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Kellogg Grad Organizes Aid for Ukraine

Marine veteran Matthew Vacca’s humanitarian nonprofit provides support for Ukraine.

Portrait of Matthew Vacca
Matthew VaccaImage: Shane Collins

By Diana Babineau
Winter 2024

On Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. The next day, Matthew Vacca boarded a flight to Krakow, Poland. 

A U.S. Marine veteran and former logistics officer, Vacca ’21 MBA didn’t think twice about taking a break from his full-time job at Chatham Asset Management and heading straight into a conflict zone.  

“I thought, ‘I’ve got a [great] fundraising [and military] background [and] a great network in New York. I [can quickly] do a needs analysis [on the ground] and then go back [home] and raise money from there,’” says Vacca.  

But once he arrived in Krakow, he says, “I felt really compelled to stay.”  

Vacca volunteered with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Poland that were providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. On his second day there he met William McNulty, a fellow U.S. Marine veteran who was organizing evacuations of Ukrainian refugees. McNulty asked Vacca to run logistics. 

Soon, Vacca and McNulty were leading a humanitarian aid operation, raising money to purchase high-quality individual first-aid kits (IFAKs) for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces and securing housing for refugees. After meeting Grace Kim, CEO of the strategy and design firm GKC, the three formalized their efforts and co-founded Operation White Stork, a nonprofit named for Ukraine’s national bird. Operation White Stork is strictly humanitarian, meaning it does not provide weapons or participate in combat — but it does stand unequivocally with Ukraine, Vacca says.  

“We had two Sprinter vans that [I or other volunteers] would [drive into Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk, Ukraine] every single day … and make the trip back out of the country [with 10 people per van],” says Vacca.  

“Evacuations were the hardest part of our work,” says McNulty. “Women feared being whisked into [the] Eastern European human trafficking trade. … So we took a hard look at our evacuation program and removed men from the face of it. We hired 25 Ukrainian women who became our [lead] evacuation coordinators.” 


“When you’re watching a family get broken up ... [you] absolutely need to have a [high] level of empathy and sympathy.”

Eventually, the team raised funds to charter tour buses to evacuate more people. At the project’s peak, “we got [around] 600 refugees out in one day,” Vacca recalls. Still, “the border was incredibly jammed up. It would take five to six hours every time you [tried to cross].”  

Having served as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Vacca drew on his leadership experience to manage the border-crossing logistics. But attending Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, he says, made him a much more empathetic leader — and that proved invaluable. 

“All the soft skills that you pick up [from Kellogg]” are critical to navigating tense situations, says Vacca. “When you’re watching a family get broken up because the husband has to stay [in Ukraine] and the wife has to take the kids to Poland — [you] absolutely need to have a [high] level of empathy and sympathy.”  

Vacca built close friendships at Northwestern as well. “[Being] at a place like Kellogg … creates a different level of bond with classmates,” he says. “[My classmate’s] sister was in Lviv, Ukraine, when we were getting people out. She ended up staying in the country and [helped] us get a lay of the land. … I remember emailing [former Northwestern President] Morty Shapiro ’23 H about it. It was totally serendipitous to have that type of connection.” 

Another Northwestern alum played an enormous role in building Operation White Stork, says McNulty, who was born in Evanston and grew up in nearby Winnetka, Ill. “Tanya Fleming Polsky [’04 MBA] [is our adviser and founding funder and] a critical member of our team. … Her cultural understanding as an American born in Ukraine helped us navigate some thorny issues. … Through the Polsky Foundation, she raised or donated 30% of our funding. She [also] scours social media, finding combat medics who lack [first-aid] kits, and directing us to deliver these critical supplies [to them].”  

Supplying medical aid became critical as the war progressed, Vacca explains. “When I was in the Marines, we got issued an individual first-aid kit with a tourniquet, QuikClot gauze, etc. … When we first got to Ukraine, [we learned] there were only one of those kits for every 20 soldiers.”  

When it came to raising funds, Vacca says being authentic and honest with donors about how their money would be spent was crucial. “Will [or I] would take these [donor] calls [while] sitting in Ukraine,” Vacca says. “And [donors] would [realize] ‘OK, these guys are actually on the ground. It’s not like we’re sending our money into a vacuum.’”  

Ninety percent of donations to the nonprofit go directly to the cause — a high percentage for NGOs, which often spend a large portion of their budgets on administrative costs, Vacca says. By contrast, Operation White Stork maintains a small board and staff and partners with local organizations to share resources and combine efforts when possible. To date, the donated funds have been used to evacuate more than 37,500 people and to provide more than 50,000 IFAKs, 141 generators, housing and repatriation costs, and more.  

As the war has continued, the refugee flow has slowed. But Operation White Stork remains nimble, adjusting its focus to respond to Ukrainians’ most immediate needs. “[Recently,] we provided two generators for a maternity ward whose energy source had been compromised,” says Vacca, who serves as the organization’s treasurer. And after Russia began attacking trains, Operation White Stork outfitted every locomotive in Ukraine’s train system with lifesaving first-aid kits. “One train was hit, and our kit helped save the life of a woman who was blown out of the train,” Vacca recalls. “Once you hear [that], the gravity of the situation becomes quite apparent.” 

In April 2022, after more than a month in Poland, Vacca returned home to his full-time job in New York City, where he continues to run operations and fundraise from afar as treasurer of the organization. He travels back to Poland a few times a year to meet with his team and support McNulty, who is the head of mission, and their Ukrainian leadership team on the ground.  

As Russian aggression continues, Vacca is buoyed by the steady flow of interested volunteers. “You’re asking folks to leave their day-to-day [life] to go to a country that they’ve [likely] never been to, [to help] complete strangers. … And seeing folks who are willing and able to do that, from all walks of life, [with all different skill sets] — it gives you a lot of hope.” 

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