Interview with Ted Honcharik – the founder and chairman of the board of Fuel Relief Fund; conducted by Agata Klat – Communications Director at Help.NGO
It’s mid-July of 2022. The fifth month of the war in Ukraine. Ted and I are driving from Kyiv to Lviv with Help.NGO Suburban. There is a long way ahead of us – a great opportunity to talk.
AK: Ted, what are you doing in Ukraine?
TH: Fuel Relief Fund is attempting to acquire and distribute fuel to local and international humanitarian organizations. These organizations provide food, water, shelter, medicine, and evacuation support across Ukraine. I am here to coordinate the entire process whilst simultaneously assessing the current and upcoming scale of needs.
We arrived at the very beginning of the war. Our operation support partner, the UN World Food Program, implored us to support the cause. We aided them in setting up contracts with the local fuel companies; this was the first step. Next, we had to figure out how to import fuel from Poland whilst also positioning fuel reserves in strategic locations. The reasoning for the latter was that if things got bad…, their personnel had the ability to evacuate.
Following my initial departure from Ukraine, I conveyed the seriousness of the matter(s) to my board members and executive director. I sensed, in hindsight, that the local and international NGOs required additional support. Fuel has been extremely difficult to come by, let me tell you. Even in the areas like Kyiv or Lviv, the supply is scarce and the likelihood of importation is low. We have received requests from Doctors Without Borders, International Medical Corps, World Food Programme, and other international aid organizations. In order to provide food, water, and medicine to local communities, these organizations needed fuel. Hence, we have been working diligently to deliver tens of thousands of liters of fuel to all kinds of organizations, including those positioned more to the east…, towards the front line.
Tell me a little bit about Fuel Relief Fund – what does your organization do and why it is so important?
To begin, Fuel Relief Fund is the only nonprofit international aid organization dedicated to exclusively providing free fuel following the events of catastrophic natural disasters. After nearly every major natural disaster for the last twelve years, we have firmly supported the local peoples, communities, and governments through international aid organizations.
We have extended our efforts to disaster situations in Yemen, Ethiopia, and now Ukraine as an operational support partner of the United Nations. We support the UN with the following matters: fuel acquisition, inventory, management, distribution, safety, and controls. Admittedly, nothing happens without fuel. We always strive to be the first organization on the ground. I mean, who and what else is going to enable other aid organizations to operate effectively? Without fuel, hospitals cannot function, the search and rescue people cannot operate – generators, water, medicine…, nothing happens without fuel. Unfortunately, most people do not realize that fuel signifies the hearth of support efforts. Water, food, shelter, and medicine are impossibilities in the absence of fuel. In other words, fuel has to be first on anyone’s list of disaster essentials.
As the founder of this organization, I am curious as to when and how you came up with such an idea?
It was 1992. I was living in California when Hurricane Andrew struck the Bahamas, Florida, and Louisiana in August. My family and friends residing in Miami experienced the force of Hurricane Andrew head-on. Almost all of them were dealing with tens of thousands of dollars of damage to their homes and vehicles. One of my sisters even lost her house. At the time, I was not in a position, financially speaking, to help her out. After a few months, I traveled to Miami to see how everyone was holding up. I found that the majority of people were still relying on generators to power their homes. Frighteningly, I could not even remember how to get from the airport to my family's house, which I’ve done many times. The destruction was beyond devastating.
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana. At the time, I had already started a small, for-profit fuel company, though it did not equate to anything substantial. I remember turning the news on one Sunday morning whilst enjoying a coffee with my wife. We saw the long lines of people attempting to travel considerable distances solely to acquire a small amount of fuel. All of these people sought fuel to bring back to their homes insofar as to power their generators, keep their food refrigerated, or refuel their cars to fetch water, food, or medicine. I told my wife that if we could raise enough money to fill up one of my tanker trucks then I would have one of my drivers drive that all the way to Louisiana to give the fuel away.
