by Ryan Yablonski
When COVID slowed his construction business down in 2021, Solomon took a step back from work and took a moment to reflect. Then war broke out in Ukraine and his lifelong flame of altruism was reignited. After serving two deployments to Afghanistan, Solomon began flying into countries around the world working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), helping build businesses and communal solutions for security and prosperity. Amongst these ventures was a four-year project in Mozambique where he spent his free time as a pastor and advocate for children’s schools and orphanages. Despite having a wife and four children at home in America, he boarded a plane and arrived in yet another warzone.
When he arrived in Poland, he found the international groups in support of Ukraine were exhausted and unorganized. Thousands of volunteers on the border in humanitarian villages had come with great intentions, yet they now appeared to be underutilized and spent most of their time eating the donated food and working on small projects to pass the time. Even worse were the bad actors who had come to the crisis to loot and party where order had broken down. According to Solomon, this is a scene he had seen all over the world: Large NGOs would dump large caches of supplies and investment in safe zones near a troubled area and let the cards fall where they may. All this creates complacency and entitlement where there should be action. In one case he saw a container containing $80,000 worth of medicine land in Poland and linger until it became encumbered with customs fees and then sent back to America unopened.
Solomon, in contrast, is a natural organizer with decades of experience in taking action, networking with NGOs to maximize their impact. He began sourcing cargo vans, loading them with supplies, and driving deep into Ukraine to deliver them himself. In what he describes as a common-sense mission of connecting means with need, he established the Backroads Foundation. This organization operates a fleet of vans and supports an amazing team of drivers and logistics, going beyond the safe zones to make deliveries. In some instances, Solomon recalls overcoming his own PTSD to drive 30 hours amid artillery bombardment and gunfire. “What people don’t realize is that Ukraine is a huge place, and aid is not reaching the small villages and satellite cities. Many people don’t have cars and need to evacuate with only two bags of groceries to take with them” Solomon says. The Backroads Foundation also drives the elderly and children who have been left behind back to the safety of Poland.
“I have a great admiration for the Ukrainian people, they truly want this and are willing to fight for it…after driving one family who lost everything back to safety, I tried to give the father a few hundred dollars and he refused saying I only needed a ride.”-Foundation President Solomon Smith
Rather than just giving, Backroads Foundation creates a synergy and delivers measurable results. However, funding has largely fallen off as crisis exhaustion has taken place and the news cycle has moved on. Solomon says his biggest weakness is fundraising and making emotional calls for help, and so we are on board to assist. From all of us here at The Harlem Times, we encourage you to visit backroadsfoundation.org and make a donation. Big organizations have millions but only 20% of their funds go to work, while with small projects like Backroads, every dollar gets used to preserve life.
Solomon has partnered with The Church of Latter-Day Saints, Southern Baptist, and the Slavic Church, building an international team from 20 different nations to support 7 hospitals in Ukraine and many small towns and villages. Backroads has also begun work in Haiti preparing students to take college classes, partnering with large companies like Adobe to teach technological literacy to Haitians and building humanitarian centers. Once again, Backroads is solving the logistic problem to deliver help to the doorstep of those in need. He says that, with proper infrastructure and materials, the kids could be even better educated than the average student in America.
Now back in America, Solomon says that Humanitarianism has become a part of him and there’s no going back. Where he had struggled to find passion and purpose in a regular job, he has found wholeness in doing the hard work to help people in troubled parts of the world. Rather than promote victimhood, he points to the light of progress and hope he sees in these communities once they get a little spark. Despite receiving no personal wealth from these projects, his horizons are only expanding. He has designs to revolutionize education in poor communities in America as well, citing a model that would enable mothers to homeschool their neighborhood’s children rather than be absent from their development due to working multiple jobs. He currently has 20 pallets of food sitting in Florida which are to be sent out to Haiti, Mexico, and Turkey once the funds arrive. Please Visit backroadsfoundation.org for donations and to meet the people behind the mission.