Return to Ukraine: This feature is part of an original Milwaukee Independent editorial series that recorded news from areas across Ukraine, including Milwaukee's sister city of Irpin, from June to July of 2023. It was the second time in the span of a year that the award-winning Wisconsin news organization traveled to the country during the war. The purpose of this journalism project was to document a humanitarian aid mission by the Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, and report about conditions 17 months after Russia's brutal full-scale invasion.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Education recently granted approval to a Milwaukee-based humanitarian nonprofit to begin a new mental health program for Ukrainian children based on the book “Freeing Freddie the Dream Weaver.”

The project, designed by Kim Normand Dobrin, Co-Founder and CEO of Free the Mind Co, was proposed by Anya Verkhovskaya, Director of Friends of Be an Angel, during a series of June meetings in Kyiv.

“Freeing Freddie the Dream Weaver” is part of an online educational program for children that teaches social and emotional learning and well-being. Dobrin and Verkhovskaya felt it was suitable for Ukrainian children who are struggling to cope with their daily situations.

“Ukraine is fighting a brutal invader to save its national independence, while at the same time struggling to provide so many vital social services,” said Verkhovskaya. “To quote the Ukrainian Department of Education, ‘Adults weren’t ready for this war. Neither were the children.’ This initiative, based on “Freeing Freddie,” is a way to fill a gap in mental health care with a desperately needed program.”

Since the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, children of the war-torn nation continue suffering from significant emotional turmoil. The aim of “Freeing Freddie” is to help Ukrainian children build the skills and resilience to navigate the challenges of war, and reduce the impact of PTSD.

“Freeing Freddie the Dream Weaver” is an online program and beautifully illustrated series of books that captivates children through the character of Freddie, a young boy who lives in a magical rainforest. The reader accompanies Freddie on a journey of discovery as he meets Mr. Cotton, the giant friendly spider who teaches Freddie how to let go of his fears, become part of a loving world, and create the life of his dreams. Throughout the magical tale, the child learns important life lessons and acquires tools that enhance development. The companion Workbook and the Activity Book engage children in dozens of games, puzzles, and craft projects.

Over the past 17 months, nearly all the children of Ukraine have seen their lives upended. Loss of home, loss of family and friends, loss of all the aspects of life that as a society we think of as normal.

“This has had a devastating impact on their psychological growth. Displaced, either in-country or as refugees throughout Europe, these children need the ability to recognize their emotions and channel them in a positive way,” said Verkhovskaya.

Already in use in the United States, the Ukrainian version of “Freeing Freddie” has been offering a way for displaced Ukrainian children to learn about their emotions while engaging with teachers and classmates.

The educational program is filled with avatars, games, and activities, all wrapped around a magical story that brings joy and fun – something Ukrainian children desperately need to address with their emotions and dreams, as well as fears and anxieties.

“Unless appropriate support is provided, their distress can last well beyond the end of the conflict. Specifically, the prolonged activation of stress hormones in early childhood can reduce neural connections in areas of the brain dedicated to learning and reasoning, affecting children’s abilities to perform later in their lives. In this way, conflict imposes a huge social cost on future generations.” – Save the Children International

Verkhovskaya said that the goal of the pilot program was to reach at least 10,000 Ukrainian children, ages 5 to 12, in their own Ukrainian language.

“We originally envisioned using only a digital platform, but it was decided that an addition of the books would be more effective,” added Verkhovskaya. “While digital content offered the ability to reach children living anywhere they have been displaced to, in the hardest-to-reach areas of Ukraine, and even under Russian occupation, the Workbook and the Activity Book offer the ability for children to address their emotions in times of crisis, like in the bomb shelters without Internet access.”

© PHOTO NOTE: All the original editorial images published here have been posted to That Facebook collection of photos contains the Milwaukee Independent copyright and watermark for attribution, and may be used for private social media sharing. Do not download and repost images directly from this page.
Series: Return to Ukraine

Lее Mаtz

Milwaukee Independent has reported on Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine since it began on February 24, 2022. In May of 2022, Milwaukee Independent was the first news organization from Wisconsin to report from Milwaukee’s Sister City of Irpin after its liberation. That work has since been recognized with several awards for journalistic excellence. Between late June and early July of 2023, Milwaukee Independent staff returned to Ukraine for a second assignment to report on war after almost a year. The editorial team was embedded with a Milwaukee-based nonprofit, Friends of Be an Angel, on a humanitarian aid mission across Ukraine. For several weeks, Milwaukee Independent documented the delivery of medical supplies to military and civilian hospitals, and was a witness to historic events of the war as they unfolded.

Return to Ukraine: Reports about a humanitarian mission from Milwaukee after a year of war