I was able to raise about half the amount I needed to fill up one of my tanker trucks. I then contacted one of my largest competitors and briefed him on what I was trying to do. He asked me how much I was short and, in turn, offered to make up the difference. In the end, I had my tanker truck filled up with 10,000 gallons of fuel (over 37,000 liters) and immediately deployed. We drove all the way to Pascagoula, Mississippi. Once there, we traveled to a coastal area that was hit the hardest. Upon initial setup, we watched as people formed mile-long lines for our fuel. People’s vehicles were actually running out of gasoline while in line. We spent all day just filling up vehicles. Each night, we would move our tanker truck to a different location, all the while sleeping in tents alongside our truck. We would just fill up everybody’s vehicles and gas cans at each location, eventually traveling more and more inwards, that is, towards New Orleans.
At that point, it was such a success that I decided to do it again a couple of months later when hurricane Rita hit the coast of Texas and Louisiana. Everyone was just so appreciative that there was an organization that was committed to providing free fuel. It was the one thing that everyone needed but could not get their hands on.
Upon returning to California, I spoke to my CFO about the effectiveness of our action(s) as well as the extent to which I enjoyed doing this kind of humanitarian work. He asked me the following question during our conversation: why do you not just start a non-profit organization? Following that conversation, I immediately contacted my attorney for his opinion on the matter. He thought it was a great idea but warned me that it will probably take a few months to become a registered, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization. However, and rather surprisingly, it happened quicker than either of us would have thought.
I then asked my attorney if he would be on the board of the nonprofit since he had experience with fuel and energy. He readily agreed. After such time, the board began running the 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in full force. Since the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, we have provided fuel aid in the aftermath of nearly every major natural disaster all around the world. I have so many stories…, I could talk to you for hours.
I imagine you have since developed some effective fuel aid strategies, yes?
Of course! First, we attempt to ensure that hospitals, clinics, and water treatment plants are up and running. From there, we cooperate with first responders, local police, fire squads, ambulances, and local NGOs. That being said, our commitment is predominantly singular, that is, the provision of free fuel to the relative populace.
Further, we do not deal solely in gasoline and diesel. For example, we distributed propane tanks in Ecuador. We did this because every family in Ecuador cooks with a 15-gallon propane tank. The tanks are delivered to their house once a month. Though only for one month, it enables them to boil water and cook food for a family of four. We always aim to sustain as many people as possible.
In Japan, we relied on kerosene. Since the earthquake and tsunami occurred during the winter and every Japanese family had a portable kerosene heater, it was an obvious choice. These families are usually able to purchase kerosene at a gas station. Hence, we deduced that most Japanese families had a 5-gallon fuel can (20 liters fuel can). The Japanese government asked us if we would be willing to donate free kerosene. Accordingly, we would travel to multiple locations throughout the devastated areas and provide kerosene to tens of thousands of families.
We also supported local communities in Turkey with coal. Once the earthquake hit during wintertime, we brought truckloads of 25 kilos sacks to a multitude of communities.
Ultimately, we always strive to support and, in turn, sustain as many peoples and communities as possible. In order to do so, we acquire our fuel from the closest source possible; it is oftentimes within 200 miles of the target zone(s). However, in the Bahamas, we had to send it over via ship and then use helicopters to fly it to various islands.
Your main claim is “Fuel Saves Lives.” Can you speak to this further?
I think every NGO, regardless of its particular aim, is just trying to make people’s lives a little more comfortable after a disaster. As for the Fuel Relief Fund, we truly believe that fuel does save lives. Without it, the basic needs of people cannot be met. Food cannot be delivered, hospitals cannot operate, and many water treatment plants cannot function without fuel.
In Haiti, we delivered fuel to clinics and hospitals that were performing amputations with handsaws whilst under candlelight. Upon our arrival, doctors and nurses ran out to us wailing and seeking embraces. I also remember speaking to a doctor who just finished examining a two-year-old who had been raped. She told us that we could not even begin to conceive of how many other rapes were prevented by providing light to the camp.
