Paul Ritacco III has set up a donation box on the porch of the lilac house at 13 Center to collect new and used sports equipment for youth and family centers in Ukraine.
At 16 years old, Ritacco is a rising senior at St. Anselm’s Abbey High School in Washington, D.C., a lifelong Chautauquan, an usher in the Amphitheater, a deliverer for The Chautauquan Daily and the youngest-ever graduate of the Chuatuaqua Literay and Scientific Circle. On his quest to become an Eagle Scout – something he said he has worked on for years – Ritacco came up with a project idea that he hopes will bring a little bit of joy to Ukrainian children.
Having traveled to Poland and volunteered at the Ukrainian border with his father in April 2022, Ritacco decided his project would be to collect sports equipment, like soccer balls, baseballs, baseball gloves and footballs.
“I wanted to do something to help Ukraine because I had been there (and) I had seen what was happening, the refugee crisis. There’s lots of international aid, but there are also areas that international aid tends to not cover – it’s not perfect,” he said. “I think that it’s important for people who have had to go through such a traumatic experience (to have) some avenue for fun, … even if it’s just playing soccer with the kids on the block for a minute.”
The choice of equipment, he said, is not accidental.
Ritacco said he is prioritizing ball games because Americans are likely to already have some extra equipment laying around, whereas for Ukrainians, games like baseball or American football and something might be new.
While at the border, Ritacco and his father visited “distribution centers, refugee camps, see how they work and talk to people there.” He said he helped cook, deliver and hand out hot food like grilled chicken and kielbasa — which was much needed due to the cold weather and the amount of time people spent walking or driving across the border.
The experience, Ritacco said, was eye-opening.
“I saw what was happening on the news – it was horrible, but I didn’t fully comprehend what was happening until I got there. I (was) visiting these refugee camps where it’s a gym with cots on the floor,” he said. “(There were) mothers carrying babies, with the little kids carrying their bag with all their worldly possessions, … just families who have lost everything and had to move to another country when most people don’t really leave their general area. It was a situation that I had never witnessed before.”
By the end of 2022, about 5.9 million people had been displaced within Ukraine because of Russia’s full-scale invasion, and nearly 5.7 million Ukrainians were seeking refuge outside the country, according to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
The week-long trip to the border, Ritacco said, also helped him see the humanity of others.
“(The Polish) were taking refugees into their homes, feeding them, opening up places to let them stay – all out of their own pocket before the government could do anything. That was also eye-opening,” he said.
While April 2022 was Ritacco’s first visit to Poland, his father, he said, had been to the country before – once, while he was in college.
“My dad still knows some (Polish) from when he studied abroad in Poland, but all he knows is: ‘I’m sorry, my Polish is very bad.’ He says it so much it sounds good, which always makes for a funny conversation – when the people are like: ‘No, no, it’s not bad,’ and start speaking in Polish, which he doesn’t understand,” Ritacco said.
A friend of the Ritaccos’ runs a nonprofit organization in Poland which, he said, works with the Ukrainian Ministry of Youth and Sports. Ritacco said he is currently trying to arrange free shipping with an airline to send collected equipment to Poland and then deliver it to Ukraine. He said he has collected enough funds to pay for the shipping in case negotiations with the airline fall through.
Ritacco is a member of Troop 90, a 100-year-old Boy Scout chapter in Washington, D.C.
Ritacco has been a scout since the first grade, and has held several leadership positions within the troop and taken part in multiple projects – “from renovating cross-country tracks to building staircases.” The earliest project that Ritacco can remember being a part of is packing lunches for people in homeless shelters.
Ritacco’s sports equipment service project and a Board of Review assessment are the last step before he can get the title of an Eagle Scout – what he called “a black belt” of scouting.
The goal, Ritacco said, is to collect at least six extra-large moving boxes full of equipment. So far, he said, he has accumulated enough equipment for two full boxes, with people bringing “a massive cardboard box of baseball gloves,” “a whole trash bag full of different sports equipment” and more.
He said he has also received monetary donations of more than $1,000 that he will use to purchase new equipment.
Ritacco said his donation campaign will consist of two rounds. First, he will be collecting items in Chautauqua until the end of Week Eight. He and his family will then return to Washington, D.C., and set up a second collection spot.
“Doing a collection here and then there just doubles the amount of equipment I can get and send over,” Ritacco said.