under strain).

Considering restrictions, how did you travel to the location and where were you stationed?

I found traveling to Poland wasn't that hard, so I jumped on the next flight I could. The difficult part was when I landed in Warsaw it was impossible to rent a van (which we wanted to transport refugees), so we got a small car and headed for the border. 

I wanted to visit every border crossing and see what the situation on the ground was. We took photos, collected people's contact details (to be able to find out about any developments once we were gone) and dropped off the small amount of aid I was able to bring over from the U.S. As the majority of refugees were crossing into Poland at that point, finding accommodations along the border was impossible, so we slept in the car for the first three nights.

How long in total were you on the ground in Ukraine, and do you plan on going back?

During my first stint, I was there for over a month. I then had a project I couldn't put off any longer and went to Dubai for a week, which felt very strange. One of the first people I let know was Hugh Evans, Co-Founder and CEO of Global Citizen, an amazing advocacy organization that I have worked with in the past. The organization puts on huge concerts around the world to raise funds and awareness for certain causes. I texted Hugh and let him know.

This developed into producing an event called “Stand Up for Ukraine, Pledging Summit” in Warsaw with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada and President Duda of Poland. The event took place in an 18th century palace and, through the engagement of the biggest names in the music industry and pressure put on governments, $10.1 billion was pledged in aid, grants and loans for Ukraine. More details here

Can you tell us some stories about the people you met and how those encounters went?

We met some amazing people, like the lady that created the city next to Chernoble and had to evacuate tens of thousands of people when the nuclear disaster struck. We looked after her in one of the refugee centers we created in the center of Warsaw, and then paid for her flights to Germany. We are currently supporting her son with funds in Ukraine.

We also had a lady in our car that had a 4-week-old baby and another that was going to give birth at any moment. We put both of them up in Airbnbs so they could have some privacy.

The reaction we got when handing out $125K worth of supermarket gift cards was also an amazing experience. It gave people the dignity of choice, where they could go in and buy the items themselves, as opposed to taking their food as handouts from a cardboard box, and this was extremely impactful.

I met people that had walked for days to get to Poland and had to leave their 18-year-old sons at the border because they weren't allowed out of the country and had to join the army.

What were the initial goals of your support? And have they changed or even been exceeded?

Initially I wanted to raise $50K - $60K to help those that I personally met. Things have changed a lot since then, and the international reaction has been amazing.

We have surpassed $800K in direct monetary donations and over $1 million in product donations. I've been blown away by the trust people have in the Team Ukraine Love operation that I set up.

We have bought pallets upon pallets of food, we delivered medical aid from the U.S. to Warsaw and into Eastern parts of Ukraine, we helped SpaceX set up logistics channels and helped get thousands of starlinks into Ukraine. We have bought laptops for kids so they can continue learning, toys for parents with infants, and I'm currently sourcing three ambulances in Italy that we will drive into Ukraine.

Yes Theory’s video from their time on the ground in Ukraine with you and the team is informative, eye-opening and incredibly inspiring. While we aren’t trying to use this as a GoPro promotion, we couldn’t help but notice that the team used GoPro cameras, can you tell us a little bit about how the team used GoPros while in Ukraine and why?

When Ammar and Thomas from Yes Theory and Benjamin Ortega touched down early in the project, they definitely helped upscale things. One of the biggest parts of this project's success has been showing people the help that we have been giving. With their social following, Yes Theory was able to amplify that message. Benni shot on GoPros the whole time he was on the ground, and it's those images that we share with over 2.4 million people, which in turn helped us raise even more money.

To see more of what Max is talking about, visit Team Ukraine Love or follow them on Instagram.

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