After a natural disaster in Nepal and the Philippines, water treatment plants could not operate. As a response, the Red Cross set up portable devices to provide fresh drinking water for tens of thousands of people. We provided a mere 5 hundred gallons of diesel (i.e., a negligible amount to us) insofar as to enable access to fresh drinking water for countless communities.
So yes, I believe that fuel truly does save lives.
This begs the question, where do you get the fuel from?
We always try to get fuel from the closest source possible. That being said, in Mozambique, we had to travel over 5 hundred miles in order to import the fuel. The Bahamas were no easy feat either. I mean, these are islands we are dealing with; it is not like you just drive truckloads of fuel from another island to another. We already had a ship loaded with hundreds of barrels of fuel on standby. However, it took a few days for the ship to arrive in the Bahamas. In the meantime, and insofar as to not waste any time at all, we communicated with local mariners who kept fuel underground. Though the infrastructure was destroyed, we were still able to distribute some of the local mariner’s fuel to enable UN, World Central Kitchen, and other local NGOs operations, that is, at least until our ship arrived with all those barrels. Since we are oftentimes the only distributor of fuel, we receive so much support from partners and volunteers all over the world. Whenever there is a disaster, I receive phone calls from everyday people that just want to come out and support the cause.
So, how do you finance your own operations?
The whole finance aspect is always the most challenging obstacle for any humanitarian aid organization. Local food companies normally provide food as well as food-based and monetary donations to food organizations; local water companies do the same. As for our efforts, local fuel companies have rarely assisted us. That being said, it has happened before. As we grow rapidly and demonstrate our value to people across the globe, we receive a little bit more attention and support from major oil companies. As one example, Chevron stepped up a couple of years ago to support our efforts after the last hurricane in Louisiana. They provided us with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel that we distributed in various locations. Following our joint efforts in Louisiana, Chevron began to plan ahead and, in effect, pledged to support our efforts in any of the gulf states. We also partner with Sun Coast, one of the largest petroleum distributors in Texas.
To be entirely transparent, the majority of our funding comes from individual donors, that is, those of which who primarily have lived through a disaster and understand the need for fuel. Additional funding comes from organizations like Global Giving. Hopefully, as time goes on, other major oil companies will assist us in our efforts. It only makes sense; these companies profit from the purchase of fuel even if it is eventually donated.
After every disaster effort, we prove ourselves to be more and more capable. Many more people have also begun to realize the importance of fuel in humanitarian efforts. I am confident that this organization will continue to grow in the right direction. In the near future, I hope for the eventual existence of other Fuel Relief Funds run by other organizations. Fuel is needed all over the world right now, especially in the post-COVID era.
Tell me about your partnership with Help.NGO. How did it start and how are these organizations complementary?
Our relationship with Help.NGO goes back quite a few years. I met the operations director, Adam Marlatt, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Ever since that first encounter with Adam, I watched his team operate in a multitude of disasters around the world. They coordinate a rapid response team and, in turn, set up operations on the ground as soon as possible. Due to the nature of their services, It is critical for organizations like Help.NGO and Fuel Relief Fund arrive to be on the front lines immediately after disaster strikes. Help.NGO, in recognizing their utility, assists with communications and the provision of manpower on the front lines of a disaster. Without their presence on-site, humanitarian efforts become even more difficult. Over the years, it is clear that our mutual collaboration has saved lives.
What is noteworthy about your partnership with Help.NGO?
To begin, people oftentimes do not realize that, unlike other organizations, we actually have the personnel to respond immediately. Both of our organizations are the first to arrive on-site. Hence, I think that our partnership makes complete sense.
Furthermore, I think that Help.NGO has been able to do so much in the international community. Their team only continues to foster unique relationships throughout the world. Help.NGO is always present and willing to not only assist the international community but also those organizations that show up without functioning communications, logistics, or fuel.
Without such organizations as Help.NGO and Fuel Relief Fund, any and all responses to a natural disaster would be delayed at least two weeks. Our partnership with Help.NGO further enables larger international NGOs to operate more quickly and efficiently.