ST. CLOUD, Minnesota — When Ted Bechtold took a job teaching in Ukraine last year, he looked forward to the opportunity to travel and experience the culture. While living there, he fell in love with the country.
But, in February, as the threat of a Russian invasion became a real possibility, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine warned Americans working there that the situation was deteriorating.
Ted, a native of St. Joseph, Minnesota, was one of those workers. He had been working as an English teacher in the capital city, Kyiv.
“The U.S. Embassy in Ukraine had told us that the situation was unstable and that they might not be able to help us evacuate if there was an invasion,” he said in an interview via Facebook Messenger in early March.
So, he decided to leave the country, thinking he would leave for a month to be safe.
“It was a mix of emotions leaving Kyiv,” he told The Central Minnesota Catholic, St. Cloud’s diocesan magazine. “I remember flying out and thinking, ‘Goodbye Kyiv, I pray that it isn’t for the last time.’ In theory it would be exciting to check out the new place — Montenegro — where I would be living for a month. But, in reality, all I could think about was Ukraine. My heart is there, and I missed it very much.”
When the invasion started, he left Montenegro for Romania, the closest border.
“Once the invasion occurred, he said he was going to Romania to help the refugees,” said Bruce Bechtold, Ted’s dad, a member of St. Joseph Parish in St. Joseph. “We knew he was drawn to help the people and country that he grew to love.”
He made his way to Suceava, a city in Romania, and is spending his days helping refugees get out of Ukraine and volunteering in a refugee “camp,” set up in a hotel conference room. He also has a rental car to pick up people at the border and drive them to a safe place.
“I am helping refugees by driving them to destinations around Romania and helping them with the logistics of relocating to a new country,” Ted said. “I am also helping my friends and my students and their families get to safety.”
Bruce and his wife, Pat, are proud of what their son is doing to help those fleeing Ukraine. But, they are nervous, too.
“We were worried during the long trip to his present location,” Bruce said. “He later told us that he rode buses and took taxis to get to the Romanian border. He crossed the border on foot at night and then hitchhiked with a truck driver. This trip alone was scary and treacherous.”
“Now that he is settled in town and among other volunteers and government workers, we are less worried about him,” he added.
Ted said when he told his students that he was leaving Ukraine, most of them understood his concern and were mostly supportive of him leaving temporarily and wished that they could do the same.
“A couple were skeptical and thought I was worrying too much,” he said.
He hoped that this was the case and he would be able to return to the country. But he soon realized the gravity of the situation.
“A switch kind of flipped when a friend of mine told me that she was spending the night sleeping in the metro station ‘Obolon,'” Ted said. “This was especially jarring for me because just four months earlier, when I first met this woman, it was in that same metro station.”
“For some reason,” he added, “it made it seem more real to me and made me more afraid that my friends could be killed in this invasion.”
Ted said his Catholic faith motivated him to act to help the people he cares about.
There hasn’t been time to prayerfully reflect on what’s happening, he said, because he is giving all of his attention to the refugees at the camp, helping to get people out of the country and out of harm’s way and attempting to send money to the people who need it most.
“Ted was raised to serve his church and community,” Bruce said.
Bruce said Ted’s Catholic grade school and high school years reinforced the concept of serving others.
“I didn’t think I could go back to Kyiv and our normal lives (after all of this) and tell them I did nothing to help,” said Ted, who graduated from St. Cloud State University in 2017 with a degree in law enforcement. “I really didn’t think I could look them in the eye again if I hadn’t done my part.”
Communication is good for now, and Ted has been in contact with many of his friends and students.
“My students are extremely worried,” he said.
Many of his friends are either still trying to escape or are in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine near the Polish border. Others are stuck in Kyiv. Some are on the front lines fighting for the army or territorial defense groups, and he has lost track of them.
“The ones in Lviv are trying to spread the word about open apartments and hotel rooms to help others find places to stay,” he said. “Exceptional work by them.”
Ted posted on social media what he was doing and that he wanted to rent a car to transport the refugees from the border to a shelter. He asked friends and family to help financially. He said any extra money after transportation costs would go toward other needs of the refugees.
“Within 24 hours, people had donated thousands of dollars,” Bruce said. “Ted has been able to help refugees purchase train tickets and other expenses that they would not have been able to do without him helping with the donated funds.”
Bruce and Pat are grateful to the family and friends who generously sent Ted funds to help the refugees. Bruce said they know that Ted will use every dollar that was sent to help the Ukrainian people.
“When he decided to go to Ukraine to teach, he didn’t know why he chose Ukraine,” Bruce said. “Now we know that he went to Ukraine because God had a greater purpose for him.”
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Editor’s Note: Donations to help Ted and others working with him at the border can be made to: Venmo @Ted-Bechtold, or PayPal at email@example.com.
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Towalski is a multimedia reporter for The Central Minnesota Catholic, the magazine of the Diocese of St. Cloud.