By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
At first, Feb. 23 seemed like any other night for Lena Denman. The Grand Canyon University doctoral learner was working on an assignment when a friend texted her from Kyiv, Ukraine.
There had been a bombing outside the city, the friend told her. She thought it was near the airport. Moments later, Denman saw the news online and got an alert on her cellphone.
Russia had invaded.
It was time for Denman to act. Again.
Through her work as President of the Arlene Campbell Humanitarian Foundation, a nonprofit that has been sending medical supplies to Ukraine since 2016, she knew that a Russian invasion was likely.
But nothing could have prepared her for receiving the news that it had actually happened. After all, she had friends and colleagues in the country.
“It was hard for me to focus, but I finished the assignment and then I continued to talk to her that evening,” Denman said. “While I intellectually anticipated it, emotionally it was still very difficult.”
In that moment, the Texas native knew that the importance of her role in ensuring aid to Ukraine had just grown exponentially. She didn’t hesitate to answer the call.
Thanks to a grant from United Methodist Committee on Relief and with the assistance of her doctoral chair, Dr. Kelly Hall, Denman wanted to send three shipments of medical supplies, valued at nearly a million dollars, to a hospital in Kyiv.
But it wasn’t that simple.
Working with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had made the process seamless in the past. But that was before the Russian invasion.
Denman knew that their best bet was to send the supplies commercially. That’s when Chicago-based AEC Parcel Service stepped in by helping facilitate the customs process.
“That plus my knowledge of working with United Nations of what the rules of customs were, we could verify that everything was going to get through without taxation," Denman said. "And it did.”
Her dedication to the cause is something that Denman credits to her mentor and organization namesake, Arlene Campbell.
In 1989, Campbell began a nonprofit called Russian Relief, later known as the Former Soviet Union Cultural Exchange. The organization sent supplies to former Soviet states until Campbell’s passing in 2002.
Denman was 16 when she was introduced to Campbell. Soon after, Denman accompanied Campbell on a two-month trip to Ukraine, where she began building connections with the medical professionals they were serving.
The connections stuck with Denman, especially during a 2018 visit after she established her own organization. Items that Campbell had sent two decades earlier had not been replaced even though they were wearing out.
“They were very much imploring me to please find a way to bring more supplies over,” Denman said. “So that’s where we started working with the federal government and now the private path of sending supplies.”
Doctoral work helps
Denman started her journey toward a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership with an Emphasis in Higher Education in 2017, and the skills she has learned have aided her efforts in Ukraine.
“Describing the different types of leaderships – so, transactional leadership, transformative leadership, servant-based leadership – those courses especially have been very useful as I navigate working with a lot of different governmental and nongovernmental agencies,” she said. “That knowledge base has been very practical in this endeavor.”
The flexibility of College of Doctoral Studies faculty members also has been crucial. Whether she was rushing back to the hotel during her residency breaks to be with her then 3-month-old son or needed to focus on more aid for Ukraine, the faculty’s support never wavered.
“That was just amazing to have that faculty that is so very flexible,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this program if GCU’s administration and faculty were not so aware and cognizant and flexible with student needs.”
As she inches closer to the completion of her dissertation, Denman hopes to use her degree and her work teaching government as a community college professor to continue to make a difference.
“The name Lena in Greek actually means light, so I think that it’s always been my calling to do this kind of work,” she said. “As I teach politics to my students, it’s important to be able to show them that it’s not always a matter of conflict.
“The reality is that if you have the knowledge of how the systems work, then you can use them to create change, to create good, to share the love of God with others and really to be Jesus’ hands and feet. That is what I wanted to do with this organization.”
If her efforts encourage others to give back, then her goal will have been met.
“Even when the media doesn’t focus as much on Ukraine in the future, my hope and my prayer is that people don’t forget the people of Ukraine and really share the light of God with them by helping to meet their physical needs,” she said.
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