Steve Wallis visited Ukraine for the first time in September 2021 and fell in love with the country. Having retired the year before, at 60, from his job as the director of finance for a south London academy, Wallis was keen to spend his newfound free time travelling the world.

“As a child, I only ever went to the same holiday camp on the Isle of Wight, so as I got older I wanted to explore,” he says. “I’ve hiked to the Everest base camp, taken the Trans-Siberian Express and canoed across Scotland, but Ukraine really stuck with me. It has beautiful scenery, warm people and a real sense of hope throughout the country.”

Five months after his trip, Russia invaded and normal life in Ukraine was put on hold. Around the same time, Wallis was diagnosed with skin cancer; he spent most of 2022 undergoing immunotherapy treatment while watching the war unfold on the news. “My diagnosis made me appreciate life more and gave me a new drive to help others,” he says. “I knew that, as soon as my health got better, I wanted to return to Ukraine. It felt like I needed to make my retirement about giving back to others.”

By February 2023, with his health improving, Wallis travelled to the Poland-Ukraine border to volunteer with the US charity All Hands and Hearts, helping to renovate a disused hospital so it could be used by refugee women and children. Despite having no construction knowledge other than basic home DIY, Wallis installed a communal kitchen and painted the rooms to make them more welcoming. “It was hard but happy work and we ended up expanding the capacity from 100 to 500,” he says. “It was very moving to witness all these people who had been so suddenly uprooted arrive. Although what I was offering to them felt like very little, it was humbling to see that, cumulatively, it meant something.”

Wallis in Ukraine last year.

Wallis returned home to London and in May 2023 he was given a positive cancer prognosis. He immediately began planning his next volunteering trip. In the meantime, he signed up to drive deliveries to food banks for the Felix Project. By October, Wallis had flown to Krakow, taken a train to the Polish border and crossed via another train into Ukraine. He was back in Lviv for the first time since the war had begun.

“My February trip was to Poland, so there was no real danger from the war, but in Lviv you saw injured men back from the front, you heard the air raid sirens and you noticed how tired everyone was,” he says. “Everyone knew someone fighting at the front. While they were all trying to get on as normal, you could feel that they were each fighting for their survival.”

In Lviv, Wallis was stationed at a volunteer kitchen that sent ration packs to the frontline to give soldiers a taste of home. He put in 10-hour shifts peeling mountains of vegetables and in the evenings helped fix camouflage netting to buildings.

Wallis became friendly with other volunteers and local people. “You meet some real characters doing this work, like the Ukrainian woman I befriended on the overnight train to Kyiv,” he says. “She told me how she had to abandon her home when the war started and how she was now working as a lawyer for the UN. We became friends and still keep in touch online.”

Wallis at Dalyan dog rescue in south-west Turkey.

When it was time to leave, in December, Wallis had become such a fixture of the kitchen that the local cooks gave him parting speeches and gifts. “It’s given me a huge sense of purpose to be able to go out and help,” he says. “All my life, I’ve done office jobs where you’re removed from what’s actually going on. When you do something like make a meal or help construct a building, the satisfaction in knowing it will benefit someone is immense.”

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Now 64, Wallis plans to keep returning to Ukraine to contribute to the war effort as long as his health allows, as well as to pursue his other passion – animal welfare – by helping out in dog sanctuaries in the UK and beyond.

“Everyone should try their hand at volunteering, since you get back as much as you put in,” he says. “This is what I will be doing for the rest of my life.”

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